Tournaments : : Story
Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Team Northwest proves it belongs

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Former eight-year professional player and longtime coach and instructor Mike Brooks from Puyallup, Wash., has been coaching some of the best elite teams in the Northwest corner of the United States for more than 12 years now.

He is the director of Team Northwest Baseball and owns and operates the Diamond Players Baseball Training and Development Academy in Puyallup, which lies about five miles east of Tacoma. A California native who played in the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians organizations from the late 1960s through the mid-'70s, Brooks has become an unabashed advocate and promoter of young baseball talent in the Northwest corner of the United States.

This week Brooks brought three teams from the Tacoma area to Fort Myers -- a one-way distance of more than 3,200 miles -- to compete in the 16u, 15u and 14u Perfect Game World Series'. That adds up to almost 40 young prospects and their families willing to travel from one corner of this country to another for three five-day tournaments. The reasons for doing so range from the desire to win a Perfect Game national championship to getting valuable exposure in front of college recruiters -- usually both.

The logistics of "Operation Team Northwest" are mind-boggling.

"It's difficult," Brooks said with a chuckle early Tuesday afternoon from the Boston Red Sox's jetBlue Player Development Complex. "A week ago I wasn't sleeping much, just finishing putting together rosters. Our 16u team picked up some kids from the Tampa Bay Warriors ... which really helped.

"... Almost every player here has a parent with them and that's kind of the way I like to do it. Our coaches and I, we've got more things to think about than babysitting kids and worrying about curfews and that kind of stuff, so we ask the parents to supervise the kids and it works."

Team Northwest is one of five national organizations that had teams at all four of Perfect Game's World Series national championships, including last week's premier 17u PG World Series held in Goodyear, Ariz. -- the other four are the Houston Banditos; Orlando Scorpions; So Cal National Travel Team; and Tri-State Arsenal.

The PG World Series' are invitation-only -- there are 16 teams from around the country in the 17u, 16u and 15u events and 14 in the 14u tournament -- and Brooks is humbled that invitations are extended to his somewhat upstart teams from the Great Northwest.

"It really makes me proud of what the Northwest has been able to do and I'm really grateful for the Perfect Game people to include us in these events; I know there are a lot of programs that aren't involved that would like to be involved," he said. "So, it's important to me that we maintain that credibility and we bring the best kids that we can.

"It's a priority for us to maintain that level of competitiveness so that when we come here we represent well, we compete and we give the other teams good competition, and let Perfect Game know that they've made the right decision by inviting us."

Team Northwest's 16u and 15u teams won their tournament openers Tuesday; the 14u team suffered a setback.

Team Northwest missed out on the playoffs (final four) at last week's 17u event after finishing pool-play with a disappointing 1-4-2 record despite only be outscored by a combined 23-21. The lessons his young prospects learned go far beyond a .140 winning percentage, however, at least in Brooks' mind.

"The best experience for our kids was that they were learning how to play the game from a mental standpoint," he said Tuesday. "The way we lost games ... were almost all mental mistakes; hardly any physical mistakes -- making a base-running mistake; not knowing the defensive situations and allowing the other team to score when we should have been able to hold them; not taking advantage of an offensive opportunity.

"The kids saw that these players from Florida and Arizona that were maybe a little bit sharper are the ones they're going to be up against for college jobs, so that was probably the biggest benefits for those kids."

The Team Northwest organization burst upon the scene a year ago when it arrived at the inaugural 17u Perfect Game World Series and qualified for the final four after posting a 5-1-1 record. The Northwesterners lost to the eventual national champion South Florida Elite Squad in the semifinals.

They then moved in full force to Marietta, Ga. -- the Team Northwest 14u, 15u and 16u squads -- to compete in the inaugural PG World Series' in those age groups. The 14u and 16u teams didn't advance to the semifinals but the 15u team -- this week's 16u squad -- was a final four participant and lost to eventual champion Gravel Baseball out of Chicago.

As reported by Perfect Game last fall, the elite tournament teams that Brooks took to a total of six national PG tournaments and several USA Baseball events in 2012 finished with a combined record of 38-20-4. Team members, coaches and parents seemed to especially enjoy the PG events.

“Just comparing the Perfect Game (tournaments) versus the other events, there was never a complaint – from the venues, to the caliber of the competition, to the way that Perfect Game runs the events,” Brooks said at the time. “Every game, there’s a little recap on the website; the way that they scout and they evaluate, the parents were just thrilled and really felt like they were getting their money’s worth.

“We had a lot of kids that got a lot of (college) contacts and the kids are kind of getting themselves out there, so it really fulfilled the mission.”

The top prospects on the 16u squad here this week include shortstop Parker Kelly (2015, Portland, Ore.), the No. 40-ranked national prospect in his class and No. 1-ranked in Oregon. Left-hander Austin Drury (2015, Land o' Lakes, Fla.) has committed to North Florida and is listed a "high follow" by PG scouts.

If interest from NCAA Division I colleges is any indication, the Team Northwest 15u team is loaded. The top prospects include third baseman Kellan Duffy (2016, Hood River, Ore.); first baseman/third baseman Alix Garcia (2016, Othello, Wash.); third baseman/first baseman Austin Shenton (2016, Bellingham, Wash.); right-hander Grant Townsend (2015, Lake Tapp, Wash.); and third baseman Nolan Wiler (2016, Bremerton, Wash.)

"Even though they're spread out over the Northwest, they have such a bond and they communicate constantly with each other, this is all they talk about," Brooks said. "Even the kids that are new within a day they feel like they're part of the family, so it's great.

"All the kids have the same ambitions and all the kids have pretty much the same skill levels so they really bond and have a lot in common with each other."

Brooks said of his players' summertime schedules allowed it he would "absolutely love" to break away in July and takes teams to the PG WWBA and PG BCS Finals national championship tournament. He indicated he would seek invitations to the Perfect Game MLK Championships in the Phoenix area in January and do as much as he can to make other tournament visits as often as possible.

"The experience that they have is invaluable," he said. "These kids are all superstars back home on their little local teams and they're all well-known. Then they come down here and it's all of a sudden, 'Wait a minute. Everybody's all the same and we have to learn how to do more than just hit it farther and throw it faster than the other kids.' The parents see that, too, and it gives them a sense of reality; if they come down here and succeed their confidence just shoots  through the roof. It's tremendous for them."

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