Heartland Baseball Classic awaits top AZ prep players

One of the signs has arrived to let us know that high school summer baseball is officially here.

Calls are going out in Norman, Okla., for more families to help host players at this year’s Heartland Baseball Classic, which provides a stage for some of the country’s best prep players.

Each summer, high school baseball players are selected from schools around the state to form Team Arizona, which then packs up and heads to Norman to compete against some of the best players in the country.

As the event draws to within days of starting, event organizers are appealing to the local families by expressing a “desperate” need for more host homes this year.  But this isn’t the first time it has come down to crunch time as the large influx of athletes begins to pour into Norman.

Last year the tournament featured teams from seven different states and Canada.  This year’s field includes squads from Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas.

The unique part of this tournament is that volunteers run the program and families in the community take the athletes into their homes and give them a free stay for the week-long event.  Each host family generally takes in a couple of players, provides them with meals, and then transports them to their games.

This year, the tournament will run from June 19 through June 23, played at three different high school fields in the Norman area.  It will kick off with opening ceremonies and a home run derby the night before the games begin.

The tournament began in 1977 as a series between teams from Oklahoma and California and evolved into a multi-state event.  In 1989, it was re-named the Sunbelt Classic and then, in 2010, it evolved into the Heartland Classic and invited high school players from all levels instead of limiting it to recently-graduated players.

Texas dominated last year’s event, going undefeated through seven games to secure the tournament crown.  Team Arizona finished with a 3-4 record, tied for fourth place with Arkansas.

(*6/24/12 Update:  It was deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once famously said, as Texas rolled again to a 7-0 record for first place, and Arizona finished 3-4, which this time got them a three-way tie for fourth place, with Arkansas and Ohio.  AZ beat Arkansas, 16-7, and lost to Ohio, 5-0.)

And the year before that, the Arizona kids had to settle for a fifth-place finish.  It has been a challenge each year for the Arizona team to work its way through the pack of top players from each state – despite seeing some impressive individual performances.

Steven Kane, from Sunrise Mountain High School in Peoria, stood out last year after hitting a sizzling .571 in 14 trips to the plate, to lead all Arizona hitters.

Kane graduated last year, but Sunrise Mountain hasn’t skipped a beat without him.  They finished the 2012 season with a 25-7 overall record, after going 26-6 the year before, and were 16-1 in conference and ranked No. 8 in the state.

Anthony Balderrama also won’t be back to help out Team Arizona this year.  The utility player from Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix hit .545 last year, getting six hits in 11 times at bat.

And Nathaniel Causey will also be missed.  The all-around player who could catch, pitch, or step in at third base hit .381 in 21 trips to the plate last year – and then was named Home Run Champion after hitting six in seven games.

Causey and Kane were the only Arizona players named to the All-Tournament team.

Team Arizona will kick off play with a 3:30 pm game against Oklahoma on the 19th, followed by an evening match-up with Texas.

Rosters for this year’s Arizona squad haven’t been posted yet, but last year 17 different schools were represented, with Millennium, Boulder Creek, and Saguaro each sending two.

There is a solid pool of talent to draw from following the 2012 season.  Hopefully, they will all have temporary homes again this year as more host families answer the call.