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Utah travel teams provide path to minors — and majors

Published July 3, 2012 11:45 am

Amateur baseball • Nats' Bryce Harper came through Utah before hitting the Show.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Before Washington asked Bryce Harper to become a National, Bryce Harper asked to be a Utah Marshall.

In the summer of 2009, before Harper earned a GED to skip high school, he decided that the travel team based at Kearns High was where he wanted to prep for his lone year at Southern Nevada Community College. His USA Baseball teammate Marcus Littlewood — later selected in the second round of the same draft — was already involved.

A few phone calls later, and Harper was connected to a program that now boasts 14 draftees and dozens of other college commitments.

"We don't like to take credit for where guys go to play college," says Chad Shepherd, who oversees the foundation's day-to-day operations. "Kids' ability levels get them to the college they want to go to. Our program makes it so that they're ready to play when they get there."

Originally named the K.P. Gates Foundation, mortgage executive Kevin Gates founded the non-profit organization in 2003 to develop amateur baseball players. When his son Marshall, 22, died two years later of a heart ailment a year after completing rehab, the foundation was renamed in his honor.

In 2007, the Utah Marshalls began its existence as an 18-and-under travel team. A year after that, the Utah Bucks were formed as a complementary squad, one that would travel to all the same tournaments. They were named after Paul Buck, a one-time Taylorsville High ballplayer who died in 2000. Marlins catcher John Buck, Paul's older brother, often helps out the foundation.

"It's probably what got me my scholarship to Salt Lake Community College," says recent Jordan High graduate Brennon Anderson, who has played for both the Marshalls and the Bucks over three summers. "It's pretty much made my baseball career."

Top-notch competition and exposure are irresistible draws, as is the fact that the whole experience comes expense-paid (at the rate of approximately $4,000 per player). Shepherd estimates the acceptance rate for the program at roughly five percent: players can send him profiles, but half the nearly 60 spots are filled through referrals or his own scouting trips.

Whether a player ends up as Marshall or a Buck can be roughly defined. The former tends to draw more sureshot Division I talent, often sending players to Utah and BYU. The latter takes many uncommitted high schoolers, as well as all SLCC players — a necessity because Marshalls coach Sam Swenson is an assistant at SLCC, and isn't allowed to coach his own guys during the summer.

Common to both is the grueling schedule, one that puts the teams on the road for up to two weeks at a team and leaves almost no time for practices.

"It's always a grind," Anderson says. "You get out there for a week and a half, and [you start feeling] like you don't have a lot of guys."

For now, the formula has been a success. Roughly half the roster onsists of out-of-state players, including players from Idaho, Georgia, and Harper's native Nevada.

Shepherd recalls that after Harper was drafted No. 1 in the 2010 MLB Draft, he expressed intentions to play for the Marshalls again — even for a partial season.

"His adviser thought that was a bad idea," Shepherd says. "I agreed."

He was already a polished product: a once-in-a-generation player who became the organization's first alumnus to reach the big leagues. It was time to move on — so both could continue building.

jwang@sltrib.com

Bryce Harper and the Utah Marshalls

Washington Nationals phenom Bryce Harper played for 18-and-under travel team Utah Marshalls in 2009.

Marshall Gates Foundation funds operation of both Utah Marshalls and Utah Bucks, based at Kearns High School.

Expenses are estimated at $4,000 per person, but players participate free of charge.