Palm Desert Challenge: Team Notes

Les Lukach
State Scouting Director

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PALM DESERT, CALIF. - After a hiatus due to a COVID-19 forced cancellation, the Palm Desert Challenge returned in 2021 stronger than ever. The brainchild of Palm Desert HS head coach Darol Salazar, the Palm Desert Challenge draws a who’s who of teams from around the Southern California region to play games at six of the area high schools. Teams play three games and are reseeded on Saturday for playoff games on Sunday. 

For some coaches and parents the draw is more than just the baseball on the field, but for the players it’s an opportunity to play against very good competition in a relaxed yet competitive setting in front of anxious onlookers. 

The event annually brings in Division II, Division III, and JUCO coaches providing evaluators, and the dozens of MLB Scouts, input as they prepare to put the finishing touches on their spring follow lists. And while players prepare for a month long, or so, shut down from games, the competition and intensity level is genuine and real.  

For me it was seven games in 46 hours. I had an opportunity to see teams/players from what will certainly be playoff teams come springtime. Got eyes on a few of the best players from Nevada and some players who will be national recruits in short order. The beauty of the setup at the majority of these fields is that you could usually turn your body 45 degrees in a direction and be watching a different game. With rosters in hand it makes seeing lots of players very easy. There were some unknowns that stood out and there were the usual suspects who had many eyes on them. In all it was a great last cram session before the January schedule kicks off with the PBR California Preseason All-State events followed by the always fun MLK weekend. 

Because of the amount of games/players seen this past weekend, I plan on breaking this up into a few parts. In this part teams will be the focus with some general thoughts on some of the teams I had a chance to see at the 2021 Palm Desert Challenge. I will dive into players and provide videos a bit further in coming posts. 


Riverside King won the 2021 version of the Palm Desert Classic going 5-0 en route to the title. I had the opportunity to see King this weekend and it’s pretty obvious they’re a good team, the question will be just how good they can be. If this past weekend is any indication they’ll be pretty darn good. The pitching appears to once again be very strong with juniors Austin Castillo and Jase Evangelista along with senior Andrew Campbell. All of them are multi-pitch guys that can, at times, command everything for strikes. Senior catcher Cameron Dejournett is about as good as anybody defensively. Frames with quiet and soft hands. Flashed the arm on one play where he took a fastball down and in before firing at 2.09 laser to second to catch a would-be base stealer. The move of Eric Aguayo to second base is one that could really pay off for King as his athleticism will shine through. The Wolves always have talent and in Landon and Mason Greenhouse they have a pair of premier outfielders that, when healthy, present the Wolves with two of the best in their league and the area as a whole. 

I was able to see Cypress play against Huntington Beach a week or so before the Palm Desert Challenge and came away intrigued by what the Centurions could become by May. After this weekend I’m convinced coach Jon Weber has one of his better teams this year with a potential for a championship run next year. I didn’t get a chance to see Matthew Morrell pitch, but what he showed in a 3-for-4 afternoon at the plate was impressive. The Oregon State commit tripled, singled, then doubled driving in five runs. Morrell’s football abilities are obvious on the baseball diamond, and while his future may be on the mound, the bat is going to help Cypress a lot over the next two seasons. Catcher Nick Montgomery, a sophomore Arizona State commit, has the type of potential with the bat that gets players into program record books. It’s easy power with the ability to use all fields. Junior Abbrie Covarrubias, a Long Beach State commit, is a silky smooth defender very much in line with the tradition of quality shortstops at Cypress. Smoked a double that beat the outfielder and went off the right field fence showing off his improved strength. There are plenty of other players that will impact Cypress’s season as the Centurions look to get back to the Division I Final. 

Damien debuts a new head coach this fall and for AJ Lamonda he walks into a program that has plenty in the cupboard and is primed for a potentially big spring. With three Division I starters at the top of the rotation, the Spartans should have the pitching to compete with anybody, and while they’re dealing with some nagging injuries to key junior returning starters, all indications are they’ll be at full health come Opening Day. Senior righty Ryan Mullan was the main attraction for scouts and evaluators. The LMU commit got the start Friday night and proceeded to handle a talented Vista Murrieta lineup. His trio of pitches did enough to ensure he’ll be a close follow in the spring. Junior catcher Jett Hernandez provides a reliable backstop with quick transfers and more than capable of throwing runners out with pops in the 2.01-2.2 range all night. Sophomore Nikko Paoletto has the chance to be the next in a long line of Division I outfielders for Damien. The power is undeniable, but it’s the athleticism and understanding of angles on the diamond that really stands out.  

