Tournaments : : Story
Saturday, June 29, 2013

Bulldog in Tigers' den

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Every direction Chase Vallot looked, he could see them lurking, ready to pounce. Tigers to his left, Tigers to his right; Tigers to the front, Tigers to the rear. Just what was the future Mississippi State Bulldog to do, surrounded by all these future Louisiana State Tigers?

The answer to that question is quite simple, really. Just go out and win some ballgames.

Vallot, a highly regarded catching prospect from Youngsville, La., who won't celebrate his 17th birthday until Aug. 21 -- or right about the time he starts his senior year at St. Thomas More High School -- is playing with Marucci Elite at the 2013 16u PG BCS Finals national championship tournament this weekend and into next week.

It certainly comes as no surprise that Baton Rouge-based Marucci Elite would have its share of young prospects that have already committed to LSU. Vallot, the Mississippi State recruit, just didn't expect four of them, all in the class of 2015.

"They give me some hell every now and then," Vallot said Saturday morning, flashing a broad smile as he looked over at his teammates in the Marucci Elite dugout, "but, you know, it happens."

Marucci Elite 16u, under the direction of head coach Walt Jones, got its feet wet at the 16u PG BCS Finals on Friday with a pair of wins -- 5-1 over M3 Baseball and 5-2 over Next Level Baseball -- and was at the former Boston Red Sox Player Development 5-Plex bright and early Saturday morning to complete its first set of three pool-play games. After all 64 teams complete their first set of three, the pools will be shuffled and each team will play three more pool games Sunday and Monday.

"It was good to come out here and get those first two wins under our belt," Jones said Saturday morning before his team took the field to face Team IMPACT 16u (1-1). "We've been up and down early on this year but it's kind of been where we haven't had our full team together; now this week, for the most part, we have all of our guys here."

The core of this group has played together for the past few years as they climbed up through the Marucci Elite age-group ladder. Most of this team will stay together for at least another year when it will play at the 17u level with Marucci Elite national director and head coach Chad Raley.

"There's good team chemistry; the guys really get along," Jones said. "They really understand how to play the game as team and that makes a big difference when you're trying to tack on one extra run in the sixth (or) seventh inning and you've got a runner on second with nobody out. These guys will give up an at-bat and move the baseball to get a runner at third, and then do the job at the plate to score him."

Marucci Elite 16u previously played in tournaments in New Orleans, Houston and Baton Rouge -- at LSU -- before coming here for the 16u PG BCS Finals. Its next stop will be the PG WWBA 16u National Championships in Marietta, Ga., July 12-19.

"This is a good, early challenge to kind of see where we're at fairly early on," Jones said. "It's good for me because I get to manage these guys before we go up to the WWBA, and it gives me some experience as far as, 'Hey, what can this guy do, what can't he do' in a tournament situation."

"I'm very excited about this tournament," Vallot added. "There are a lot of good teams here, but I think we really have a good shot to win this whole tournament. We have very high expectations (of ourselves)."

Jones also called the BCS Finals a challenge because the tournament format requires that teams play three games in two days twice (six games in four days). Jones called it a tough format but feels he has a team built to succeed over the long haul.

"This group likes to win, and I do, too," he said. " ... I think their ability to respond to adversity and their ability to win -- they love to win. It's just a good group of guys that are going to do anything they can to win, and when you get all of them together it's tough to beat them because of that."

Marucci Elite went out and proved Jones knew from where he speaks on Saturday morning. Trailing 2-0 after 5 1/2 innings, Elite rallied for three runs in the bottom of the sixth for the 3-2 win and closed out the first set of pool-play games with a 3-0 record.

"We go into all events with pretty high expectations; If we don't win them, it's disappointing," Jones said. "That's  not to say we're supposed to win all of them, but when we don't it's still disappointing. We don't come here to finish second and I don't spend my whole summer with these guys to finish second. We come to win, so that's the plan."

This is a talented roster that is almost complete with homegrown Louisiana boys. There are several that standout, including the four LSU commits alluded to earlier:

Shortstop/third baseman O'Neal Lockridge (2015, Lafayette, La.), ranked the No. 39 national prospect in his class; outfielder/left-hander Brennan Breaux (2015, Scott, La.), ranked 99th; shortstop/right-hander Lenni Kunert (2015, Denham Springs, La.), ranked 154th; and second baseman Chris Reid (2015, Baton Rouge, La.), currently unranked nationally.

Lockridge and Breaux both performed at the PG Junior National Showcase inside the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis earlier this month. Lockridge also came through with a big two-run home run in the bottom of the sixth inning that led to Marucci's win over Team IMPACT 16u on Saturday.

"O'Neal is a big, physical, right-handed hitter who can play all over (the field) for us and always has a chance to hit one out of the ballpark; he's good to have in the middle of that lineup," Jones said. "Brennan can really handle the bat, and is a leadoff, 2-hole type guy; he's got a lot of athletic ability and has a really, really high ceiling."

Kunert (5-foot-6, 155 pounds) and Reid (5-10, 175) are both kind of undersized infielders right now who will only grow bigger and stronger as they get older. They both impress Jones as they are with their toughness.

"Lenni is just a get-after-it type of guy," he said. "He's going to come up to the park every day and he's going to be ready to go and he's going to get after it, and he's going to fight you; that's what I love about him. He's slightly undersized (5-6, 155) but he plays with a chip on his shoulder and that allows him to overachieve, really."

Jones continued, speaking of Reid: "I think Chris is a middle-of-the-order bat and he's hit anywhere from 3 to 5 for us. He can really handle the bat and he's a good defender. I think he's still got a long way to go but he's a really good defender at short; he's one of the guys I really, really like a lot."

Vallot missed playing with Marucci Elite most of the month of June due to high profile commitments to the nationally acclaimed Perfect Game National Showcase in Minneapolis and also to USA Baseball's Tournament of Stars in Cary, N.C.

"He's another kid that has the ability to leave the park and he showed it yesterday in his first at-bat," Jones said. "After a 16-hour drive down here, he shows up, rolls out and hits a home run on the third pitch he sees. That tells you a lot about him right there. He's an above average defender behind the plate and he's got some real thump in that bat."

Vallot did enjoy a busy June, playing on a couple of amateur, high school-level baseball's biggest stages. He won the Rawlings Home Run Challenge at the PG National Showcase, out-muscling some of the country's biggest boppers in his high school class.

"Up in Minneapolis, that was a blast," Vallot said. "You're playing with some of the best players in the country --- Cameron Varga, Braxton Davidson -- and I was tickled pink to play with them. The Tournament of Stars was kind of the same thing -- a great experience."

Vallot has come to love performing in front of the nation's scouting community. "It's a blast showing the scouts what you can do," he said. "Hopefully some of them like you."

Now, what gives with this Mississippi State commitment? How do you explain your choice of school to your Marucci Elite teammates who you might face someday in the stadiums in Baton Rouge, La., and Starkville, Miss.? Perhaps no explanation is necessary after the Bulldogs terrific run into the finals at the NCAA College World Series where they came up short against national champion UCLA.

"It took me (awhile) to commit to Mississippi State, but I just fell in love with the coaches and the coaching staff," Vallot said. "It was a dream come true. I really liked everything about it, but what really stood out for me was the coaching staff, and I liked the small town community, and everybody knows everybody. I'm from a small town community, so that's what I like."

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