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Monday, June 11, 2018

Mississippi's Clark dives in

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Kellum Clark (Perfect Game

EMERSON, Ga. – It’s likely no one really had any idea what to expect when the recently turned 15-year-old from Jackson, Miss., made his official Perfect Game tournament debut at the 15u PG BCS Finals in early July 2016 at the Lee County Player Development Complex in Fort Myers, Fla.

But hey, Kellum Clark certainly looked the part. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound, left-handed hitting first baseman carried himself like a ballplayer, and earned all-tournament recognition while helping his Louisiana-based Chaos 15u team to a 4-2 record after a loss in the first-round of the playoffs.

From that moment on, people kind of new what to expect from Clark as he moved into his high school years at Jackson Academy. He became a regular at PG BCS and PG WWBA tournaments playing with both Chaos and Georgia-based Team Elite throughout the summers and falls of 2016 and 2017.

The kid from Mississippi was showing his skill levels were certainly far above average, and he began to climb the class of 2020 national prospect rankings at a rapid pace. So rapid, in fact, that when he showed up here Monday to take part in the PG Junior National Showcase, he was settled in at No. 18 nationally and No. 1 in his home state.

That’s top prospect territory. Check that, it’s top-top prospect territory. And to think Clark had reached those heights without being evaluated at a PG showcase showed just how much of a gamer he is. The PG Jr. National Showcase is the first showcase event to appear on his 18-event PG docket.

“I just wanted to come up here, have some fun and show my skills to the best of my ability,” Clark told PG Monday from PG Park at LakePoint when asked what his thought process was after receiving an invitation to the event. “I had no idea what to expect but I’m having fun so far. I felt pretty comfortable out there.”

Clark, now 6-foot-4 and 216 pounds, has been feeling pretty comfortable every time he steps out onto a baseball field these days. He not only has that No. 18 national ranking in one of his back-pockets, but he has a commitment to Mississippi State tucked away in the other one. And on Monday, he was ready to give this showcase thing a go.

“I feel like you have to practice perfect,” Clark said. “During games you can kind of get away with stuff, but I think at showcases it’s more like you have to show your top skills at everything, whether it’s arm strength, (bat) speed or whatever.”

Clark was here with his dad, David Clark, and on Monday David seemed just as excited to be here as his son was. They drive from their home in Jackson to these PG events, and David admitted that the fact the Jr. National was being held at LakePoint this year was a big reason they accepted the invitation.

“Just like everything that we do with Perfect Game, it’s always first-class, it’s always run right and it’s just a very unique experience anytime we go to a Perfect Game event,” David told PG Monday. “You just always know what you’re going to get.”

The notion that young prospects from a largely rural state like Mississippi are disadvantaged working against their peers from more urban settings is gradually being debunked, much like the notion that players from northern states are also disadvantaged.

Since reaching high school-age, Clark has had the opportunity to work with three coaches who have played professionally, including two who played in the major leagues. His coach at Jackson Academy is Jay Powell, a right-handed relief pitcher and first-round pick (11th overall) by the Orioles in the 1993 MLB June Amateur Draft who played parts of 11 seasons for four big-league teams from 1995-2005.

“(Coach Powell) is awesome,” Clark said. “He knows everything from the mound to the plate; he actually does know a little bit about hitting, believe it or not. It’s just awesome having him as a coach.”

His coach at Chaos Baseball is Ben McDonald, a right-handed pitcher and the No. 1 overall pick of the Orioles in 1989 who enjoyed a nine-year big-league career with two organizations from 1989-97. At Team Elite, he has been coached by Shane Hopper, who played at Georgia and then seven seasons at the minor and independent league level.

“Having Ben McDonald as my select team coach and then Shane Hopper, all of them are just great coaches. They’re fun to be around and they teach you a lot about the game,” Clark said. “They’ve all played where I want to play, they’ve all been where I want to be. You take advice from each coach that you get; you pick up a little bit from each of their minds.”

His dad concurred: “From my standpoint as a parent, the blessings come with who the player has around him,” David said. “I’ve got to give a shout-out to Team Elite: it’s just a very well-run, player-centric organization that no matter what the level of a player’s skills are, they are really interested in getting the player an opportunity at the next level.”

After receiving all-tournament honors at his first event back in 2016, Clark has since been recognized nine more times, eight of them while wearing a Team Elite uniform. Last summer, he was a member of the Team Elite 15u squad that won PG national championships at the 15u WWBA PG World Series and the 15u PG BCS National Championship.

“When you play at a high level with a lot of high level kids on your team, it brings your own level of play up tremendously,” Clark said. “Playing with Team Elite last year, that was a really loaded group, and I think everybody fed off each other as we went through the season; we all tried to play at the highest level that we possibly could.”

