FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Brett Bello is a 6-foot-1, 175-pound sophomore at Dixon (Calif.) High School who just celebrated his 16th birthday on Thursday. He carries a 4.0 GPA at Dixon High, and his smarts come in handy when he sets up behind the plate to handle his catching duties for the NorCal Baseball team that is competing at this week's 15u Perfect Game World Series.
Arizona State, Oregon State, UCLA and Oregon are among the schools Bello lists as "colleges considering" on his Perfect Game Player Profile. Like all of his teammates on this NorCal team -- there is also a NorCal Baseball entry in this week's 14u PG World Series -- Bello is hoping to one day play at that elusive "next level." But this week, also like the rest of his teammates, he is interested only in seeing how he stacks up against the best players in his age group from this country's four corners.
"You get to evaluate yourself and see where you rank among the other players from across the country, so it's pretty cool," Bello said Friday from Terry Park before NorCal played its sixth of seven pool-play games at the elite 16-team tournament. "We've done good in some of the past (out-of-state) tournaments so we had high expectations coming down here."
Those expectations were nearly met early Friday afternoon. NorCal Baseball used a five-run fourth to rally from a 2-0 deficit and held on to beat the powerful Orlando Scorpions, 6-3, to improve to 5-1 and position itself nicely for a spot in Saturday's semifinal round of the 15u PGWS.
That berth wouldn't be secured on the outcome of Friday's late games become final, and NorCal would make sure it happens with a win over Slammers Black out of Lakewood, Colo.
Many of the prospects on this 15u team played on one of the NorCal squads that competed in the USA Baseball 15U Championship - West tournament in the Phoenix area in late June, and head coach Nate Sutton thinks that event helped sharpen their teeth for this one.
"Obviously, our goal is to see how we do against the best teams in the country," Sutton said Friday. "After playing in the USA Baseball Arizona (tournament), we knew this was going to be a challenge. Hopefully we learned something from that tournament because over there we ran through pool-play and got into the playoffs and then lost in the second round. Hopefully we learned from that and took a step forward."
The highly respected NorCal organization, based in Manteca, Calif., and headed by Rob Bruno, put this 15u team together in the fall and it's been playing together all summer. There are four or five players on the team that basically grew up together, according to Sutton, although only two players share the same home town -- Roseville, Calif.
"It's been a great group; the team chemistry is better than I've ever seen in a young group at this age," Sutton said. "Our team is so spread out and basically everybody has a long car ride just to meet up on the weekends and even sometimes on weekdays."
The goal for Sutton and other members of the staff is to try to get some of these young players to step up into leadership roles. That task is made more difficult because during the course of the summer they may only be together as a team one or two days out of the week.
"Travel ball is really interesting in that there is a lot of different stuff taught," to the players, Sutton said. "A lot of travel ball teams don't practice very much and I try to emphasize practicing a lot more at home; there's a lot for these kids to learn that we might assume they know already. Obviously, they're all physically gifted -- that's how we found them -- but teaching them the game of baseball might be the thing that's missing for some of them right now."
NorCal was not necessarily dominant in winning five of its first six games , outscoring its six opponents by a combined 35-23.
Bello has been the team's top hitter, going 8-for-18 (.444) with a couple of doubles, four RBI, two runs scored and a 1.029 on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) percentage.
"I've been seeing the ball good, getting good pitches and hitting it well," he said. "I like challenging myself and seeing how it ends up against the best competition in the nation."
First baseman Grant Gambrell (2016, Clovis, Calif.) hit .429 (6-for-14) with three RBI and infielder/right-hander Tyler Malone (2016, Roseville, Calif.) batted .417 (5-for-12) and pitched four shutout innings, allowing three hits and striking out five. Malone lists seven powerhouse NCAA Division I schools among his "colleges considering" including Vanderbilt, Arizona State, San Diego and Texas.
Shortstop/right-hander Davis Delorifice (2016, Fairfield, Calif.), who lists Stanford, San Diego and San Diego State among his nine "colleges considering" won two games from the mound after throwing nine innings and allowing one earned run (0.78 ERA) on 12 hits with seven strikeouts.
"It's been really fun because our team, we have great chemistry and we really bond when we travel places," Delorifice said. "We get to have fun with each other all away across the country and we get to play some ball. It's great competition and we get to see kids from all over -- Florida, Indiana and whatnot -- so it's a great experience.
"We know that we're a pretty good team, so we try to showcase our talents. We want to see what the teams are like from around the country and it seems like we're doing all right."
Sutton, 30, is a NorCal alumnus, having played in the organization in the late 1990s. He went on to attend college and play ball at both UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkley, and was drafted by the Anaheim Angels out of Cal Berkley in the 24th round of the 2004 MLB amateur draft.
He played seven seasons (2004-10) in the Angels minor league system, finally retiring after spending his final season with Triple-A Salt Lake. He never participated in a Perfect Game event himself, but he spent the 2005 season with the Class A Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Kernels, whose stadium is located across the street from PG's headquarters in Cedar Rapids.
Sutton got into coaching just last year and is the head coach at Bellermine High School in San Jose.
"I stepped away (from baseball) for a couple of years, I was like 'I got away,' but obviously, it's addicting," he said. "I enjoy this group of kids a ton. Maybe if you have a kid that's a malcontent or the parents aren't happy -- it's almost like the minors; they can be replaced. But with these guys, we've got the right group here and the right group of kids that want to learn, want to get better and want to play as a team."
There are a lot of logistical hurdles to clear that come with moving 14- and 15-year-old players and their families 3,000 miles from Northern California to Southwest Florida, but the NorCal 15u squad cleared every one of them. And as is this written early Friday evening, they have positioned themselves nicely to be playing on Saturday morning.
"They get use to the competition and playing in big games and then they get to compare themselves to the better teams in the country," Sutton said of the value the kids get out of playing at the 15u PGWS. "Perfect Game does a great job of running events ... and if Perfect Game is going to put on something like this, we're going to go; we cancelled another tournament just to come here."