Tournaments : : Story
Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Always chasing a challenge

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- California Club Baseball (CCB) Elite has provided a perfect home for San Francisco Bay-area outfielder Nickolas Oar.

CCB Elite promises to introduce every player involved in the organization to the best competition available while helping that player one day achieve his dream of playing at the collegiate or professional level. Oar, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound 2015 prospect out of Pleasant Hill, Calif., who recently committed to Stanford, only wants to play the best in order to be the best.

CCB and Oar are together this week at the 17u Perfect Game World Series, which showcases 16 of the country's best 17u teams from east to west, north to south. It presents the challenge Oar craves.

"As a ballplayer I just really look for intense competition," he said Wednesday morning from one of the Cleveland Indians spring training practice fields at the Goodyear Ballpark Recreation Complex. "I'll go to Florida, Arizona, Northern California, Southern California, and I just look for good pitching (to face); that's the main thing I'm looking for as a hitter. I just like being challenged."

Oar not only wants to be challenged by the nation's best, he wants to  learn from them, too. It goes back to playing the best in order to be the best.

"As a good ballplayer, surrounding yourself with other good ballplayers can only help you," he said. "It can only help the way you think about the game and your intensity during the game, and it can only make you (develop) habits of good baseball; that's important."

Having spent the last four days in the Valley of the Sun, Oar and his CCB Elite teammates appear to have picked up some pretty good habits. The Elite were beaten by the East Cobb Braves in their tournament opener on Sunday, but a 6-1 win over the Dallas Patriots Wednesday was their fifth straight at the 17u PGWS and secured a spot in Thursday morning's final four.

"It's been like a marathon run out here; I've been calling it the 'Marathon Tournament,'" CCB Elite head program director and head coach Erick Raich said Wednesday. " ... We came in and said, 'Let's just take it a game at a time; we've got nothing to lose. Let's just kind of play our game and see what happens.'"

CCB Elite got a late invitation to the 17u PG World Series and had to scramble to get its team assembled. Raich estimated he traveled with only about 80 percent of his complete roster and is missing a handful of players that have already committed to NCAA Division I schools who had previous obligations this week. Raich kind of likes the way it's turned out, however.

"I think (an  event) like this benefits the guys that aren't committed," he said. "It gets our guys that are uncommitted more playing time, and we have some very good players that are still uncommitted and they're playing very well. It favors those guys, which is better for them in the long run."

California Club Baseball is based in San Jose and draws its players from across the San Francisco Bay Area. The majority of this group has played together throughout their high school years and Raich made no effort to pick up players to fill out his roster for this event.

"It's a good group of kids," he said. "We've kind of got to the point with this program where we want very good players but we want the 'right' player, the guys who can play in our system, guys that I think are just flat-out winners. If you want super-toolsy, showcase guys, maybe we don't have those, but we have guys that just flat-out grind things out and find ways to win."

The Elite certainly made things interesting en route to their 5-1 record (they were scheduled to play their seventh and final pool-play game Wednesday evening). Their five wins came by an average score of just about 5-3 (5 to 3.4 to be exact) and they compiled a .245 team batting average in their six games. Eight pitchers combined to allow 13 earned runs in 39 innings (2.33 ERA) with 31 strikeouts and 13 walks.

While those numbers may not appear eye-popping, the clean, disciplined and aggressive way CCB Elite plays the game certainly created nods of approval and soft-spoken comments among the scouts.

"We've been playing great collectively, and it's fun to play together and win some ballgames," 2014 CCB Elite middle-infielder Brett Rasso from San Francisco said. "It's fun to see great competition, all these close ballgames, all these nail-biters; we just hope to come out on top.

"We're a little scrappy ballclub from one general area in California; we just scrap it out and play baseball the fun way," Rasso continued. "It's our mentality to come out here and compete and win some ballgames against some great clubs."

With its wins over nationally acclaimed programs like the San Diego Show, Marucci Elite and the Dallas Patriots, CCB Elite is proving it belonged in this tournament from the get-go.

"We want our guys to play aggressive and attack the game," Raich said. "We're going to make aggressive mistakes; we just don't want to play passive. The biggest thing we try to say is put pressure on teams, try to make them have to get you with something out of their comfort zone to beat you not only as a player but  as a team."

Oar and third baseman/outfielder Luke Rasmussen (2014, Los Gatos, Calif.) are enjoying tournaments that will warrant heavy consideration when the all-tournament team is named sometime next week.

Through the first six games, Oar went 8-for 14 (.571), with a home run, six RBI, four runs scored and a 1.452 OPS. Rasmussen was 7-for-14 (.500) with a triple, six RBI, two runs and a 1.254 OPS. Lucas Halstead, a top 500-ranked (No. 94 in California) prospect from Alamo, Calif., who has committed to the University of Pacific, was hitless in nine official at-bats but had drawn six walks, good for a .400 on-base percentage.

Rasmussen is playing in his second PG event (he and CCA Elite were at the PG WWBA 17u National Championship in Marietta, Ga., a couple of weeks ago) while this is Oar's first PG tournament. They've already learned that the key to success at a tournament of this caliber is having your teammates' backs.

"We've been playing all summer and we're getting real close and we knew we could eventually break through," Rasmussen said. "We're kind of learning our (individual) games and we're really coming together. We're very loose and we really love each other and we always pick each other up when we make mistakes. You're going to make errors and you can't just put your head down, you've just got to keep moving on; that's why I think we're doing well in this tournament."

Added Oar: "The team has really bonded, the team has had great chemistry -- we're not an 'I' team, were a 'We' team -- and we play for each other. That, I think, is huge. ... It's just something that we really preach and it's been awesome."

Raich is an associate scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers and has coaching experience at both the high school and collegiate levels. He is proud of the mini win-streak his team got on at the 17u PGWS but won't allow his team to dwell on those successes -- or, for that matter, any losses that might pop up along the way.

"We never talk about winning and losing -- ever," he said. "There are some programs out there that winning is everything -- they could play and lose and they're (hacked) off. For us, we just say, 'Let's be good at what's in our control -- pitchers, throw the ball over the plate, change your speeds; when the ball's put in play, play catch; offensively, just have good at-bats.'

"We just basically talk about doing the good things that are in our control. If you do that the majority of the time you should probably win if you do what's in your control."

CCB Elite has controlled its own situation to the point where it is guaranteed a seat at Thursday morning's playoff table-for-four, regardless of how their final pool-play game against the South Florida Elite Squad-Louisville Slugger (4-1-1) ends up. The Elite Squad will be trying to grab the second semifinal berth out of this tournament's Pool A.

However the final chapter of the story is written, this has been a fun ride for CCB Elite.

"It's always fun to play the best and beat the best. Almost everyone here plays with a ton of effort and they give everything, and it's really fun," Rasmussen said.

"The pitching and the whole competition has been really, really high-end," Oar concluded. "The type of game, the intensity, has been really up there. I haven't really seen this (level) in intensity at any other tournament, ever."

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