Jeff Dahn - Perfect Game

GOODYEAR, Ariz. – It’s tempting to look at the roster of California Baseball Academy (CBA) Marucci that’s here for this weekend’s Perfect Game/EvoShield National Championship (Upperclass) tournament and wonder if the team didn’t arrive in the Valley a week too late.

CBA Marucci is, for all intents and purposes, an underclass team with only two 2014s (high school seniors) on the 18-man roster with the rest being 2015s. It’s a team that would have seriously contended for last week’s PG/EvoShield National Championship (Underclass) crown, but since so many of the prospects from this group have already committed to colleges, CBA co-director and CBA Marucci head coach Jon Paino decided to take another tact.

He put some of his uncommitted 2015s on another CBA team to play in last week’s Underclass tournament in an effort to get them maximum exposure in front of the college coaching community. He put his committed underclassmen in the Upperclass event to get them ready for play in the prestigious PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., at the end of October.

“We just felt like this would prepare us to go to Jupiter and we just felt it was a better fit for this group,” Paino said Friday from the Goodyear Ballpark Complex before CBA Marucci played its PG/EvoShield Upperclass opener. “We’re really, really looking forward to this event, and then on to Jupiter.”

There are nine prospects on the CBA Marucci roster – all 2015s – that have already committed to NCAA Division I colleges, although not all of them made the trip. There are also five players ranked in the top 151 of the class of 2015 national rankings, although right-hander Austin Moore (2015, Huntington Beach, Calif.), ranked No. 44, and corner infielder Tyler Nevin (2015, Poway, Calif.), ranked No. 124 and a UCLA commit, are among the absent.

One of the leaders of this group is Chris Betts, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound left-handed swinging catcher from Long Beach, Calif., who is ranked the No. 15 overall national prospect in the 2015 class. A University of Tennessee recruit, Betts is the No. 2-ranked catching prospect in the country in his class, and he’s been enjoying his time playing with this cast of very talented characters.

“It’s always fun to come out here,” he said. “Perfect Game always puts on good tournaments and brings good teams out here; it’s great competition. We’ve all been playing together since were younger – 10 or 11 – and this is the same team we took out to Georgia where we had a great time and we finished pretty well out there. I don’t expect anything less out here; I think we have a chance to win this.”

The other top players (all 2015s) include right-hander/outfielder Kyle Molnar from Aliso Viejo, Calif. (a UCLA commit, ranked No. 8 nationally) and third baseman Niko Navarro from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. (San Diego State, No. 151).

Middle-infielder Bryce Fehmel (Agoura, Calif.) is an Oregon State commit; outfielder Steven Elliott (Alta Loma, Calif.) has committed to UC Santa Barbara; left-hander Kolby Allard (San Clemente) is headed for Cal State Fullerton; lefty Bailey Falter is a UC Santa Barbara commit; and left-hander Kyle Robeniol an Oregon recruit.

“The majority of us have committed somewhere and we’ve all put in the time and effort together,” Betts said. “To see all of us kind of get a payoff for it is really nice to see; it’s always good to see your buddies do well. It’s awesome to win and everything but you’re trying to showcase your talents and abilities. Whoever does the best and does well will get it, and we’re all pretty good at that.”

Just in its first year of existence, the California Baseball Academy (CBA) has already established itself as an organization that is going to send teams to Perfect Game tournaments that are able to compete at the highest level.

Back in July, Marucci CBA advanced to the playoffs and finished with a 5-1 record at the rain-soaked PG WWBA 17u National Championship in Marietta, Ga. Earlier this month, the CBA Warriors 15u and CBA Marucci 17u won championships at the inaugural Perfect Game SoCal Super25 Qualifier in Anaheim.

And just last weekend, CBA Marucci 2016 and CBA Victory each won their pools and advanced to the playoffs at the PG/EvoShield National Championship (Underclass) played here in the West Valley. The CBA Rookies, CBA Victory and CBA Warriors join CBA Marucci here this weekend.

