High Heat: March 24

He was just a sophomore in high school, but the groundwork was already laid for this local legend. With his Jackson High Timberwolves facing elimination in the district playoffs, Travis Snider belted a pair of home runs against Edmonds-Woodway High (Edmonds, Wash.).

A year later, he furthered his lore as one of the region’s top power hitters when he smashed “the shot heard ’round the state.”

“Some people called it ‘The Broadway Shot,’ ” said Snider, a 6-foot, 225-pound lefthanded-hitting machine, of one of the more memorable home runs in Everett Memorial Stadium history. Snider rocketed the homer over the netting, well over 450 feet to right-center field, and onto Broadway Avenue.

“One of the Cascade (High) coaches who’s coached at the field for years said he’d never seen a ball hit that far,” Snider recalled of the blast that helped his Mill Creek, Wash., school beat Kamiak High of Mukilteo.

Now Snider, a senior who committed to Arizona State and a first-team preseason All-American, is out to cap his high school career in fitting fashion, and follow in the footsteps of recent suburban Seattle stars.

“He swings it as well as anyone I’ve ever coached in 25 years, and I coached Grady Sizemore with Everett (American) Legion,” said Jackson High coach Kirk Nicholson, who openly compares Snider to the Indians center fielder who blossomed into one of baseball’s most promising position players. “Grady had a little bit better contact than Travis. But Travis has a little more pop than Grady.”

Nicholson ranks Snider, Sizemore and 2002 Jackson graduate Brent Lillibridge, a 2005 fourth-round pick by the Pirates following a standout collegiate career at Washington, as the three best players he’s coached. Like that of those talented hitters before him, Nicholson believes Snider’s future is filled with promise.

“People don’t understand Travis’ power,” Nicholson said. “He doesn’t get to hit good baseballs during practice because we’d lose them all. We bring out the bad baseballs when he hits.”

Snider has been depositing balls deep into the Northwest wilderness long before his days as Jackson’s top hitter. Despite his legendary individual efforts, however, he and his teammates at Jackson High have been unable to replicate the success they achieved as youth players.

Jackson High junior catcher/righthander Kawika Emsley-Pai, senior righthander Cam Nobles and senior first baseman Adam Lind are three of several Jackson players who played alongside Snider on the Seattle Stars as 14- and 15-year-olds. The Stars won consecutive Continental Amateur Baseball Association 15-year-old titles in 2003 and 2004.

As the group headed to high school, they’ve leaned on Snider’s heroics in the postseason, but have come up short of a Washington Class 4-A title. Last season, they went 22-6, but finished third after losing to Sammamish’s Skyline High. The Timberwolves return all but one starter from last season’s squad, boast a roster with 12 seniors and have climbed to No. 7 in the Baseball America/National High School Baseball Coaches poll as the favorite to finally reach their goal of a state championship.

“That’s almost their battle cry,” Nicholson said. “They have played together since they were real little kids and . . . they know this is it.”

“I think the biggest thing is the experience guys on this team have,” Snider said. “Everyone has experience in the state playoffs throughout the club. Plus, we’ve got 10 to 12 guys who’ve been part of national championship teams growing up.

“I think it even goes back to Mill Creek Little League and that we all played together. Winning is something we’re familiar with.”

Snider figures to be a big winner on draft day, too. In a draft class light on hitters, Snider’s sweet swing, sound approach, athleticism and power potential offer a package that major league organizations will have a hard time passing up in the first two rounds of June’s draft.

“I think he’s helped a little bit by the lack of bats in the draft this year,” a scouting director said. “But he has strength that you look for and he makes consistent hard contact. He’s one of the better hitters you’re going to run across in the country.”

Snider also possesses outstanding athletic ability, which scouts point to as a positive factor in his ability to succeed outside of the Pacific Northwest. He was an standout fullback and linebacker on the Jackson’s football team as an underclassman, but an ankle injury during spring practice in 2005 put an end to his football days.

He had a pin removed from the ankle last fall, has recovered well and has his sights set on placing an exclamation point on his legendary high school career.

–MATT MASSEY
Everett, Wash.

Valley Boys

Since Baseball America began compiling high school rankings in 1992, the exercise has proven to be a challenging one. Each year, teams arise from all corners of the country with resumes worthy of consideration, and with so few teams playing each other, gauging which clubs warrant the coveted spots in the poll can be mind numbing.

