By Tiffany Seal, Perfect Game USA | Perfect Game Story Link
The University of Kentucky and the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League have a relationship spanning the seven years the PGCBL has been a destination for collegiate summer baseball. Beginning with the Amsterdam Mohawks, Kentucky’s former head coach Gary Henderson’s son, Alex, played for Amsterdam in 2005, starting one of the most prevalent relationships between school and summer team in Perfect Game League history.
“Typically we get their best freshman,” said Amsterdam president Brian Spagnola. “Gary came up a couple times to visit and liked how we took good care of the kids, and started sending some of his better guys here.”
Once the connection was formed, the Mohawks have since received over 10 Kentucky players, including Logan Darnell, current Major Leaguer Luke Maile, Chris Bisson, Chandler Shepherd, Kyle Barrett, JaVon Shelby, Riley Mahan, Zach Logue and a handful of other Wildcats.
The relations between Kentucky and the PGCBL soon spread, as Kentucky’s former assistant and current Mississippi State volunteer coach, Mike Brown, coached in Amsterdam during the 2013 season and took to the atmosphere in Elmira. Elmira has since reaped the benefits by receiving several notable Kentucky players, including 2017 SEC Pitcher of the Year Sean Hjelle.
Hjelle posted a 3-1 record in eight starts with a 3.06 ERA over 44 innings for the 2016 Elmira Pioneers. The 6-foot-11 righty struck out 42 and gave up just one run and eight hits in his last three appearances, while striking out 23 in 24 innings. He topped off his summer throwing a complete-game shutout in the PGCBL playoffs, giving up two hits and striking out six.
“For me, my favorite part of the experience were the fans in Elmira,” said Hjelle. “I thought they were awesome. We had at least 2,000, if not 2,500 people a night, and they were just excited to be at the ballpark and hang out with their family and just watch a baseball game.”
During the 2016 summer, Hjelle was joined by teammates Storm Wilson and Zeke Lewis in Elmira, with Austin Keen pitching for Amsterdam. While the development on the field preceded one of the most dominant campaigns on the mound for any college pitcher in 2017, the relationships formed with players from across the country were just as much a part of the overall experience for Hjelle.
“I still talk to a fair amount of guys from that team. I grew close with a couple guys from Wofford, and coach Hill keeps in contact and sends me messages and congratulations every once in while. So just having those relationships in the future, that’s why you do it.”
From a developmental standpoint, the pitchers in Elmira had the opportunity to learn from one of the best, in head coach coach Matt Burch, who was a first-round pick of the Kansas City Royals in 1998 out of Virginia Commonwealth University.
“For me [it was about] enjoying the experience and taking in different perspectives, pitching especially, with coach Burch up there,” said Hjelle. “He was a big pitcher back in his day, and knows a lot about pitching. And also just talking with players and their approach, which may be different than yours, and just trying to learn and key off that. There’s just so many different minds up there, and going back and taking that all in and just trying to make it unique to yourself, and going out there and taking what you learned, and making the best of it [is what I wanted to do].”
A little help from an intricate college coaching web, starting with John Cohen’s coaching tree, has since spread the Perfect Game League name around the SEC, leading to more players from Auburn and Mississippi State, with Henderson now the pitching coach for the Bulldogs.
Coaching changes have also further strengthened the relationship the PGCBL has with Kentucky, as former Maryland associate head coach Jimmy Belanger is now the pitching coach at Kentucky—the PGCBL is a long-time recipient of Maryland players.
“They know what we do and how well we take care of the kids,” said Spagnola about the recent influx of Power Five conference players. “Kentucky wanted to continue it, and that’s where we got T.J. Collett this year.”
Sean Hjelle pitched for Elmira in 2016 (Photo: Lexi Woodcock)
“So far I have absolutely loved the program,” said Collett. “It’s a league full of talent that my coaches sent me to. They told me I would get a lot better and grow as a player and grow as a teammate.”
