Tournaments : : Story
Saturday, September 15, 2012

Iowa boys show they belong

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The boys from Iowa tumbled off the turnip truck, took a look around the spacious 13-field Goodyear Sports and Recreation Complex and muttered something along the lines of, "Man, this place could hold a lot of hay."

OK, enough with the stereotypes already. It's not likely any of the members of the Perfect Game-sponsored Iowa Select Black and Iowa Select Red teams at this weekend's Perfect Game/EvoShield National Championship (Upperclass) have ever heard of a turnip truck,  much less fell off of one while still green behind the ears.

In fact, especially in the case of PG Iowa Select Black, the Iowa boys showed they very much belonged at this national championship event as pool-play came to its conclusion Saturday night.

Talented right-hander Derek Burkamper (2013, Muscatine, Iowa) flew out here with his family and teammates earlier this week (no turnip truck involved) and pitched Iowa Select Black to a 7-2 win over Mad Dogs Baseball Club Saturday afternoon as Black improved to 2-0 at the tournament.

(Note: Iowa Select Black lost its final pool-play game of the tournament to the Watsonville Aggies, 2-0, Saturday night but still advanced to Sunday's playoffs by virtue of tie-breaking criteria that made it the champion of Pool H).

Burkamper, a Nebraska commit,  was just effective enough while allowing two  runs on three hits with four strikeouts in four innings before left-hander Cody Brandt (2013, West Branch, Iowa) pitched the last two hitless, scoreless innings.

"I felt really good," Burkamper said after the outing. "The heat helps a lot, and I think that was definitely a big factor in keeping my arm loose."

And then he talked about being at this tournament, an event that features many of the top travel teams from across the West, primarily California and Arizona.

"This is just a lot of fun and I was so pumped to start today," Burkamper said. "They shut me down early because I'm looking forward to get a chance to pitch Monday if we get that far."

The tournament semifinal games and championship game are scheduled for Monday morning.

This Iowa Select Black team was assembled by Perfect Game Iowa League Director Steve James and PG Director of Instruction Ron Benich. The roster is 100 percent Iowa high school prospects, most from the class of 2013 and two from 2014, and includes six players who have already committed to NCAA Division I programs.

Benich had the core group of the 2013s together on one underclass team last year that he and James had scouted-out in the Perfect Game Iowa Spring and Fall Wood Bat Leagues. According to James, the Iowa Select Black squad has become a "destination spot" for the top Iowa prospects, the number of which keeps growing every year.

"Some of them, they want us to do it all summer and not play their high school season," James said. "It would be fun, but that's just a tough thing to do."

And there-in lies the problem for the elite Iowa high school baseball prospects. The Iowa High School Athletic Association offers only a summer season for its member schools, which means a prospect has to decide between playing for his high school team or leaving loyalty to schools, friends, teammates and even communities behind to play on the national travel ball circuit. Iowa is the only state that offers sanctioned high school baseball that doesn't offer a spring season.

That makes attendance at an event like this all the more fun for the Iowa guys. They finally get the opportunity to play on a national stage against some of the country's top talent and in front of a college coaching and professional scouting community that won't see them unless they attend a Perfect Game showcase, several of which are held in Cedar Rapids.

"It's definitely fun, because me and Ronnie have talked for a couple of years on how much we'd love to do a summer group and have them play in our tournaments all summer -- the 17s, the 18s and all that," James said. "We definitely belong here, and the thing these kids have to realize is that they're as talented as all these other kids, they just don't have the travel ball experience yet."

That isn't the case for Iowa Select Black's most famous member, 2012 Perfect Game All-American A.J. Puk, a left-handed pitcher and powerful left-handed hitting first baseman who has committed to Florida and is ranked as the nation's No. 20 overall prospect in the class of 2013.

Puk has played for Canes Baseball during the summer (and also for his Cedar Rapids Washington High School team) and has been at every important PG showcase, including the PG National Showcase in Minneapolis in June.

Iowa Select Black got impressive pitching performances in its first two pool-play games here (Iowa Select Red finished 2-1 in pool-play and missed the playoffs). Puk is only playing first base at this event and not pitching.

Black struggled at the plate in its tournament-opening 1-0 win over Grinders Baseball Friday afternoon. It managed just three hits -- including an RBI single from Mitchell Moser (2013, Atkins, Iowa) -- but a quartet of four Iowa pitchers proved up to the challenge.

Right-handers Austin Stroschein (2013, Marion, Iowa), Jake Reinhardt (2013, Des Moines, Iowa), Justin Wyant (2013, Marion, Iowa) and Matthew Johnson (2013, Ankeny, Iowa) combined to throw a seven inning, 13 strikeout, two-hit shutout.

Burkamper and Brandt followed that gem with nice outings of their own. Brennan Hammer (2013, Cedar Rapids, Iowa) was 2-for-2 with three RBI and Puk tripled and drove in two runs in that win.

"In this group, we've got a ton of arms that you can just throw out there and they'll really compete," James said. "It's just the next guy out there and they know that they've got to do the job, and hopefully they can answer the bell.

"The core group was together last season and we've added some pieces here and there; a lot of arms," he continued. "Everyone's on the same page and we practice three times a week, so that really helps."

Other top guys here for this weekend include Arkansas commit Keaton McKinney (2014, Ankeny, Iowa), the No. 71-ranked national prospect in the 2014 class, and Nebraska recruit Benjamin Miller (2013, Clive, Iowa).

Benich and James have been working with Iowa youngsters for several years now at Perfect Game's indoor facility in Cedar Rapids while also coaching in the Iowa Spring and Fall Wood Bat Leagues. The result is more talent coming out of the Tall Corn State.

"The big thing is (Perfect Game) is starting to get them younger," James said. "The more that Ronnie and myself and some of the other guys (at PG) can get our hands on them and get them guided in the right direction -- it's nothing we're doing crazy, it's just guiding them in the right direction -- and then let their talent and athleticism show."

The PG Iowa Spring and Fall Wood Bat Leagues are the real key. Those leagues, which James runs, allow the prospects to get out and play baseball in a very competitive setting while the rest of the country's high school prospects are playing their school seasons.

"All these kids, they play with and against each other all spring, and they're out playing good competition every weekend for their spring league teams," James said. "Everything we heard from our guys this spring was 'Hey, let's get ready for the fall. I can't wait to play for you guys in the fall.' It's a real exciting thing for us."

Before the team's playoff fate was known, Burkamper, the top-500 prospect from Muscatine and the Nebraska recruit, spoke of his expectations when he arrived in the desert earlier this week.

"The high school season is a lot of fun, but here the competition is just a lot (stronger), and I like that part," he said. "We expect to win and there's no doubt in my mind that we can do it. We've just got to perform the way that we can, and if we play like we did today, I have full confidence that we can do it."

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