HOUSTON – Baton Rouge, La.- based Marucci Elite Baseball, under the guidance of high school national team director and erstwhile head coach Chad Raley, has enjoyed a nice ride to national prominence and relevance over the last seven or eight years. Elite won back-to-back PG WWBA Underclass World Championships in 2010 and 2011 and capped it with the PG WWBA World Championship in 2011, among several other noteworthy PG tournament titles.
With Raley still playing a prominent role, the organization has now created Marucci Elite Houston and is operating out of the city’s historic Baseball USA facility. And on Friday night Marucci Elite Houston, with a roster comprised of top class of 2014 and 2015 prospects from Texas and Arkansas, opened play at this year’s PG WWBA South Qualifier.
This weekend’s 4th annual (sixth overall) PG WWBA South Qualifier kicked-off quietly with just six games Friday night: four at the Premier Baseball of Texas in facility in Tomball and two here at the Baseball USA complex.
Sixty-four games are on Saturday’s schedule and 62 more on Sunday’s at 11 venues sprinkled around the Houston metropolitan area; the semifinals and championship game are scheduled for Monday morning at Baseball USA. The event champion is awarded an expense-paid invitation to next month’s PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla.
Marucci Elite Houston is being coached this weekend by former big-league first baseman/designated hitter Kevin Witt, who came on board with Marucci Elite Houston last November and serves as the organization’s director of player development; he works with players from 8 years old all the way up to 18. Elite Houston opened play Friday at the South Qualifier with a convincing 9-0 victory over the WBA Senators 18u out of Spring, Texas.
“We’re looking forward to a great weekend and hopefully it’s a long weekend of baseball,” Witt said Friday before his team took the field at the main stadium at Baseball USA. “Some of these guys I’m seeing for the first or second time – there are a few guys that I know. For the most part and from what we’ve gathered, it’s a pretty solid group of guys, but you never know what you’re going to get. We’ll go out see what we’ve got.”
He learned fairly quickly that he will be working with a roster that is deep and talented, even if many of the players are just getting to know one another. Perhaps the most intriguing prospect on that roster is 2015 catcher/outfielder Michael Hickman who, like Marucci Elite, is fairly new to the Houston area.
Hickman, a University of Oklahoma commit ranked the nation’s No. 17 overall prospect (No. 4 in Texas) in his class, was regarded as one of the top prospects in Orange County, Calif., before his family moved to the Houston area last spring. They settled in Katy, Texas, and Hickman has begun his junior year at Seven Lakes High School in Katy.
“I love it here,” he said Friday. “The biggest (adjustment) at first was the weather but other than that, everyone’s nice and there’s good baseball; it’s been great.”
Hickman, who is listed at 6-foot-2, 195-pounds and swings from the left side, began playing for Raley and Marucci Elite this summer after arriving from Fountain Valley, Calif. He was with Marucci Elite at the 17u/18u Perfect Game-East Cobb Invitational in Marietta, Ga., in early June and returned to Marietta in July to play with the Elite at the PG WWBA 17u National Championship.
“There are a lot of good players on this team,” he said. “It’s been a great fit because they’re all strong players who like to win and come out do their thing.”
Another one of Hickman’s stops this summer was at the Perfect Game Junior National Showcase in Minneapolis in mid-June, where he was named to the top-prospect list. PG scouts noted that:
“Hickman may be the strongest player in the 2015 class and it showed when he hit what appeared to be a hard line drive up the right centerfield gap that carried all the way over the wall for a home run. He was solid defensively as well.”
Before moving to Texas from California, Hickman played for the Los Angeles-based Garciaparra Baseball Group (GBG) team that won the title at the 2013 16u Perfect Game MLK Championship in Goodyear, Ariz., in January. He was named to the event’s all-tournament team. He previously played in 2012 for the OC Red Sox Scout Team at the PG/EvoShield National Championship (Upperclass) and for the Hard 9 at the PG/EvoShield National Championship (Underclass). He was also a participant at the 2012 PG National Games, an underclass showcase event held annually in San Diego.
“I’ve seen Michael a lot in the cage; he comes up here and hits quite often,” Witt said Friday. “Michael’s got a great swing and we’re just trying to get that consistency out of him a little bit more. He’s a catcher who can play the outfield and it remains to be seen as to which position he ends up at. He’s got a great swing from the left side, but again, we need to work on being a little bit more consistent.”
This Marucci Elite Houston roster features four other prospects that have committed to NCAA Division I programs, including right-hander Andy Pagnozzi and shortstop Drew Tyler, junior-class teammates at Fayetteville (Ark.) East High School.
Pagnozzi, an alumnus of the PG Junior National Showcase like Hickman, is ranked 112th nationally in the 2015 class (No. 1 in Arkansas) and has committed to Ole Miss.; Tyler, Arkansas’s No. 1-ranked shortstop prospect, has committed to the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Left-hander/outfielder Aaron Fletcher (2014, Houston), a top-500 prospect, has committed to the University of Houston and unranked outfielder John Grimsley (2014, Tomball, Texas) is a University of San Diego commit. The right-handed hitting Grimsley led-off Friday’s win with a solo home run to right-center and finished 4-for-4 with an RBI and four runs scored.
Pagnozzi is the son of former big-leaguer Tom Pagnozzi, who played all or parts of 12 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals. Tom is also helping out with Marucci Elite Houston, according to Witt, as is former professional right-hander David Evans, who played 11 seasons in the minor leagues.
Witt was a first-round selection (28th overall) of the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1994 MLB draft right out of a Jacksonville, Fla., high school and played parts of five big-league seasons with the Blue Jays, Padres, Tigers and Devil Rays between 1998 and 2006; he played in all or parts of 12 minor league seasons between 1994 and 2006. He finds these young players – even the most highly regarded like Hickman and Pagnozzi – very receptive to what he has to share with them.
“They’re at the point now where they see they have a chance to make (baseball) their future,” Witt said. “Obviously, since they’re here and playing at this level they want to go on and play college ball and maybe even beyond that and into the pros, so at this point they are very receptive to anybody that wants to help them improve their game.
“We don’t know it all, but we’ve got a little bit of knowledge that we want to pass on to these guys; if they want to play college ball and beyond that, we want to provide that platform for them.”
The Baseball USA facility is used for practice and training Monday Thursday and hosts weekend tournaments throughout the year. The main stadium on the ground, Mendel Field with its artificial turf infield, is also the home field for adjacent Houston Christian High School.
“It’s a dream come true job for me and I’m enjoying every minute of it,” Witt said of his association with Marucci Elite Houston. “Baseball USA has been a landmark in Houston for years, so we’re continuing that tradition, and we were able to better the facility with the help of some partners; it’s been great.”
Now it’s up to the Marucci Elite Houston players to uphold two very strong and historic traditions – those already established but Marucci Elite and Baseball USA. That started Friday night and continues with the goal of playing into Monday morning.
“(My teammates) want to win this thing and so do I, so we’re going to make it happen,” Hickman said.
“Anytime you put a team together for an event like this, you want to win,” Witt added. “I want these guys to be able to showcase their talent … and I want to let them play, but once we get late in a game and it becomes time to drop a bunt down and get a guy over, we’re playing to win; why get in it if you don’t want to win?
“But bottom line it’s about getting these kids ready for the next level and getting them that exposure, and that’s really what I enjoy doing.”