GLENDALE, Ariz. – The players, coaches and families associated with the Vadnais Heights-based Minnesota Blizzard Elite Baseball organization have never had to come up with reasons to play hard and with a sense of joy, especially when their teams are playing under the sunshine in the Arizona desert.
Blizzard Baseball Academy owner and coach/instructor Adam Barta has brought teams to the Perfect Game MLK Championships for the past four years and has five in attendance this weekend, including the Minnesota Blizzard 2016 and Minnesota Blizzard 2017 at the 5th annual PG MLK West Upperclass Championship. The MN Blizzard Blue advanced to the final four of last year’s PG MLK Upper tournament.
Friday morning, at the Camelback Ranch Complex, Barta was with his Blizzard 2016 team as it prepared to open tournament play against the Canada-based IP Academy Prospects. The early morning temperature sat stubbornly in the low 40s, but compared to the sub-zero temperatures the Blizzard had left behind in the Twin Cities area, this felt like beach weather.
“(2016 prospect) Ryan Thompson just said, ‘I don’t care if it’s this cold, I can see the grass, I can see the mountains, there’s no snow on the ground – we’re ready rock,’” Barta told PG. And they’re ready to rock – to play hard and with a sense of a joy – for a reason that only can be described as tragic.
They’ll play with a heavy heart and an added zeal for both the game of baseball and living life to the fullest. The Blizzard, Barta shared with PG, had just recently lost one of their own.
On Dec. 4, Blizzard outfielder John Price IV was tragically killed in a traffic accident near his Lakeville, Minn., home. He was a senior at Lakeville South High School, a standout athlete excelling in football, hockey and outdoor winter sports, but especially in baseball – he was being recruited by several NCAA Division I schools – and was a beloved member of the Minnesota Blizzard Baseball family; John Price IV was 18 years old.
2017 right-handed pitcher and outfielder Sam Carlson from Savage, Minn., is a junior at Burnsville High School, a University of Florida recruit and the most highly ranked (No. 13 nationally) and regarded prospect on the Blizzard 2016 roster. Although he and Price did not attend the same high school, Carlson felt a profound sense of loss with Price’s passing.
“He was one of my best buddies; I went and hit with him every day after school,” Carlson told PG Friday. “We’re playing for him and we’re just trying to have a blast because that kid just went 100 percent all the time; he had fun with everything he was doing.”
Carlson hesitated for a couple of seconds before continuing: “I had never met a kid who had the same drive that I did,” he said. “It seemed like no one else wanted to work as hard as I did and he was in there every day. We came down to tournaments and I’d hit ‘3’ and he’d hit ‘4’ and he’d say, ‘Get on for me and I’m going to hit a bomb for you.’ He was just a great guy and we want to live it up for him.”
And so the stage was set for what the Minnesota Blizzard 2016 – and four other Blizzard teams, for that matter – hope will be rollicking good times here in the chilly Valley of the Sun over the next four days. Things sure started out well enough for this group.
2017 right-hander Michael Jensen and 2016 righty Willem Aldrich combined on a six-inning, one-hit, 12-strikeout shutout in the 8-0 tournament-opening win over the IP Academy Prospects. Jensen, a 6-foot-5, 205-pound Oklahoma signee from Eden Prairie, Minn., used a 90 mph fastball to no-hit the Prospects through four innings, striking out nine and walking four; Aldrich allowed one hit and struck-out three without a walk in two innings.
Carlson doubled, drove in a run and scored run. Cal Kellner, Trevor Moses and Nicholas Novak – all 2016s from Minnesota high schools – each tripled, drove in a run and scored a run. It was a scoreless game until the Blizzard 2016 pushed across seven runs in the bottom of the fourth and won it on the run-rule with a single tally in the bottom of the sixth.
Each year, the Blizzard teams wrap up their abbreviated fall season with appearances at the PG/EvoShield Upper and Under National Championships played right here in the West Valley. The pitchers are given a two- to three-month break ahead of the PG MLKs when the players start building for their spring high school seasons, which begin in mid-March.
There are a handful of these Blizzard players that are involved in a winter sport – Barta encourages them to do so if they’d like – but the baseball-only guys spend the winter months taking a deep breath and working out on conditioning and arm strength; there is also a lot of work done in the batting cages.