Teams from California and Arizona will grapple for position with those from New York, Florida, Louisiana, Ohio and elsewhere until a final No. 1 team is crowned in June. Paper wars they are, as coaches and media members try to compare records, rosters and schedules of teams, most of which, will never see a common opponent, much less the same field for a head-to-head contest.

But before teams settle into conference play, the month of March always offers at least a handful of matchups between some of the country’s top teams–meetings that provide the most tangible evidence available of teams’ talent.

Agoura (Calif.) High was not ranked near the top of many statewide and local high school polls in the competitive Southern California prep baseball scene entering the Easton Southern California Showdown. Its No. 3 ranking in the first in-season BA/NHSBCA Top 25, released the eve of the tournament, raised plenty of eyebrows. Skeptics became believers when Agoura breezed through the week-long event, posting victories of 10-4, 10-1 and 3-1 before working over BA’s No. 2 team, El Camino Real of Woodland Hills, Calif., 9-0 in the semifinals.

El Camino sent its ace, senior righthander Eric Pettis, to the hill against Agoura senior righthander Jason Stoffel. Pettis, who committed to UC Irvine, was no stranger to the spotlight. He was the MVP of last year’s California Interscholastic Federation City Section championship game at Dodger Stadium, which El Camino won thanks to his complete game two-hitter against Chatsworth (Calif.) High. This time, however, Agoura junior catcher/righthander Robert Stock greeted Pettis with a home run. Stock, a second-team preseason All-American, tacked on a two-run homer in the third inning, more than enough support for the Arizona-bound Stoffel, who scattered five hits over seven innings.

“We’ve been waiting to play this game all year,” Stock told the Los Angeles Daily News. “We know this tournament is the only time we’ll get to play a team like El Camino or Chatsworth, so we were really looking forward to it.”

Valencia (Calif.) High, which knocked off another ranked team in then-No. 12 Chatsworth in the other semifinal game, could not hold off the Chargers in the championship game. Agoura polished off Valencia 8-4 to claim the tournament title, which jumpstarted its season and vaulted it to the top spot in the current poll.

“A lot of questions were answered, including our hitting,” Agoura coach Scott Deck said. “We have worked very hard in the offseason to develop our hitters. We have used some innovative technology. Their hard work was validated by solid hitting performances.”

Deck helped facilitate the donation of four digital cameras that were mounted in different locations at Agoura’s home field to provide four angles of video footage of hitters, as well as the pitcher’s mound. Deck uses the video to break down his players’ hitting and pitching mechanics following practices and games, something that has helped Agoura gain an advantage.

“I can analyze footage like John Madden, almost like a telestrator,” Deck said. “It has proven invaluable to the development of our players.”

Southern Hospitality

The multi-million dollar homes and cool coastal breeze that serve as the backdrop in the San Fernando Valley aren’t the typical characteristics of LaGrange, Ga., but it was a desired destination for dozens of professional scouts in March, as well. At the same time Agoura was proving its mettle in suburban Los Angeles, an equally talented field of high school teams fought to gain national recognition at the LaGrange Invitational.

The seventh annual event boasted eight teams that compiled a collective record more than 100 games over .500 in 2005, including the final No. 1 team in Russell County High (Seale, Ala.), last year’s second-ranked Nova High (Davie, Fla.) Titans, as well as perennial Peach State powers Parkview (Lilburn), Cartersville, LaGrange and Columbus.

Nova, a public school with an enrollment of 2,100 which has won back-to-back Florida Class 5-A titles, graduated most of the nucleus of last year’s 30-1 club, and was unranked in the 2006 preseason poll. The Titans roster features only one player, senior lefthander/outfielder J.J. Housey, who made an early commitment to a Division I college. But with two former players–Jose Navarro and Jordan Velez–enrolled at Division III LaGrange College, where Nova product Daniel Washburn is the pitching coach, Nova head coach Pat McQuaid figured the trip to Dixie would be a neat reunion, if a long two days on the field.

Instead, Navarro and Velez watched from the stands as the Titans bashed their way to four wins in just over 48 hours and the tournament title.

