This is the summer of hope for Cody Swartwood and Robert Steves, aspiring ballplayers given very different tasks when their high school seasons ended a few weeks ago.
Swartwood, a candidate for Johansen High's pitching rotation next spring, was told to increase his endurance if he wanted to be one of the two starters in his senior season.
Steves, a gifted freshmen at talent-rich Escalon, was told to improve his footwork if he expects to receive that promotion to the varsity next year.
"Summer is an opportunity for kids to show us how hard they're willing to work to get better," Escalon coach Greg Largent said. "It might be a new position they're learning or a new spot in the lineup."
That's what coaches find appealing about the Lee Hampson Summer Tournament: It gives them an opportunity to test the kids under pressure.
The 21-team, five-day affair began Wednesday, as Escalon used Steves' hot hitting to beat a tiring Swartwood 11-1 at Johansen High.
"For Cody, the priority is to get in position to throw five, six innings when needed next season," Johansen assistant Nick Pryschuk said. "We saw him pitch real well going into the fourth inning, but then he just lost some of that steam."
Swartwood, a former shortstop who threw his first prep pitch three months ago, dominated Escalon through three. He struck out six and allowed one hit the first time through the lineup, but was tagged for eight runs in his second look.
"I'm trying to stay ahead of the count with first-pitch fastballs, and they jumped on 'em the second time," Swartwood said. "I need to go to more offspeed stuff against the better hitters, but the main thing is to keep throwing innings."
The mental aspect is just as challenging, Swartwood said.
He was skating through the fourth before his center fielder misplayed a fly for a three-base error, and it clearly bothered the stocky right-hander.
He came right into the next two hitters and they whacked balls, then Swartwood's first baseman misplayed a pickoff. In just a matter of moments, Escalon had put up four runs.
"As a pitcher, you're in the middle of it all," he said. "Every pitch demands concentration. What did this guy do last time up? What did I throw?"
Swartwood returned for the fifth, but was clearly fatigued as Escalon converted bunts, line drives, wild pitches and errors into a four-run inning.
"I've been happy throwing the curve this summer, and I think my breaking ball is getting better," said Swartwood, second on the squad last season in wins (two), ERA (4.20) and innings (21º). "I'll use innings in games, with bullpen sessions, to build strength."
Strength isn't a problem for Steves, a three-sport standout who tore it up on the JV level.
He displayed his muscle by belting a two-run double deep in the left-center gap, the key hit in four-run fifth inning.
"He's got a bat, but like a lot of talented freshman, he gets by on athleticism at times in the field," Largent said. "He's planting his feet, and you can get away with that on the JV.
"He'll need to be more nimble because the ball is coming at you faster on the varsity."
Steves' bat would have been enough to land a starting spot with most small-school teams in the Stanislaus District, but Escalon was just too potent.
It won the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V title, was second in the CalHiSports state Class 4 rankings — and will return eight of its top 10 kids.
Steves was had two hits and three RBIs vs. Johansen, splitting innings between second base and short.
The Cougars already have their shortstop in place for next year — Josh Miguel was an all-district second basemen despite being a sophomore — but Miguel is playing with his travel team.
"The only starter we had in the lineup was (pitcher Brandon) Shaw, but that gives us a chance to see different kids," Largent said. "It's good to see how they react in game conditions. For the young kids, it's an opportunity to realize the difference in speed between the JV and varsity games."