The pitchers don’t really begin working off the mound again until mid-December and even then they will throw no more than four bullpens before arriving here. Barta keeps them on a strict 75 pitch-count at the MLKs.
“In Minnesota, you’ve got to get over to the Academy and hit and throw and find other ways to become a better baseball player,” he said. “They’re in the cages every day and that’s how they get ready. This is the first time they’ve been outside since the middle of September or the beginning of October. I’d say practically 100 percent of our guys are just getting bigger, faster, stronger during these 2 ½ months.
“They certainly have baseball activities with lessons and Blizzard practice but when March 15 starts with their high school seasons they’re 100 percent ready to rock.”
Carlson agreed: “In a way, I guess you could say this is a stepping stone to the high school season but we come down here to win baseball games,” he said. “We bring the talent and we’re trying to do our best to bring this thing home. The Blizzard has never taken home (a championship) from such a big tournament and we’d just like to be the first.”
This is an experienced team and five members, including Carlson and Moses, were named to either the 18u (now Upperclass) or 16u (now Underclass) all-tournament teams at last year’s PG MLK Championships.
Twelve roster members have made college commitments, including Carlson’s to Florida and Jensen’s to Oklahoma. 2016 right-hander/middle-infielder Ryan Thompson from Byron, Minn., and 2017 left-hander/outfielder Ryan Duffy from South St. Paul, Minn., have signed with/committed to the Big Ten’s Illinois and Minnesota, respectively.
Carlson committed to the head coach Kevin O’Sullivan and the 2016 PG preseason No. 1-ranked Florida Gators, following in the footsteps of former Blizzard pitcher Logan Shore, the Gators’ PG Preseason All-American and Friday night starter. Shore proved to be Carlson’s connection to Sully and the Gators’ program.
“(The Gators’ coaching staff) came and watched me and they like what they saw,” Carlson said. “I went on my visit and it was just the place for me; I wanted to be there. It fit me in the classroom and on the field and just felt like I really developed as a player down there.”
One of the most satisfying benefits the Arizona experiences have produced for the Blizzard players is exposure, which makes them feel they are on more of an equal footing with their opponents.
The kids from Minnesota use to look across the diamond and see all these prospects in the other dugout with commitments to schools like UCLA, Florida State and Florida and appeared a little wide-eyed. That’s not the case any longer.
As the players have gotten better and are being recognized and rewarded for their skills, expectations have also risen. Blizzard teams have reached the semifinals at numerous Perfect Game tournaments but just haven’t been able to make that final leap into the championship game.
“There’s a lot to be said for experience,” Barta said. “Before it was just the (enjoyment) of being down here at a younger age but now it’s, ‘Hey, we want to win it.’ The first goal is to win our pool, and the second goal is to win the first playoff game and then the second one and go from there.”
The Minnesota Blizzard 2016 and the other four Blizzard teams competing this weekend are here in search of a level of competition they aren’t always able to find back home in Minnesota. The state certainly produces its share of high-level prospects but they aren’t as concentrated as they will be at Camelback Ranch this weekend.
“We want to face the best, we want to beat the best,” Carlson said, “and along with these great fields and a great tournament put on by Perfect Game, it’s just a blast.”
Going out and having a blast is what is at the forefront of the Blizzard 2016’s collective mind this weekend. It is, when all is said and done, the only thing John Price would expect of his teammates. Looking back on the young man’s untimely death, Barta only hopes that whatever his players experience over the next three or four days resonates in their personas even more keenly than ever before.
“I think one of the biggest things they will take away from this is their relationships with their teammates and not to take anything for granted,” he said. “I know sometimes that sounds cliché but in this situation specifically it applies.
“They’re out there right now without their four-hole hitter and their right fielder, and that’s what they’re going to take away – the experience with their teammates and then playing baseball.”
Carlson took a deep breath and looked straight ahead out onto one of Camelback’s beautifully manicured fields.
“I just try to get better every day,” he concluded. “I learned from my buddy that you never know what day could be your last and I just want to play like every day is going to be my last. I want to have fun out here and live it up, just like he did.”