There's not a team in the Stanislaus District with more talent than Escalon High, yet coach Greg Largent has got a short bench for this week's Lee Hampson Tournament.
The Cougars will return seven starters from a team that won the Sac-Joaquin Section title, but Brandon Shaw was the only familiar name on the lineup card earlier this week.
Most of his teammates were playing baseball, but not with Escalon's summer program.
"A lot of our kids are in travel ball, so our lineup changes every game," Largent said. "I like that they're playing high-level competition, and we get a chance to see young kids."
Largent isn't alone, either.
There's nary a coach in the 21-school event who isn't playing shorthanded, as many of the district's top players are playing on their travel teams.
Travel ball has exploded in popularity, and's it become a summer staple for prep players who aspire to simply improve or to attract recruiters.
American Legion used to be the only game in town if you wanted to play competitive in the summer. Virtually every school still has a Legion-type summer program with one or two teams, and they often see many of the teams they play in the high school season.
Few travel teams are affiliated with schools and most successful ones are run like a business: Registration fees go to pay coaches, buy uniforms, and pay for tournament fees.
What's in it for the player?
"The opportunity to get better at a sport you love," said Mike Torres, whose son Connor is playing with Stockton-based Club All-Star in Arizona this week. "It has to be for your kids, and not about you. If they're not enjoying travel ball, there's no point in it."
There has been a noticeable rise in the quality of players in the district in recent years — Oakdale has won a section title three of the last four seasons, Escalon just ended Central Catholic's 10-year run as small-school section champ — and it's not a coincidence.
"I started playing in the seventh grade and I got the opportunity to see how I compared to players outside Oakdale," said Brannon Williams, who led the Mustangs to their title this past spring. "If you want to get better, you've got to go play the best teams you can."
Williams plays with CenCal of Oakdale, part of a local-flavored roster that includes Escalon's Josh Miguel, Aaron Pangilinan and Trey Balber.Like most players, all four of them play summer ball with their high school teams, too.
Miguel and Balber were crucial to Escalon's title, though both were sophomores. Williams was a junior, but earned three playoff pitching wins.
"We sometimes play older kids in travel ball, players with more experience," said Connor Torres, who hit .317 and was Beyer's starting shortstop as a sophomore. "It makes you mentally strong.
"You go into a high school game against a senior pitcher and you know you've had successful at-bats against better pitchers in travel ball. It's going to help your confidence."
Beyer's Trey Ridenour, Escalon's Patrick Mulry and Matt Valencia, and Central Catholic's Chris Sauls also are on Club All-Star's roster.
"I took Connor to a Beyer game when he was 7 and he asked if freshmen could play varsity," Mike Torres said. "I said 'if they're good enough.' So he tells me that's what he wants to do. That's when we began looking at travel ball."
Torres, Mike Callizo, Jerry Ridenour and Steve Dunnegan started Never Dead Baseball when their kids were 8. Three years later, they handed the reins to a new coach.
"We reached a point where I knew Connor was ready for more than we could do," said Torres, who drives his son to Stockton twice a week to practice. "As parents, we all make sacrifices the way our parents did for us. I want Connor to do the same for his kids."
There are travel teams for all levels, with the top tier featuring prospects such as Central Catholic's Billy Flamion and Turlock's Kevin Kramer.
Flamion was one of only 30 Northern California players selected to the final tryout for the prestigious Area Code Games, and Kramer earned a scholarship offer from UCLA and accepted before fielding his first grounder as a junior.
Both were spotted years ago in "showcase tournaments," events designed to attract pro scouts and college recruiters.
"I enjoy playing both travel and high school, but going to a tournament like that gives you an extra push," Williams said. "There's pressure to perform in front of everyone, but it gets you mentally stronger.It's going to make you better for your high school, too."
The Lee Hampson Tournament continues through Sunday.