Arizona struggling at Heartland Classic baseball tourney

Team Arizona started strong by crushing Arkansas in the opening game at the Heartland Classic baseball tournament, but quickly lost its mojo and is now on a three-game losing skid.

The annual event in  Oklahoma, which features high school teams from seven states and Canada, provides a stage for some of the country’s best players.  Its participants in the past have included big names in baseball, such as Johnny Damon, Randy Johnson, John Rocker – and even Troy Aikman, who later made his name in football as the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys.

It began back in 1977 as a series between teams from Oklahoma and Carlifornia and evolved into a multi-state affair that changed its name to the Sunbelt Classic in 1989.  Last year, it evolved into the Heartland Classic and opened its rosters to players from all levels in high school; prior to that, it was restricted to recently-graduated seniors.

And each summer, Team Arizona gathers players from high schools around the state and heads to Norman, where volunteers run the tournament and families in the community take the youngsters into their homes and give them a free stay for the week-long event.  It’s that community involvement that makes this tournament so unique.

But it has proven to be a tough place to play in recent years for the kids from the desert.  Last year’s squad, which included players from 18 different high schools, finished in fifth place.

This morning they are just beginning their fifth game, with just the one win under their belts.  They beat Arkansas in Tuesday’s opener, 16-6, but then got blanked by Maryland, 8-0, later in the day.

Yesterday didn’t start out too well, either, as Oklahoma piled up the runs for a 13-5 win.  But they found their footing again in the nightcap, dropping a 3-2 squeaker to Texas, which is in first place in the tourney.

Today’s games are against sixth-place Ohio, the team they had to beat last year in order to finish in fifth place, and then second-place Georgia, which has lost just one game.

They will take on Team Canada for the only game tomorrow, and then playoffs begin first thing Saturday morning.

Last year, Mesquite High School in Gilbert and Canyon del Oro High School from the Tucson area were the only schools that had more than one player on the roster; each had two.  But this time around, neither school is represented on the 20-man roster.

Three schools have multiple players making this trip.   Tatum Hendrix and Tyler Booth, both pitchers, are there representing Millennium HS; Travis Steinheiser (pitcher) and Kyle Young (OF) are from Saguaro HS; and Johnny Pawling (catcher) and Cody Jones (p/inf) represent Boulder Creek HS.

The remaining players include: Julian Sandoval (Queen Creek HS), Joe Luvisi (Notre Dame Prep), Andrew Acosta (Douglas HS), Anthony Balderrama (Mountain Pointe HS), Matt Hobel (Thunderbird HS), Trey Higginbotham (Ironwood Ridge HS), Bryce Greager (Fountain Hills HS), Joey Bielek (Chaparral HS), Nick Johnson (Blue Ridge HS), Hayden Rogers (Mesa HS), Nathaniel Causey (Gilbert HS), Mike Sordia (Cesar Chavez HS), Steven Kane (Sunrise Mountain HS), and AJ Alexander (Salpointe Catholic).

Last year, Team Arizona won five games.  The 2011 edition needs to win-out the rest of the way to get to that mark.

The job begins today with the team from the Buckeye State.