High School | General | 2/12/2021

Hamilton a Huge Hit in the Desert

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Brock Selvidge (Perfect Game)

The 2020 high school baseball season was barely two weeks old on March 14 when the Chandler, Ariz., powerhouse Hamilton Huskies beat Copper Hills HS out of Utah, 5-2, in their first game at the preeminent Boras Classic; the win upped their record to 8-0.

The season was so full of promise for the Huskies, a team that was just months removed from winning the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) Class 6A state championship. Head Coach Mike Woods had a roster that boasted 10 talented seniors who were determined to grind their way to a second straight state title and a fifth in seven years while improving on the 26-7 overall record from 2019.

Then, as everyone knows all too well today, things changed both dramatically and drastically. And, as Woods told Perfect Game during a telephone conversation earlier this week, it just seemed to hit out of nowhere. No one could have possibly been prepared for the outbreak of a deadly pandemic that has impacted millions of lives around the world.

“We had rain that whole week,” Woods recalled. “We were supposed to be in the Boras tournament and it kept getting rained-out every day and we were complaining about the rain. I was working on my field in the rain and I got in my car and I heard about that NBA game being cancelled.

“I started thinking, I’ve been sitting here cursing the rain but I think I’ve got a bigger problem here; it just crushed us.”

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic is still very much with us but the sun did come back out in the Valley of the Sun, as it most assuredly always does. And with temperatures holding steadily in the 70s in the Phoenix area here in mid-February, the 2021 Hamilton Huskies are ready to finish what their teammates from the class of 2020 weren’t given the opportunity to do.

Hamilton High School, the largest enrollment school in Arizona with nearly 4,000 students, comes into this season holding down the No. 5 position in the PG High School Preseason Top 50 National Rankings. The Huskies are the highest ranked team in the PGHS Southwest Region (Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah) sliding in just a couple of notches ahead of No. 9 Las Vegas (Nev.) Bishop Gorman.

Students returned to class at Hamilton HS for the 2020-21 school year in mid-October and then left for a holiday break before Christmas and didn’t return until January 14. There are a lot COVID-19-related protocols in place and mitigation strategies that need to be followed, but the Huskies baseball team is able to practice – while wearing masks, of course. Scrimmages are being played but no parents or other students are permitted to be in attendance.

The start of the season was pushed back three weeks – tryouts originally scheduled for February 8 will now be held March 1 – and the first game is scheduled for March 12. Teams will play an 18-to-20 game regular season but will not be allowed to participate in any multi-team tournaments; the state tournament will be a single-elimination affair instead of the standard double-elimination format.

This year’s Huskies’ roster couldn’t look any different from the one of a year ago which leaves Woods – the only head baseball coach in the school’s 24-year history – with some questions coming in. There are only a handful of seniors back this year with the left-hander/outfielder Brock Selvidge (No. 26-ranked ’21, LSU commit) and infielder Luke Thiele (HF, Central Arizona CC) carrying the torch.

It shouldn’t matter that much since the collection of underclassmen Woods has under his charge would bolster any program in the country. And that’s reason enough for Woods to feel good about the product he’ll be putting out on the field.

“Our juniors and sophomores are really talented kids but they haven’t been through it,” he told PG. “Everyone else lost everything, too; no one played last year either. When we played these scrimmages against these other teams the last few months, everyone’s in the same boat. We’re working with kids who many times have played only one season of high school baseball and that was their freshman year – they lost their JV years and now they’re juniors.

“I don’t have that big senior class so I’m really working with young kids, but I’m not complaining because my team is really talented.”

Right-hander/first baseman Logan Saloman (No. 265 ’22, Arizona St.) is among the junior leaders and he’s been on the varsity since his freshman year. The class got a big boost during the offseason when outfielder Gavin Turley (No. 124, Oregon St.) moved into the district from Utah and immediately became Arizona’s No. 1-ranked prospect in the class of 2022. Corner-infielder/right-hander Grant DeGraffenreid (t-500) is another valuable member of the junior class for what he brings both at the plate and on the mound.

But any discussion of the Huskies’ roster has to start with Selvidge, a 6-foot-3 PG All-American in 2020 who is the No. 3-ranked left-hander in the country behind only Georgia’s Carter Holton (No. 11 nationally) and North Carolina’s Josh Hartle (No. 17).

“He’s a superior athlete and he’s a two-way guy for us, too; he can really hit and he can really run,” Woods said of his ace lefty. “We expect him to be a top-of-the-rotation arm and he’s been playing on varsity since he was a freshman. He’s one of those guys who’s been there, been through it.”

Selvidge played in the state championship game as a freshman in 2019 and hit a home run and Woods needs him to be that leader, to be that voice of experience. Saloman pitched in the championship game as a freshman two years ago, as well, so he also knows the drill.

