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Arizona baseball: Wildcats recruiting in-state talent effectively

The new coaching staff has placed a focus on getting the top Arizona talent to Tucson.

Cameron Cannon high-fives his teammates
Rachel Huston

When Jay Johnson took over as the head baseball coach of the Arizona Wildcats, one thing was clear: recruiting would become the priority.

Now in the middle of year two, that has certainly come to fruition.

Overall, Arizona’s 2018 class is ranked 6th in the country by Perfect Game. With how the baseball recruiting game has changed, 2018 is the first class that Johnson and his staff will have been on equal footing, so this is the best measure for how he’s stacking up with his competition.

And I think you could say he’s stacking up pretty well, especially with the lack of western teams in the top 20.

“We’re getting a lot more phone calls, a lot more inquiries, a lot more coaches reaching out to us,” assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Sergio Brown said when comparing last year to this year. “One of my keys in recruiting is trying to develop dialogues with high school coaches because this whole thing has gone the way of travel ball so much; I want to have relationships with high school coaches. I want those guys to know that they’re important and a big part of the recruiting process.”

Arizona’s obvious strategy in the early going was to fill up recruiting classes with largely known pieces. That’s why when you look at this year’s team, it’s almost entirely junior college guys that have come in to have an impact. But down the road, the Wildcats will need those high school connections.

“I think high school coaches are realizing more and more that the recruiting process has been expedited, so I always apologize to them and am slightly embarrassed when I say ‘Hey, do you have a freshman that’s good enough for us?’ because that’s what it’s gotten to,” said Brown. “I’m talking to 14 and 15-year-olds on the phone now, and high school coaches understand that now.”

One thing that Johnson and his staff have done is focus on getting in-state talent, particularly in the Phoenix area. It’s one reason that Arizona wanted to play at Grand Canyon as soon as possible.

“We really want to be good at recruiting in Phoenix,” Johnson said before the first GCU game this year. “And we’ve had some success with that so far, so playing a road game up there will give us an easy opportunity to expose the program in maybe our most important recruiting ground.”

“Coming from L.A., there’s a split between USC and UCLA,” Brown added. “In Arizona, I don’t know if it was an even 50/50 split just because the Phoenix area is so much bigger, so I think there was more leaning the other way to the bad guys, but because of our season last year, more kids have opened their eyes to what’s being offered here in Tucson than before.”

That road game at GCU had several Arizona commits in the stands, plus some other prospects that the Wildcats are currently targeting in the 2018, ‘19, and ‘20 classes. It also had Cameron Cannon on the field, who went to nearby Mountain Ridge HS in Peoria. He had a past relationship with GCU and Andy Stankiewicz as well before Arizona came into his recruitment.

“It was more Grand Canyon then ASU,” Cannon explained of his high school recruitment. “I love Andy Stankiewicz — they were one of my first offers — so I’d been talking to them a lot and he was nothing but nice to me. Even when I committed here he said ‘Best wishes’. He’s a great coach.”

“Those guys have done an unbelievable job,” Brown added about GCU. “For me, having been here for a year and a half now, hopefully we’re putting a little hurt on them with getting in early on those in-state kids. The thing that I think they’re doing — if I’m identifying it correctly — is that they’re offering kids earlier and pushing the envelope and putting the heat on us and other guys to get on kids.”

Having three options now definitely helps out those Arizona prospects that are looking for a place to play Division-1 baseball, and gives them a better chance to find the right situation.

“Go wherever you think is comfortable because I know other schools are more comfortable to you than others,” Cannon explained. “So go where it feels at home.”

Compared to most high-profile high school prospects these days, Cannon committed very late in the process. He decided on Arizona during the beginning of his senior year of high school, after Johnson had already taken the U of A job.

“It was when I was playing at Area Codes was when I met with him for the first time,” Cannon said about his relationship with Johnson. “I think he was still at Nevada, but he knew he was going to get the job here so he started talking about Arizona and just stuff like that. It was pretty late.”

“I came on a couple visits actually, and right away I knew it was going to be one of my good options,” continued Cannon. “I loved it. I came to a basketball game. They played UCLA and they whooped ‘em so it was a fun game. Great seats, it was awesome.”

