GLENDALE, Ariz. – The last time Moreno Valley, Calif.-based Team Phenom was spotted in this corner of the Arizona desert it was about to skip town with some valuable hardware.
There was nothing sinister involved with the departure – there was no ill-gotten booty in anyone’s possession – as the spoils the Phenoms returned to Southern California with were obtained by virtue of a hard-fought championship effort at January’s 14u Perfect Game MLK Championship. Team Phenom merely came, conquered and returned home with championship gold.
And now it’s back in the west Phoenix suburbs as part of a 32-team field looking to mine additional championship gold at the 2014 14u PG WWBA West Memorial Day Classic. And based on the success that the core group of players on the Team Phenom roster has enjoyed since most of them were eight, nine or 10 years old, it was easy to identify the Phenoms as the pre-tournament favorites. Not that it matters all that much.
“For me it’s kind of hard because I dictate success on long-term success,” Team Phenom founder and head coach Joe Keller said Friday morning from the Camelback Ranch Cactus League spring training complex. “I don’t really think winning a tournament builds who you are as a person. We could lose this weekend – are we favored to win?, well, yes – but if we lose it doesn’t change who we are as people or it doesn’t change how good of players these guys really are.
“It’s the step-by-step of making sure first, these guys are getting prepared for high school and the next step is hopefully getting them prepared for college.”
Keller explained that he and Team Phenom’s other coaches try to make their young players understand that there are bigger and more important things going around them than just playing in four- or five-day tournaments throughout the summer. There are lessons to be learned and goals away from baseball to be achieved.
“Their success in life is more important,” he said. “… Team-wise we’ve always (known) how good these guys are but it’s more about what they need to do for their future.”
The future certainly looked as bright as the desert sun on Friday when Team Phenom opened pool-play at the 14u PG WWBA West Memorial Day Classic with an impressive 7-0 victory over Yuma (Ariz.) Beast Baseball.
2018 right-hander Alexander Williams threw five innings of one-hit, shutout ball with eight strikeouts and no walks, and 2017 righty Everett Hurst allowed a hit and struck out two in two innings of work. 2018 outfielder Preston Hartsell was 3-for-4 with a double, an RBI and two runs scored, and 2018 second baseman Zachery Lew was 2-for-4 with a pair of runs scored in the win.
Team Phenom seemed to pick up right where it left off in January when it scraped and scrapped to win the 14u PG MLK Championship with a 6-0 record, including a 3-1 win over the San Diego Show in the championship game.
Thirteen players on that championship roster are back this weekend, including 2018 right-hander/first baseman Sean Osceola, the Most Valuable Pitcher at the PG MLK event. Eight Team Phenom players were named to that tournament’s all-tournament team, including Hartsell and Lew.
“Most of these guys have been together since they were 10 years old; we’ve had most of them for a long period of time,” Keller said. “We’ve developed a great family atmosphere and a chemistry, and the things we try to instill are bigger than just baseball – the academic side, nutrition, just who they are as people.”
The official Team Phenom roster submitted for the 14u WWBA Memorial Day lists five players who just completed their freshman year in high school (class of 2017), 12 who will be freshmen in the fall (2018) and one, Jordan Keller, who just completed his seventh-grade year (2019).
2017s Jared Toothman from Bakersfield, Calif.; Emilio Vasquez from Hayward, Calif., and Diego Alarcon from Lennox, Calif., all played varsity as ninth-graders this spring at Bakersfield Christian, Mount Eden and Millikan high schools, respectively.
“All of them did really well starting on their varsity team, so we’re excited about that,” Keller said. “Now we have a big group of them going (into their freshmen year) so we’re hoping they can continue to keep pushing through step-by-step; that’s what our goal is, to get them to the end of the road.”
The Team Phenom organization has grown in leaps and bounds since Keller founded it in 2006 and it now boasts academies in several states all across the country. He said the mission has never gotten off-track as the program strives to instill discipline and structure in the young players it serves in an effort to make baseball an even better game than it already is.
The team that is here this weekend is what Keller calls Team Phenom’s “flagship” team and has consistently been ranked among the top two or three teams in the country since they were playing at the 12u level.
“It’s been fun; it’s a fun run,” Keller said. “I told the kids we’re halfway there; now they have to get scholarships. It’s been great and the overall team GPA with this group is 3.9, so they’re going to be on their way to a lot more success.”
There does seem to be a tightness surrounding this group, although no two of them on the 19-player roster claim the same hometown and Osceola and Hurst are from Florida. Nearly two dozen family members and friends found patches of shade to watch their boys play their tournament-opener Friday morning at Camelback’s Los Angeles Dodgers quad, an impressive turnout, indeed.
Team Phenom has an ambitious summer schedule planned that will keep the youngsters on the road for as long as 30 straight days. Stops are scheduled at Perfect Game WWBA and BCS tournaments in Georgia and Florida, along with some USA Baseball appearances in North Carolina and Florida.
“It’s going to be a tough run for these guys and some of them are going to be away from their families for that long of a time for the first time in their lives,” Keller said. “Their manhood is starting to kick-in and we’ll see how the growth goes for the summer. We’ll continue to work hard and develop these guys to play the game better every single day.”
One thing that is certain is that it is going to take an awful lot of adversity to squelch this group’s competitive fires.
“They talk about how they want to win them all and I tell them, ‘One step at a time and we’ll see how it goes,’” Keller said with a laugh. “But it’s a very enjoyable atmosphere with these kids and the parents; it’s a great group and it’s very fun.”