Ranked as the No. 5 catcher and No. 73 overall prospect in the 2016 class by Perfect Game, the catcher/first baseman was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the 40th round coming out of high school, where he finished his senior year hitting .458. Collett decided to forgo the draft and head to Kentucky to play for first-year head coach Nick Mingione.
Going into his freshman season, Collett played in the Pioneer League as the one designated high school senior allowed per roster.
“I think the first thing would be the talent,” said Collett about the perks playing in the PGCBL. “It’s a league that is easy to get better in, because if you don’t play up to the talent, you are going to get exposed really quick. So I think to play against really, really good pitching and defense everyday helps you get better.”
Leading the way for the Mohawks is head coach Keith Griffin, who is going on his ninth year with Amsterdam and was a recommendation by Henderson back in 2009. One of the main points Collett has taken from Griffin and the coaching staff going into the halfway point of the season is how to maintain focus through the 50-game schedule.
“Collegiate summer baseball is a grind, considering how many games you play in how little days, definitely the number one thing they have taught us is to be tough, and each day has to be earned,” said Collett.
Both Amsterdam and Elmira are well known for strong player development. The 2013 West Division Championship for Elmira, and eight titles for Amsterdam are just several indicators of the high-caliber recruitment and coaching staff in place at each program and around the league.
“The prime example would be Zack Brown, who was here in 2014,” said Spagnola. “Zack came here with 10 innings and without a lot of confidence. By the end of the summer, Zack was in the championship up to 97 with a dynamic breaking ball, and went back [to Kentucky] and was their Friday night guy.”
But one of the biggest takeaways players comment on just as much as the stronger, more developed tools they leave with, is what transcends off the field.
“We have a great game atmosphere, we get really good crowds, and kids involved, and it’s just a fun place to play,” said Spagnola. “So I think when you put it all together, it bodes for success.”
The success of the Perfect Game organization attached to the upstate New York summer league only adds to the appeal.
“Especially nowadays kids this age in college have grown up with Perfect Game, so when they see the name, it certainly gives credibility,” said Spagnola. “We’ve been around a long time, and you add that to what we’ve done and the success we’ve had, [it helps].”
Both Hjelle and Collett happen to be two alumnus of Perfect Game, who, unlike most top-ranked prospects did not play their summer ball in the Sunbelt or West Coast but rather, the Midwest.
“For me, I really wasn’t on the showcase [scene] in high school,” said Hjelle. “In Minnesota there isn’t a whole lot of exposure, so being able to go down to Chicago for the Perfect Game ones that I did, and just being able to go down there and get that exposure, was really big for me, and helped get me to where I am today. Without those showcases, you could make the argument that I don’t end up at Kentucky.”
Terre Haute, Indiana-native Collett echoed the same conclusion after traveling down to East Cobb with the Indiana Bulls for the 2013 15u WWBA National Championship.
“I think Perfect Game put me on the map,” said Collett. “It kind of got it all started honestly, because I went to the WWBA my 15u year and I ended up wining MVP of the tournament, and that’s kind of when everything started. I caught the eyes of scouts and caught the eyes of PG and then got ranked. PG did a lot for me, got my whole recruiting process started.”
Collett was later named to the 2015 Perfect Game All-American Classic West team, as one of the top 50 high school seniors nation-wide to partake in the All-Star game at San Diego’s Petco Park.
With both notable alumni, like Hjelle and Collett, as well as newcomers alike, the PGCBL has grown exponentially since its inception in 2010. Looking at a roster from any given team, spectators and scouts are guaranteed to find college baseball’s elite from Dallas Baptist to Florida State represented around the Perfect Game League, embodying the old baseball adage, ‘if you build it, they will come.’
“I’ve learned more in the past few months than I have learned in a long time, so it’s just been a really cool experience,” said Collett. “This coaching staff, I’m already really close with, and I am excited for the rest of the season.”
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