“I committed before baseball season started, but I came to the ASU (series) where they broke the attendance record, which was crazy.”

One of Cannon’s high school teammates, Matthew Liberatore, is a 2018 commit, which is another way that Arizona can start building up the in-state steam.

“I think some of our best recruiters are players on the team, kids that are having a great experience,” Brown said. “We try to make it fun for the kids that aren’t playing, so when they go back to their high school they may not be playing an inning, but they’re going back saying I’m having a great time. We’re winning a bunch of games and I may not be playing, but it’s a ton of fun. And when they go to their high school practices and they say that, kids listen to that stuff.”

“So for me, with Cameron Cannon going home for Easter Sunday, I’m hoping he ran across a couple kids at church and told ‘em hey you oughta be Wildcats.”

There are currently five Arizona players in UA’s 2018 class. By comparison, ASU has no in-state players committed right now, and all three of Grand Canyon’s commits are from Arizona.

Two of those five UA commits were in Tucson this past weekend for the Oregon series, plus San Diego prospect Jacob Allred. In addition, Arizona also had three high school freshmen on campus.

“Those are guys that I haven’t even seen play but I’ve heard good things about,” said Brown. “I reach out to (high school coaches) early on and say ‘Hey, do you have any kids that we should be looking at? Any kids that in December and January, when we’re not recruiting, any kids that showed you something that should open our eyes a little bit?’”

Recruiting in-state talent has a different style than when the Arizona staff tries to go into California for players for a couple of reasons. The amount of schools in California — especially Southern California — plays a factor, but so does the difference in tuition for out-of-state prospects as opposed to those already living in Arizona.

“California’s become really expensive to recruit in because all of those schools are doing such a good job of identifying players and offering earlier and earlier,” Brown, who has worked at Cal State Fullerton, UC-Irvine, Cal State Northridge, and UC San Diego explained. “As great of a place (Arizona) is to go to school, when we get in there, and two or three other schools have offered, we have to maybe offer stronger than we would have if nobody was on the kid. So Southern California has gotten so competitive with the 16 Division-1 schools there, plus us and other Pac schools going in there.”

“For us to be good, we have to have Arizona kids in our lineup,” Brown continued. “We can stretch our limit of scholarships by recruiting an in-state kid because the cost of education is less. If we go into California, we’ve gotta pay a little more because the cost is more for an out-of-state kid.”

“So we want to get as many of the best in-state players as possible, maximize that, and then start to hit the Californias, the Colorados, the Texases, and try to sneak a kid out of the Northwest every now and then.”

And with in-state players, the proximity to home and the relative cost is something that they certainly keep in mind.

“I was really leaning towards ASU or U of A,” junior pitcher and Phoenix native Cameron Ming said (there is also a 2018 commit — Nolan Gorman — from his high school, Sandra Day O’Connor). “I was really young when I committed. I went to a U of A camp because I wanted to stay in state. It’s cheaper tuition and I’m two hours away from my family, so it’s close to home but far enough away where I get two hours away from my parents but they can come down every weekend and even though they’re ASU grads they come to support U of A and that makes me happy.”

“I know that they loved it,” Ming added about his parents’ reaction when he didn’t choose their school. “Every parent’s dream is to see their child be successful, and me getting a college scholarship was a big moment for me and them, but just a little bitter about the U of A part.”

Ming also visited GCU back in those days, but that school has changed a lot in the time since he was a high school recruit.

“That school’s so much different today and they’ve done a good job with their program I think,” he explained. “I saw their plans to renovate their new field and they look like good ones. They’re going to be a good college program. It’ll be good for three colleges in Arizona to be good even though one of them isn’t in the Pac-12. It’ll still be exciting and the midweek games were really fun.”

“There’s friendly ties between the three teams, and it’s fun to see guys you’ve competed with throughout your childhood.”

So as the Arizona staff continues to entrench itself in the state, we could see more and more local talent making its way to Hi Corbett instead of fleeing for out-of-state options for multiple reasons, not the least of which is the amount of winning going on in Tucson right now.