Sunbelt Classic still big draw for colleges

Posted 6/17/17

College coaches scout the talent at the 23rd annual Sunbelt Classic in McAlester and Atoka, Oklahoma.


Sunbelt Classic a big deal for college recruiters

By Tim Morse

MCALESTER, Oklahoma -- A large contingent of college coaches and recruiters gather in the small seating area behind home plate at Mike Deak Field to watch the baseball games in the 23rd annual Junior Sunbelt Classic.
Although there is a radar clocking each pitcher's speed on top of third base dugout, these coaches don't pull out their radar guns. Instead, they scribble notes on their clipboard.
Coaches from Kansas, Colorado, Air Force, Brigham Young, Hawaii, Mississippi State, Tennessee and a wealth of junior college coaches watch Team Georgia meet Team Texas in one of 10 games played during a six-day span.
National championship coach Tim Corbin oif Vanderbilt is a regular here. So is Auburn coach Butch Thompson.
These coaches don't have any complaints about recruiting travel ball showcases. However, they annually attend the Sunbelt Classic to scout the talent.
Rusty McNamara was the MVP of the 1993 Sunbelt Classic and is now an assistant coach at Hawaii. He knows the amount of quality players the Sunbelt Classic brings in each year.
"Too many times when we go out and recruit, we're watching showcase ponies," McNamara said. "I'm sure a lot of these kids have partaken in that type of stuff, but to see them come together as a state, as a unit and just go out and compete and try to win a ball game here, you see a lot more intensity out of the players.
"There is a little more emotion and I think it gives you a better feel for what they are like as a baseball player and how they handle the adversity and how they handle success. Sometimes I think you go out to Arizona to these showcases where there are just 100 games going on at once and you don't really see the excited emotion and the success, and you don't really see the guys have to deal with the adversity because there are no stats, no records. It's just here's my tools and ability."

Professional stars have played in tournament

The Sunbelt Classic helped a number of Georgia players gain notoriety. Former Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann played in the tournament, as well as All-Star catcher Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants. Former Lowndes High star Stephen Drew and former Calhoun infielder Charlie Culberson, both in the majors, played in the tourney.
Former Oconee County standout Adam Frazier said he owes a lot of his success to Team Georgia. Frazier, now starting at second base for the Pittsburgh Pirates, played in the Sunbelt Classic as a junior.
He got noticed by Thompson, then an assistant at Mississippi State, in the 2009 tounament. Frazier played in Starkville, Miss., then got drafted in the sixth round in the 2013 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft.
He made his debut with the Pirates in the summer of 2016.
“When we were out there, there was anywhere from 30-50 schools watching every game,” Frazier said. “Would I do it again? Absolutely. I can't tell you enough about what playing for Team Georgia did for me. I was certainly blessed to be a part it.”
A handful of Major League Baseball's young players also played in McAlester. Former Appling County star Byron Buxton is now playing for the Minnesota Twins. So is former Heritage-Conyers standout Tyler Austin, who made his debut with the New York Yankees in 2016.
And former Loganville power-hitter Clint Frazier, who is one of the Yankees' top farm prospects, played in the Sunbelt Classic.
"This is a good event to cover," said Kansas assistant coach Ryan Graves, who estimates he has signed more than 10 players from the Sunbelt Classic.
"You get to see them for seven days ... you get to see them in several games. You get to see them against high-caliber arms. When you go to some of those national showcases, you may see a couple of at bats and you don't get to see those kids game after game. It's a good chance to see them game after game and I like to see them play for something. When you are watching arms, you're watching people get outs. In the travel ball deal, they may be in there for two innings to try and light up a (radar) gun."

Getting offers

Team Georgia finished fifth in the 10-team tournament in 2017. However, a wealth of players received college offers. Charlton County pitcher Jack Gowen had received offers from in-state schools such as Mercer, Georgia State and Georgia Southern. After his performance in a loss to Team Texas, he added several more offers, some from as far away as Kansas and Hawaii.
Colquitt County infielder Gavin Patel didn't have any offers before attending the Sunbelt Classic. After his early play in the tournament, Patel had a handful of offers.
But McNamara, who played collegiately at Oklahoma State and spent time in the Phillies and Braves' organizations, said he likes the concept of players playing for a team rather than playing for themselves.
"You're playing for something, you're playing for a group of guys," McNamara said. "I think it's kind of a no-brainer to come out here. But I understand what families think, what finances they pay with all the showcase stuff.
"But take a two-week break out of that for what I find to be more real and invaluable. There are college coaches out here for a reason. We're looking for players and we want real players who can compete. And that's hard to find in a lot of places and for people to understand, 'Can a kid compete?' "
Newnan High's Will Wilbanks liked the opportunities the Sunbelt Classic presented.
"It's some of the best talent I've ever played against," he said. "There are a bunch of scouts here. I really recommend it."
While the week may be grueling for players and coaches, the exposure is invaluable.
"The biggest thing was our kids had a chance to come out here and perform in front of a lot of good competition," said Bowdon coach Todd Eubanks, one of five who coached Team Georgia in 2017.
"We have several kids leaving who have scholarship offers from some major schools that they didn't have before. It was a great opportunity for them, great opportunity for our state to display the talent we have. So all in all, it was a good week for us."