SURPRISE, Ariz. – This year’s Perfect Game 17u World Series features 35 teams from 35 distinct organizations and each one is capable of adding a unique flavor, a unique spice or even a unique stitch to the fabric of the event.
As an example, the So Cal Giants are a program that is run by longtime San Francisco Giants scout Chuck Fick and a team coached by his sons Christian and Chuckie Fick; Christian serves as the head coach and Chuckie as the pitching coach.
The team they’ve put out on the field this week is relatively young by PG 17u World Series standards, with eight class of 2022s, seven class of 2023s and one extremely talented class of 2024 prospect having been present and accounted for at the Surprise Spring Training Complex.
And my oh my, it’s a fun group to watch, and one that scouts will have the opportunity to keep an eye on for at least one more day. That’s because on Thursday afternoon the Giants completed an impressive 4-0-0 run through pool play – they outscored their opponents by a combined 22-4 – and will again be present and accounted for when bracket play kicks off Friday morning.
And not only are they in the playoffs at this premier PG national championship event. They'll go in as the No. 1 seed, which gives them a bye out of the first round and a seat at the table in the quarterfinals with the No. 2 seeded So Cal Birds. The Birds completed pool-play at 3-0-1, making the Giants the only team to advance both unbeaten and untied.
“I have a lot of guys that are always doing other things here there and everywhere so sometimes I have a different group from weekend to weekend in terms of guys going elsewhere,” Christian Fick said on Thursday. “We came in pretty humble but I know that my guys are really good baseball players and I knew that we were going to come here and we were going to compete.”
The So Cal Giants’ base of operation is in Newbury Park, which abuts the city of Thousand Oaks to the west in Ventura County while also sitting about 45 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. The majority of the players on this roster come from the cities and towns surrounding Thousand Oaks and the high school baseball scene is as vibrant and the culture is as strong there as anywhere on the West Coast.
Thousand Oaks High School won a CIF Section championship this spring and landed in the No. 6 spot in the final PG High School National Top 50 Rankings. The Lancers were led by a pair of top 2021s in PG All-American Maxwell Muncy – the 25th overall pick to the A’s in the recent MLB Amateur Draft – Roc Riggio and Charlie Saum.
“Especially touching on our culture here, we really allow these kids to be themselves and do what they want to do; I treat them like men and they play like men,” Fick said. “Touching on the culture [around Thousand Oaks] it’s so competitive and like these kids, they’re all accountable to each other.
“Everybody knows who everybody is on all these other teams and all the competition on whatever level; they all want it and they smell it and they want to win.”
The Giants have a couple of other Thousand Oaks classmates/teammates here this week in second baseman/outfielder Easton Rulli and catcher/first baseman Dylan Jackson. Both are unranked and uncommitted class of 2022 players who have done some pretty darn good things over the past three days.
“I’m pretty new to the club, but just being around them for a short amount of time I already love them; they’re just amazing guys,” Rulli told PG not long after the So Cal Giants had clinched their pool championship with a 4-2 win over the Canes Scout Team.
“I’ve bonded with a lot of them already, guys I just met two weeks ago; it’s great,” he added. “I didn’t know what I was going to get into because it’s a new club [to me] but it’s awesome and I’m glad I came.”
The So Cal Giants official roster lists eight prospects from the classes of 2022, 2023 and 2024 who have already made their college commitments, and it’s an impressive group.
Leading off amongst the 2022s is top-500 third baseman/right-hander Trent Liolios, who has committed to Northwestern of the Big Ten. Other committed ‘22s include right-hander/first baseman Michael Ebner (t-1000, USC); shortstop/utility Frankie Carney (t-1000, UC Irvine) and right-hander/utility Max Martin (Follow, UC Irvine).
The 2023s are even a bit more impressive with the likes of right-hander/utility Ryan Speshyock (No. 147, Oregon St.), right-hander/first baseman Adrian Blanchet (No. 348, USC) and shortstop/outfielder Finley Buckner (No. 421, Cal).
Speshyock not only got the start against the Canes Scout Team, but he got the job done, allowing two runs on three hits while striking out nine in his four innings of work. Like everyone in the So Cal Giants lineup, it seems, he knew what needed to be done and he went out and did it.
“I wanted to come in and fill up the strike zone and let the defense work,” Speshyock said. “As a pitcher you’ve got one job to do and that’s to get to the next day. You’ve just kind of got to do your thing and hope it goes the right way.”