“Those are the two guys who have been there, done that,” Woods said. “We need Brock to be that guy for us and he will be, and obviously he’s a main cog. With that arm and with that bat in the lineup helps, so we’re excited for him.”

Joining Saloman and Turley at the top of the junior class are outfielder Prince Deboskie (No. 407), right-hander DJ Barrett (t-500) and right-hander/utility Kole Klecker (t-1000, Grand Canyon U).

And then there are the sophomores, and there’s an abundance of these class of 2023 10th graders. Infielders Josh Tiedemann (No. 254, TCU), Roch Cholowsky (No. 353, UCLA), Tre Spivey (No. 362) and Ryan Kucherek (t-1000), and outfielder Will Shelor (No. 391) head the class; freshman infielder AJ Diaz (No. 139 ’24) will also be looking to earn a spot on the varsity.

“We have three legit arms and we have a lot of athleticism,” Woods said. “Our infield is going to be very good defensively and very athletic...It’s really our athleticism and our arms and hopefully we can overcome the inexperience, but I think everybody else is going to have the experience problems, too; that’s just the nature of this year.”

Hamilton High has won AIA state championships in seven seasons under Woods (2003, ’04, ’08, ’14, ’16, ’17, ’19) and has been able to stay so strong through the years in big part due to the stability within the coaching staff.

Assistants Frank Pezzorello and Mike Spears have been with Woods the entire 24 years; former big-leaguer Clay Bellinger and Tom Hansen came on board in 2005 and former ASU and big league pitcher Blas Minor became the pitching coach in 2010.

There is also a strong youth league in Chandler which can serve as Hamilton’s “feeder system” in a sense. The Chandler Babe Ruth program consistently wins state and regional championships and won a Little League World Series in 2009.

“What we try to foster is just an (atmosphere) where when we win, we all win, and playing the game as a team game; we’ve had a lot of buy-in,” Woods said. “...I think we do a really nice job of developing the talent we have and we’re just very fortunate.”

The coaching staff also makes sure that each new incoming class is well-versed on the program’s rich history. It’s something the coaches talk to the players about all the time, and Woods is quick to remind them that if the guys that came before hadn’t done so many remarkable things no one would be paying any attention to them today. The current players are sitting on the shoulders of those graduated players and it’s their job – their obligation, really – to pass it on to the next group.

“We were good back in the early 2000s when we were winning state championships but we weren’t being ranked nationally and we weren’t getting invited to the best tournaments and now we are,” Woods said. “And I tell them that you guys really haven’t done anything yet; you’re living off all the past guys.”

Those former players keep coming back and giving back. The school holds an Alumni Game every year and it’s become a “must-see” event in the community with so many great players returning home.

One of those is the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger, a 2013 Hamilton grad who won the NL Rookie of the Year in 2017 and followed that up two years later by being selected as the 2019 NL Most Valuable Player; he also won a Rawlings Gold Glove Award.

With his dad Clay on the coaching staff, Bellinger continues to stop by the school on a semi-regular basis and is still a big supporter of the Huskies program. He doesn’t come and hit with the high-schoolers as much as he used to when he was a minor-leaguer, Woods said, but his presence is felt.

As for this year’s group, Woods said everyone has done just a great job of dealing with the restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 protocols. The guys have been able to roll with any punches thrown their way and Woods even laughed and said that he often thinks the teenagers are handling the challenges better than the adults.

The pain was pronounced when the 2020 season was cancelled just eight games in and Woods said he was in a bad place for a while just thinking about what his seniors had lost. It was a tight-knit class led by top-500 talents in outfielder Michael Brueser (Arizona St.), catcher Tyler Wilson and third baseman Will Maxey (Kansas).

“That was a good group and it was just a shame,” Woods said. “But like I told those guys, there are people hurting more than us. Everyone had to pay a price and that just happened to be the price they paid – they missed their senior season (and) now they’re going to stacked rosters in college...I think that particular class (2020) got hurt as much as anybody.

More than anything, though, it’s the ripple effect that the 2020 season getting shut down has on this year’s group that Woods finds most frustrating. As he put it, “The system kind of got broke.” It’s a system that puts an emphasis on the seniors teaching the younger players the high standards that are held within the program when it comes to attitude and preparation and that wasn’t in place a year ago.

The here and now is much more promising and the sun continues to shine in the Valley of the Sun. The No. 5 nationally-ranked Hamilton Huskies will pull up their pants, grab their bats, balls and gloves and get ready to embrace living life large in the AIA 6A Premier Baseball League.

“We’ll see how it plays out but I’m optimistic, I really am; I think we’ll have a nice year,” Woods said. “It’s going to be a strange year but, again, we’ve been through it already. We’ve been through the stops and the starts so I think we’ve all kind of settled into (the reality) that it is what it is. Let’s stop complaining about it and let’s just see what happens and turn the page.”

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