“With two games on Friday and two on Saturday, I wasn’t sure that we’d be able to compete with the level of teams who were there,” said McQuaid, a 1968 graduate of Nova High who returned to the school and took over as baseball coach four years later. “I thought, ‘We’ll just take the kids up there and see if we’re any good.’ We certainly surpassed my expectations.”

In its opener, Nova trailed Hartselle (Ala.) High 3-1 when it erupted for 13 runs in the sixth inning, and never stopped swinging. The Titans rolled off 8-7 and 10-9 victories, then cruised past Russell County 12-4 in the championship game, completing a four-game streak with 55 hits and 47 runs.

Nova was off to a 14-0 start and debuted in the latest poll at No. 11, territory quite familiar to McQuaid, who has coached each of his last two teams to final top-10 rankings and a 68-4 record.

“The last couple of years, we were legit. We had as good a team as anyone in the country,” McQuaid said. “No one is going to look at this team and think we’re a national power. We’re just small. We’ve got a bunch of 5-(foot)-8 5-foot-9, 145-pound guys. But they’re a bunch of baseball rats . . . guys who just love to compete.”

Senior J.J. Housey, who has committed to Miami, led the not-so-aptly named Titans with a 5-0, 1.53 record, and was batting .450. Senior lefthander/first baseman Randy Withers, who was not even a regular on last year’s squad, had won his first three decisions on the mound and owned a team-high .535 average at the plate. Senior Donny Amos was batting .512-6-20 and leadoff man Kevin Nelson was hitting .429.

With more than 20 years of coaching experience, McQuaid has seen all types of teams come through his program. When asked to describe this club, he searched for the appropriate adjectives before simply saying, “We’re like the Japanese team.”

Much like Japan in the World Baseball Classic, it was the diminutive Nova that stood tall at the LaGrange Classic.

AROUND THE NATION

• Nevada’s high school season started with a marquee matchup of two Las Vegas powers. Silverado High, which debuted at No. 18 in the latest Top 25, split a doubleheader against Sierra Vista High, winning the opener 1-0 and dropping the rematch 7-6.

• Longtime Bishop McGuinness High coach Joe Cook died when he had a heart attack during a game against Mount Saint Mary High. “We were sitting in the dugout together and laughing about something,” said Jerry Williams, a 23-year assistant coach under Cook. “He headed out to coach third and about 10 seconds later he collapses.”

Paramedics arrived quickly, but we unable to revive Cook, 52. According to Williams, Cook had seen a doctor two days prior to his death. “The doctor said he has accumulating fluid around the heart, but the emergency room doctor said that probably was not the cause, that he had a massive coronary.”

Cook was in his 29th season as head coach, all at Bishop McGuiness. He guided the Irish to a state title in 2002, when he was named ABCA coach of the year. He had a career record of 735-349.

“He was my best friend for 28 years,” Williams said. “As far as being a great coach and a great man, he fulfilled all of those.”

• Back trouble that slowed Mills Godwin High (Richmond) senior righthander/shortstop Graham Stoneburner last fall worsened this spring and developed into a stress fracture. Stoneburner was expected to miss two to three months. Mills Godwin coach John Marano said that Stoneburner, who was ranked No. 71 among high school seniors before the season and committed to Clemson, could return in time for the postseason.

• Runs were at a premium in the Citrus Belt League opener between last year’s conference co-champs, Miller (Fontana, Calif.) High and Redlands (Calif.) High. Miller’s A.J. Springer laid down a perfect squeeze bunt that plated the game’s lone run in the bottom of the seventh inning. Redlands senior righthander Kessler Reifel, who has committed to UC Riverside, carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning and struck out 11, only to be bested by Miller senior lefty Robert Fish. Fish surrendered a pair of singles and struck out 15, including eight consecutive Terriers at one point.

• Preseason first-team All-American catcher Hank Conger, a senior from Huntington Beach (Calif.) High hit three home runs during a double header, including a shot off Cypress (Calif.) High senior righthander Michael Morrison, a Cal State Fullerton signee.

• The Indiana high school baseball state finals will return to Victory Field in Indianapolis after a scheduling conflict with the Triple-A Indians forced them to be played in Lafayette in 2005. Last year was the first time the tournament finals were played outside Indianapolis in 30 years.

High School | #2006

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