In the middle of February, baseball season seems a long way off. But it's getting to be that time of year — preseason rankings are rolling out, and Spanish Fork is getting a lot of attention already.
The Dons face a step down in classification to 3A after winning the 4A title last year, but that hasn't stopped the biggest baseball publications from putting them near the top of the heap. ESPN ranks Spanish Fork the No. 5 team in the country, while Maxpreps.com has it set at No. 7. Perfect Game had yet to release its rankings as of early Monday afternoon, but had announced in a news release it would rank the Dons at No. 7.
Coach Shoe Nelson is still a skeptic.
"In my view, preseason rankings are based on the past," he said. "People look at the arms we've got coming back, and I'm sure that's why we're ranked up there. I guess I could say it's a privilege though."
Spanish Fork does indeed bring back several of Utah's best pitching prospects. The star is Kayden Porter, a 6-foot-3 senior whose fastball has hit up in the high 90s. A North Carolina commit, Porter has also slimmed down about 30 to 40 pounds from last season's playing weight — a drop Nelson says will help him as he gets more starts at first base. Porter projects to be selected in this year’s MLB Draft and is seen by many as the top high school prospect in Utah.
Also in the rotation are senior Hayden Nielsen, who is signed to play at BYU, and junior Brady Corless. The duo pitches more in the mid to high 80s, but they arguably have more control and a better variety of pitches than Porter.
But what concerns Nelson is replacing the six starting seniors the team graduated last year. Also, all three of the Dons' aces are playing basketball this season, so they'll likely need a bit of an adjustment period before they're playing their best baseball. Then, of course there's the classification drop — something that frustrates Nelson — that poses the threat of lulling the team into a false sense of security.
"That becomes the hard thing, to remind your guys not to overlook anybody," Nelson says. "We can't always control who we play, but we want to stay focused and keep working hard. We've got some quality kids, and we can win with the kids we've got."
The Dons will attempt to amp up its schedule with preseason games against Cottonwood, Bingham and Syracuse among others. Spanish Fork will also travel to the National Classic in Anaheim, Calif., from April 9 to 12 and potentially face other ranked teams.
The region schedule shouldn't be tough sledding for a group that has only lost a handful of times to in-state schools during the past three years. But Nelson and his team will be wary.
"We know 3A has a bunch of good teams, like Juan Diego and Snow Canyon," he said. "It's nice to be ranked, but you never know how you're going to perform. We don't have a lot of returning experience. We won't know until these kids get out and play."