Like many other elite level underclass prospects from across the country, Clark had an especially busy October a year ago.

He played with Team Elite 16u Prime at the PG WWBA National Qualifier here at LakePoint and then at the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship in Fort Myers, Fla. From there, he experienced the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., playing with the Louisiana Knights; he was named to the all-tournament team at the first two of those events. Some might call that a grind, but not Clark.

“I love being out here with my teammates every day; I love playing baseball every day,” he said. “Some people think it’s wearing and tearing on them, but I just like being out on the ballfield every day. I like driving seven hours to come out here and play; I just like that.”

Clark is mature enough to realize that the tired mantra of “baseball is a game of failure” is, indeed, very true. He knows he’s going to have good tournaments and bad tournaments and he also knows its important to learn from both sides of that coin. A good player, he reasons, will use the less than ideal performances to make sure the next time he steps out on the field he’s just that much better for it.

Jackson Academy enjoyed a fine season this spring under Powell’s direction, finishing 25-12 after dropping a pair of games to Jackson Prep at the double-elimination Mississippi Class AAAA-1 state championship. Clark hit .406 with 19 extra-base hits (4 HRs), 30 RBI and 52 runs scored during his sophomore campaign.

“I feel like that across the country, there can be too much pressure on kids to do well, but our coach (Powell) gives us the freedom to just play to the best of our ability and just have as much fun as we can,” Clark said. “I think that allows us to play at a high level and get into the playoffs every year in our state.”

Coincidently, Jackson Prep is led two-sport standout Jerrion Ealy, an outfielder ranked No. 8 nationally in the class of 2019 who will be performing at the PG National Showcase in St. Petersburg, Fla., later this week.

Clark credits his dad for getting him started with baseball when he was a toddler, and he’s grateful for every bit of knowledge David passed his way. That gratitude extends both directions.

“Any dad that loves baseball and starts his kid playing is lying to you if they tell you they don’t live through their children, especially with the first son,” David said with a laugh. “That’s where you make up for all your shortcomings as a player.

“So with Kellum before he got out of diapers he was hitting all the time in the backyard, and I am just very fortunate that he loved the game because I could have made him hate it with all the pressure I put on him when he was a little kid.”

Clark’s grandparents and quite a few of his aunts and uncles attended Mississippi State, although his parents did not. David Clark, an insurance agent, attended Meridian (Miss.) Community College and Belhaven University in Jackson while Keri Clark, an RN and a teacher, attended Mississippi College in Clinton.

“I think going to Starkville every other weekend kind of gave me an advantage (in the recruiting process) because I always wanted to play for Mississippi State,” Clark said. “That was the dream school for me ever since I was a little kid. … I never wanted to go far away; I wanted my family to be able to come and watch whenever they wanted to.”

David Clark said that each of what he called the “pie in the sky” schools they identified as possible targets were all about a 2½-hour drive from their house in Jackson; that included Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Alabama and LSU.

When the whole college recruitment process started, father and son sat down with a map of Mississippi and the Southeast and David drew a 3-hour circle around Jackson and said, “Son, you’re going to do it within that circle because I want to be there.”

Kellum Clark decided to put his expert skills as a “picker” to good use over his two days of work at the PG Jr. National. Just like he’s picked the brains of the three excellent coaches he’s had the opportunity to work with over the past year, he’s also not afraid to pick the brains of the other elite players in attendance here.

He has an awareness that prospects at every talent level have their own strengths and weaknesses, so why not try to learn as much as he can from those players’ strengths? As Clark put it, “You’ve just got to get what you need to know and lock it in there.”

“You get to meet people from across the country here,” he added. “You get to meet people that are going to different colleges and you can even meet some people that are going to the same college as you are. It’s just fun getting to know these people that are your team and all the different teams.”

David Clark almost gets philosophical when he talks about the PG journey his son has embarked upon, one with two years down and two more to go:

“It’s enjoyable, it’s happy, it’s sad, it’s fulfilling, it tears you down, it builds you up; it’s all the emotions you can have as a parent,” David said, noting that he has a 13-year-old son, K.K. Clark, who will be getting involved with PG in the next year or two.

And when asked what he hopes his son takes away from the PG Jr. National Showcase experience, he continued in that same vein.

“This baseball is temporary; it’s not going to last forever,” David said. “Like Ben McDonald tells his kids all the time, somebody’s going to take your jersey from you sooner or later. It might be tomorrow, it might be 10 years from now after a wonderful pro career, you just never know.

“But the things that are permanent, these relationships they take away from here, those are the relationships that they’ll take through life,” he concluded. “That’s what I want him to leave here with.”

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