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Tournaments | Story | 9/14/2019

Fall Freshmen finding their way

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Charles Heil (Perfect Game)

PEORIA, Ariz. – Watching play over the first two days at the Perfect Game WWBA Freshman Fall National Championship Protected by G-Form was in a lot of ways like opening a new book penned by a familiar author.

The reader – or in the case of this baseball tournament, the spectator – will have a general idea of what to expect as the pages turn and the action unfolds, but with a whole new cast of completely unpredictable characters and a series of updated plot lines, there is always a lot more to anticipate than to assume.

Such was the case early Saturday morning on the Mariners’ side of the Peoria Sports Complex where eight of the 22 teams vying for the Freshman Fall Championship crown took the field for their second pool-play game of the event; all eight would play their third and final pool games later in the day.

This is the 4th annual PG WWBA Freshman Fall National Championship and about the only certainty is that it will not play-out exactly like the previous three. These are 14- and 15-year-old players who are just weeks into their freshman years of high school, so unpredictability will be the order of the weekend.

“This is great, this is where they can get acclimated to real high school baseball in the fall; it’s more competitive for them,” AZ Athletics 2023 Founders Club head coach Jose Lopez told PG Saturday morning. “As they get into high school they’re going to be with older age-groups which means things are going to be a little bit more competitive.

“I coach high school baseball so I treat this like high school for them,” he said. “My job, as I see it, is to prepare them as they go into high school and I think this is a great way to start for them.”

Lopez was speaking shortly before he sent his Peoria-based team out to face the Slammers-Duman club out of Englewood, Colo., and a little more than 12 hours after the AZ A’s 2023 FC had beaten Murietta, Calif.-based Dykstra Baseball 2023, 6-3, in its tournament-opener on Friday; Dykstra Baseball 2022 won last year’s Freshman Fall National.

The Slammers, coached by Garrett Duman, opened with a 3-2 loss to the CBA Titans out of La Mirada, Calif., on Friday after taking a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the fifth. A loss like that comes with the territory and is really just part of the event’s fabric during this wild and wonderful learning experience that takes part at the freshman level.

“I think it’s a good atmosphere where it’s more about instruction and development, and sometimes it is about wins and losses and trophies and things like that,” Duman told PG on Saturday. “When you get to come to an atmosphere like this at a Perfect Game event that’s scouted, that can only help in (the players’) development.

“They’re just starting their high school careers; they’re just starting to be young men,” he added. “They’re learning about responsibility, taking care of their bodies and then being ready to compete at a high level.”

Both teams’ rosters consist entirely of players from the national high school class of 2023 meaning each and everyone of them is yet to experience his first taste of a high school baseball season.

Lopez is of the belief that the PG WWBA Freshman Fall National Championship Protected by G-Form is a terrific event for his players to experience if for no other reason than it allows them to compete against players from outside their familiar Phoenix Metropolitan-area comfort zone. The AZ A’s 2023 Founders Club three pool-play games were against two teams from California and one from Colorado.

“I was very excited when I saw the teams that we drew in our pool (because) we’re looking for competitive opponents where our boys can get better by playing better (competition),” he said. “I especially like playing the Cali teams. They’re very strong; the boys from over there are always part of highly competitive programs.”

The AZ Athletics 2023 Founders Club used eight singles and some fairly dominant pitching to get past the Slammers-Duman, 5-1, Saturday morning. 2023 right-handers Charles Heil and Jackson Babione combined on the four-hit, seven-strikeout gem, with Babione throwing the final three hitless, scoreless frames.

A’s 2023 FC 2023 left-hander Aldolpho Sanchez and 2023 righty Austin Mittelstedt combined to allow three earned runs on eight hits with 10 strikeouts and a walk in Friday’s win over CBA. Offensive standouts in the first two games included Tyler Acton, Carson Kuhn and Wyatt Halvorson.

A lot of the guys on this A’s 2023 FC roster have been playing together since they were 9 years old, although like any other team there have been additions and subtractions; it’s the nature of the beast. But the core is comfortable with one another and are also becoming comfortable with their own games.

“At this point they do start separating themselves; you definitely start to see, as they say, the cream rise to the top,” Lopez said. “There are guys that are a little bit more advanced … and some of these guys are just getting into the 60-90, the bigger field, and are transitioning from the smaller field at 13u. So you start seeing that right away.”

Despite its 0-2-0 start in pool-play, the signs are there that this is a pretty talented Slammers-Duman ballclub, as all of the Slammers Baseball teams that compete at PG events always are. They, too, got some decent pitching from the right-handers Tate Redding and Tommy Marsh, and the left-handers Austin Carr and Matthew Rhoades in the first two games, and good production at the plate from Nick Herrick, Dillon Volz, Carr and Rhoades.

“Slammers is a program out of Colorado that takes pride in competing on a national level and it’s good to start them as young as we possibly can,” Duman said. “This is a group where they all came up through our youth program with different teams and now they’ve been selected and kind of funneled into this one team to have experiences like this.”

Duman agreed that at the freshman level (14u, 15u) some of the top prospects are starting to separate themselves from the pack but cautions that it’s much too early to rush to judgement on any player. One of the biggest crimes an adult coach or supervisor can commit is to pigeon-holing a teenager into this category or that expectation without taking a good, long look.

“You try to give everyone a chance to develop, especially at this age,” he said. “Everyone’s body is going through changes at different rates, and so a combination of a good skill set, a good head on your shoulders and being a good human being, those things are important, too. … And then as they develop and mature, you’ll see players continue to separate themselves over the next three or four years.”

With losses in its first two pool-play games the Slammers-Duman were eliminated from the playoffs despite playing relatively well in both games.

Coach Duman was quick to point out that just being at this PG WWBA event is a part of long-term goal of making these young players realize that they will be playing in tournaments of this stature four or five times a year moving forward, so they might as well roll the ball out there in September and get used to the process.

“I hope that they enjoy themselves and have a good time but also that they appreciate the opportunities that a lot of kids in our area would love to have,” he said of the experience.

The AZ Athletics 2023 Founders Club, on the other hand, had positioned themselves well for a pool championship and a run into the playoffs, which begin Sunday. This is the first time most of his players will be involved in what could be a four-day tournament, and these tournaments can grow into week-long events as they get older.

“For them, they’ve got to get a little bit stronger mentally and physically to be able to make it, especially out here in Arizona with the heat,” Lopez said. “It definitely can be a transition for them but it’s a good thing.”

Lopez was then asked what he hopes his young players take away from this Freshman Fall National Championship – the one played literally in their own backyards – and he didn’t hesitate with his answer.

“I want them to improve on the competitive side and with their mental mindset,” Lopez said. “I always stress attitude and effort. If they have a good attitude and give good effort they’re going to be competitive and they’re going to be very headstrong. To me, that’s the most important part of this game is to have a strong mind.”

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