And lest we forget, there is standout also shortstop/outfielder/right-hander Kasen Khansarinia, the No. 86-ranked overall prospect in the class of 2024 who has already committed to UCLA.
As proud as Fick is of his players that have already found college homes, it's his uncommitted players he most likes to talk about. Getting these kids committed to the school of their choice is what fuels the So Cal Giants’ engines and if an occasional first round draft pick comes along, well, all the better.
“We really never go out and try to win. That’s never our focus,” Fick said. “We really teach these kids how not to lose rather than how to win because it’s all about the kids. We’re trying to get them scholarships and if we play the game the right way and I have kids get scholarships and we don’t win, I’m still happy; that’s what it’s all about.”
He starts with Boston Baro, a 2023 left-handed hitting shortstop who recently decommitted from New Mexico and who Fick calls “a gamer; just a real good ballplayer.” There’s Rulli, the junior who spent this past spring hitting second in the Thousand Oak’s batting order between Riggio and Muncy.
Rulli is having a heck of a 17u PGWS with five singles in 12 at-bats (.417), four RBI, four runs scored and two stolen bases. “He’s a strong little guy (5-foot-10, 180 pounds); he’s a pit bull and he’s got some juice,” Fick said of Rulli. “He runs a 4.2 down the line and he’s a real ballplayer.”
Buckner is also having a really nice tournament, with four singles and a double in 11 at-bats (.455) and two RBI; Khansarinia has but two singles in nine at-bats but has managed to drive in five runs.
2022 center fielder Jason Hall is another uncommitted prospect Fick really likes, as is 2023 catcher Brady Francisco, the other Thousand Oaks product who will take over for Saum next spring. Fick calls ’23 outfielder Cody Nitowitz his table-setter, a switch-hitter who often hits at the bottom of the order but is there for a reason – he is, Fick said, the “toughest out that I have.”
The head coach has used 18 players this week, 10 position players and eight pitchers, which might not sound unusual. What makes those totals so interesting is that only one prospect, the Northwestern commit Liolios, has done both.
Baro, Buckner, Carney, Francisco, Hall, Jackson, Khansarinia, Nitowitz and Rulli have only seen the field; Blanchet, Ebner, Martin, Garrett McGuigan, Cameron Tracy and Leo Uelmen have only seen the mound. And that fits right into the order of things with the playoffs looming.
“I have a lot of guys who they’re not 5 o’clock hitters, they’re 7 o’clock ballplayers; they’re ready to play the game,” Fick said. “They’re not the best showcase players but hey, the game starts then let’s go; these guys are ready to go.”
So what exactly is the order of things? Fick told PG that when the team gets together back home in Southern California on the weekends, it will play intrasquad games with the guys going at each other with no outside interference. Most of his pitchers can bring it in the upper-80s and low-90s so his hitters get to look at those velos on a regular basis.
In other words, there isn’t a whole lot that they’re going to back down from, even at an elite, exclusive tournament like the PG 17u World Series where power arms are the norm. And there is a correlating message delivered in all this.
Fick refers to the intrasquad games as scout ball, and he tells his players they can be as selfish as they want to be in that environment. At an event like this, he tells them to leave the selfishness at the curb and just go out and play the game the right way and let’s see just how far we can go; not surprisingly, they’re all on board.
“One of the really special things about this is that coaches aren’t here to really coach. They’re kind of here to monitor and help with external things other than baseball,” Speshyock said. “You’re here because you’re good and the guys are here for a reason, and (the coaches) let them on the field and say hey, go play and do your thing.”
Being associated with the Fick family and an MLB team with the cachet of the Giants is obviously a big selling point for the program. The Ficks have a network of people in all the right places they’re connected with and Christian believes that gives the So Cal Giants a little more to offer to a young prospect. And, he said, it doesn’t end there.
“We’re a family and after high school baseball I have kids calling me. It’s a lifelong relationship with these kids and that’s what’s really cool. I think they all understand that we care about them; it’s not about us, it’s about them.”
The Giants aren’t limping into bracket play, they’re lunging in with a fury as the playoff's No. 1 seed. The opportunity is there to play several more meaningful games over the next two days, including final four action on Saturday, so it will be interesting to see how things play out.
“We’ve had a couple of good games and I know there were some flat spots – it’s a little hot and it get tough; it’s a long tournament,” Speshyock said. “But we’ve just got to keep doing our thing and I think we’re in a great spot.”