“We’ve won a lot of tournaments together and we’ve enjoyed playing together; it’s become like a family,” Navarro, the San Diego State recruit, said of CBA Marucci. “We’re an energetic team, we love to win and just love to play the best competition. We’ve always loved to play ‘up’ and it’s always nice getting to play with these guys.

“This group of guys that we have out here … we love each other and we just have a good time playing together.”

Paino and several of his CBA associates were formerly involved with the late Mike Spiers at ABD Baseball. There does seem to be an inherent connection between the two groups, although ABD Baseball is still going strong and has four teams entered in this event, as well.

“We like to call them a ‘slow grinding machine,’” Paino said of CBA Marucci. “They’re not going to get too excited or talk a whole lot; they kind of go about their business professionally and just grind out every game and grind out every tournament that we go to. You’re not going to see me get too fired up with any of these guys – they’ve been playing together for a long time and they know how we do things.

“A lot of them played for Mike Spiers when we were all at ABD and they know what Mike would have wanted; so that’s what we do.”

CBA Marucci won its first two pool-play games at the PG/EvoShield Upperclass, beating Mad Dogs Baseball out of San Diego, 3-0, Friday night and the So Cal Wahoo’s out of Encino, 4-2, Saturday morning. CBA was less than impressive in either victory.

The Maruccis totaled just two hits and all three of their runs were unearned in the win over the Mad Dogs. They did get a fine seven inning, nine-strikeout, four-hitter from left-hander Stephen Young (2014, Mission Viejo, Calif.), one of only two seniors on the roster.

They mustered only five hits in the win over the Wahoo’s, with Jake Ortega (2015, Mission Viejo) collecting two of them. Four CBA pitchers combined on an eight-hitter with nine strikeouts and no walks; left-handed starter Bailey Falter pitched four innings, didn’t allow an earned run on five hits and struck out seven.

“Anytime we come out and play we want to have a good showing and put our best foot forward,” Paino said. “This group, most of them, has been playing together since they were 14 and it’s become like a family. Anytime we get together we obviously want to win but have a good time in the process, and play the game the way it should be played.”

Because the core of this group has played together for at least three years, there is a sense of familiarity – and a sense of family – many other teams here this weekend can’t possibly experience.

“They know what each other is going to do before it happens,” Paino said. “It’s really a good thing for me as a coach when you’ve worked with kids and prepared them in middle school to see everything come to fruition now as older high school players. With Niko Navarro and Bryce Fehmel playing the left side of the infield, they know what each other are going to do before it happens.”

Paino also spoke highly of Betts’ abilities behind the plate:

“Chris Betts commands the pitching staff,” he said. “He calls all the pitches – I may have to guide him every now and then – but by and large now, he’s the general and he runs things. As a coach, it’s a great place to be.”

Watching the progression of these young prospects has been especially rewarding for Paino, although everyone realizes they still have a lot of work to do. Paino can most look forward to the future, knowing he will have this group not only through this fall, but through the summer of 2014, as well.

And he can also rest assured in the knowledge that the players are also set on improving their games as they enjoy their last two years of high school.

“I’ve been extremely happy with how much I’ve progressed but I’m definitely not content with where I am,” Betts said. “I still have a lot of room to improve on a lot of different things and I’m excited to see how well I can improve on those things.”

“I’m always trying to get better in the cages every single day of the week, trying to get better with my swing,” Navarro said. “I work defensively taking extra ground balls and just trying to get better every day.”

And, despite their successes to date, they won’t stand on their laurels.

“It’s been fun and everything; we’ve come a long way,” Betts said. “All of our guys have jelled really well together and we’re all the best of buds; it’s awesome playing with all these guys. We come out expecting to win everything. We have the right guys and we have the right coach, and he does a great job with all of us. If we do our job we can easily win (this tournament).”

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