Vista Murrieta has a trio of Freshman that will undoubtedly be the future of the program, but the way the roster is set up, the Broncos may be poised for success much sooner than that. Junior righty Lukas Pirko continues to show the type of growth you want in a potential ace of your staff. Has added velocity over the last three months while the frame continues to get stronger. Senior Jack Pedersen is back on the baseball diamond after not having played since before COVID.  And while his future is on the gridiron at UCLA, when he gets his timing down he’s going to provide over-the-fence power in the heart of the lineup. Sophomore infielder David Ruth is a sure-handed, right-place right-time type player who seemingly makes all the plays. And the freshman, this trio is as good a trio of freshmen as I’ve seen on a team in recent years. Pitcher/3B Vaughn Neckar, an LSU commit, is arguably the most well-known of the three. A physical 6-foot-3, Neckar obviously stands out on the mound where he was 90-91, but also at the plate where his present strength is obvious. Middle infielder Ryland Duson has a chance to be the best of the three players with his ability to play shortstop and a bat that produces loud contact consistently while being able to handle velo and read spin. Left-handed pitcher Jaxon Baker has potentially the most upside of the three on his 6-foot-3, 165-pound frame. Worked up to 84 early before settling in at 82-83 mph. 

Orange Lutheran once again has high expectations heading into the spring season as the Lancers return just about their entire starting nine. They were in a dogfight against Basic (NV) on Friday night giving guys opportunities to step up and sophomore outfielder Ben Reiland did just that. After leading off the game with a ball crushed to deep center field (caught at the track), he followed with another squared up ball for a single. He continues to hit at a high level, and did a great job out of the leadoff spot. Senior shortstop Mikey Romero is one of the top MLB Draft prospects in Orange County and for good reason. The LSU commit is nearly flawless defensively and his ability to go the other way with power has the attention of evaluators. On Saturday he barrelled a ball to right field for a base hit before doing the same thing the other way in his next at-bat. If Gabe Miranda can hit like he did in the game Friday night, he’s going to give evaluators a lot to think about. He barreled a few balls that night with none bigger than a solo shot that went beyond the right field fence by a good 50-60 feet.  

Santa Margarita won it all in Division II in 2019 in Coach Malec’s first season at the helm and with as many as seven Division I hitters in the lineup at a given time, along with four Division I pitchers, the Eagles have the type of roster that could lead them back to that same result in 2021 in Division I. Left handed pitcher Sammy Cova (Oregon) showed his craftiness and ability to attack hitters with four pitches over three strong innings, while junior Collin Clarke showed a quick arm with movement on his pitches in the mid-80’s in relief. Catcher Luke Lavin had himself a big weekend. Went BIG FLY on Friday night with a shot that went over RCF fence by at least 50 feet. Followed that up with a pair of hits in the first game on Saturday, one that cashed in a run. The Stanford commit continues to impress me with the hit tool, but it’s his pitch recognition and ability to spoil quality pitches that’s stood out recently. Sophomore Logan deGroot, a UCLA commit, is another quality arm for the Eagles who attacked hitter with three pitches working mainly off a low 80’s fastball that he worked around the zone well. He also hits in the Eagles lineup where his present strength is a bit more noticeable. 

Coach Perez always has Gahr prepared to play and the Gladiators will never shy away from playing anybody at any point. The better the competition, the more Coach Perez wants his guys to play them and he has the talent the next few years to hang with anybody. The move from shortstop to catcher for junior Angel Cortez was brilliant. An above average shortstop both athletically and at the plate, Cortez is now a well above average catcher with pops in the 1.95-2.10 range and the glovework of a player that’s been at the position much longer. The move of Cortez opened the door for Kyle Panganiban to take over shortstop where the move has been seamless and provided a tick more size to the position without sacrificing the defense. Batting leadoff, Panganiban provides a selective hitter who can do a number of things from the box. While I didn’t get to see Cristien Banda pitch, I did see him go through his throwing program and the size he’s added to his frame, along with the subsequent strength gains will pay off in spades come the spring season. The Long Beach State signee frontlines a starting staff that will have the Gladiators in the conversation come May. 


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SoCal Preseason All-State Upperclass CA 01/09 JSerra High School
East Bay Preseason ID CA 01/16 Ohlone College
Central Coast Preseason ID CA 01/22 Hartnell College
Sacramento/Delta Preseason ID CA 01/23 McBean Stadium
Peninsula/South Bay Preseason ID CA 01/30 Canada College
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