Tournaments : : Story
Friday, January 18, 2013

Fun time in the sunshine

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- As an early morning chill slowly left the desert air at the Camelback Ranch Complex in this west Phoenix suburb, NorCal Baseball Cardinal head coach Sal Vaccaro couldn't help but smile as he watched his 16u team get ready to play.

"They're already having fun," said Vaccaro, who has been a coach in the Pleasanton, Calif.-based NorCal Baseball organization for eight years. "It's 8:20 (a.m.) -- 7:20 to them because we're an hour ahead down here in Arizona -- and they're already having fun, they're getting along, they're yakking and laughing and working hard and enjoying each other. So everything's good."

The NorCal Baseball Cardinal are one of 16 teams competing this weekend at the 2nd annual 16u Perfect Game MLK Championship, which began its four-day run Friday morning. The 12-team 18u PG MLK Championship and 16-team 14u PG MLK Championship also kicked off Friday morning, with all three tournaments being played at beautifully designed Camelback, the Cactus League spring training home of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox.

The NorCal Baseball organization, founded by Rob Bruno in 1992, has three teams here this weekend: two in the 16u PG MLK and one in the 14u event.

The NorCal Baseball Cardinal 16u team consists almost entirely of prospects in the class of 2015, while the 20-man NorCal Baseball Black 16u roster includes six 2015s and 14 2016s. The NorCal Baseball squad playing in the 14u PG MLK Championship features a roster  that is almost exclusively 2017s (eighth-graders).

"We missed this (event) last year and we felt like it would be a great opportunity to get in front of all of the Perfect Game (scouts)," Bruno said Friday morning while watching the NorCal Cardinal play its opener while his other two squads prepared for theirs. "It's a great opportunity to present our players to Perfect Game and also get the kids ready for (their) high school (seasons)."

The NorCal Baseball Cardinal has more than a dozen 2015 prospects that are receiving a great deal of interest from NCAA Division I programs, although none have made commitments.

The top guy is outfielder/first baseman/third baseman Jonathan Engelmann, a 6-foot-4, 195-pound high school sophomore from San Mateo, Calif., ranked 54th nationally in the class of 2015. This is Engelmann's second PG event, having played with NorCal Baseball at last summer's 15u Perfect Game World Series.

James Dawson Terrell III, a 6-0, 150-pound outfielder/shortstop out of Fairfield, Calif., is ranked as a "high follow" in the class of 2015. Terrell is playing in his third PG event, having also played in the 15u PG World Series and attending the 2012 California Underclass Showcase.

"This is one of the better groups we've had in the last three or four years," Vaccaro said. "NorCal's legacy is that they generally get some of the best players in northern California and often throughout the western United States."

One of the top prospects on the 14u team is right-hander Darren Nelson, a 6-foot-6, 190-pound eighth-grader (yikes!) who will be a freshman at Granite Bay (Calif.) High School in the fall of 2013. Nelson is making his PG debut, so PG scouts will be getting their first looks at him this weekend.

Both Bruno and Vaccaro praised the scheduling of the PG MLK Championships. The high school season for the players from northern California -- which is where most of the NorCal players are from -- starts annually on the first Monday in February.

"It's really nice to get down here in the warmer weather, but it's really to just give these guys a good opportunity to go out and compete and get ready for their high school season; it's like one final tune-up," Vaccaro said. "Also, we're adding a few new guys and this builds a little more camaraderie and just 'team' stuff.

"They all play on different high school teams ... so it will put them a little bit ahead of the curve," he continued. "A lot of them have spots already on the varsity, but some of them are going to have to go out and compete (for a spot). They'll be a little bit more ready to compete; a little bit more ready to perform for their high school coach right off the bat. They'll get a chance to impress their high school coaches."

"This is absolutely perfect," Bruno echoed. "It gets them ready, it gets them in the right frame of mind, and you come down here to Arizona with perfect weather with great teams, great venues and a great organization putting it on. It gives our kids an opportunity to really figure out how they match up."

Ever since its inception 22 years ago, NorCal Baseball has always taught its young prospects the importance of giving 100 percent and playing the game the right way. The program also teaches respect -- for your teammates, your opponents and the game itself.

"The worst thing that anybody can ever say about you is that you're a bad teammate," Vaccaro said. "So our thing is be a great teammate, work hard and understand that winning is a byproduct of the effort that we put in off the field. We tell them to go out and compete. Compete, compete, compete and the winning portion of it will take care of itself. And again, it's just to get them together and emphasize the team aspect."

The NorCal Baseball Cardinal opened tournament play with a 7-0 win over the Pilots 16u Red out of nearby Surprise, Ariz. The opening win will further certify the Cardinal's status as a favorite coming into the 16u event.

"You always want to win, but you also always want to see how the guys improve from game one to the end," Bruno said. He added that the two older teams are missing a couple of their top pitchers who had been shut down for the winter.

"Next year, we're going to make it so that they know way in advance that this is something we're going to be doing," he said. "We're going to put this on our calendar and they'll figure that into play and be ready to go for this."

NorCal Baseball has a rich tradition of fielding national championship-caliber teams with PG All-American-caliber players. The organization can boast of prominent alumni such as big-leaguers Jimmy Rollins, Pat Burrell and Troy Tulowitzki, among several others.

"I absolutely love where the organization is at," Bruno said. "We pride ourselves on our tradition."

He noted that the Philadelphia Phillies' Rollins on Thursday was named the starting shortstop for the USA team at the upcoming World Baseball Classic. "Jimmy represents everything that NorCal strives to be -- a class young man who plays the game the right way."

Several dozen young NorCal Baseball prospects are just starting their journeys to a destination that they hope mirrors those of the big-leaguers mentioned above. Vaccaro and Bruno both feel they have their young prospects in the right place to begin that journey.

"We always like PG events," Vaccaro said. "We've been to East Cobb (Ga.) where we've played in the World Wood Bat (WWBA). We've done pretty well in Perfect Game (tournaments) and we think they're just great."

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