Preston Hartsell roamed the same hallways as the baseball players at Corona del Mar High last school year.
Hartsell attended CdM Middle School, which shares a campus with CdM High. Most of the time, the high school kids don't pay much attention to the middle school students.
This summer, Hartsell caught the eye of high schoolers. He's a talented athlete and plays for the Moreno Valley-based Phenom Baseball under-14 team, one of the top clubs in the country.
Hartsell is the same kid who at age 7 completed two unassisted triple plays in a Newport Beach Little League game. Hartsell and things in threes seem to go together.
Next baseball season, Hartsell and two other incoming freshmen, Chazz Martinez and JT Schwartz, figure to give the Sea Kings a triple threat.
Sea Kings Coach John Emme said he could see all three starting as ninth-graders in the spring. Emme, who's entering his 18th season in charge of CdM, has only had a handful of freshmen start for him, never more than one in a season.
Three in one season seems to be a lot, but in the summer, Hartsell, Martinez and Schwartz impressed Emme. The first day of summer ball, Hartsell worked out with the freshmen. The next day, Emme called the outfielder up to the varsity team and he batted second, going two for four with a run batted in and a run.
A week later, Martinez, a left-handed pitcher, joined Hartsell and the rest of the varsity team. Later on, while coaching the freshman team, Emme saw Schwartz play the infield and hit, and the rest is history. Schwartz moved up.
The talented trio gives the Sea Kings hope of turning things around after the program failed to qualify for the CIF Southern Section Division 2 playoffs the last two seasons. Emme, who has led CdM to 13 playoff appearances, two ending with section titles, had never missed the postseason in consecutive seasons.
"The great thing is that we have a great young core coming back," said Emme, adding that he has two pitchers, Evan Larsen, who has caught the interest of San Diego State and Cal State Fullerton, and Kevin McCarthy, returning as juniors. "Then we have these three freshmen, and every time I go to the field, there they are working out and hitting by themselves. They're pushing everyone. These guys have the right attitude about things."
The three are young, yet they're confident. Emme said Martinez pitched well and Schwartz batted .470 during the South Coast Classic summer tournament.
Hartsell only played a handful of games for CdM during the summer because of his commitment to his Phenom team, which he helped claim the under-14 title at the USA Baseball Cup in Cary, N.C., and the under-15 title at the USA Baseball National Team East Championships in Jupiter, Fla., last month.
Last month, Hartsell turned 15. He had his birthday on July 25 and he spent it on a baseball field. Four days later, he celebrated it in grand fashion, helping his Phenom team win the under-16 division at the Under Armour Southwest Championships in Azusa.
During the tournament, Hartsell batted .421 with two triples and a home run. The solo homer came in the championship game, sparking a six-run rally to lead Phenom to a 6-3 victory against California Baseball Academy Marucci.
Emme saw Hartsell's big bat in La Habra, where he belted his first home run for CdM. The shot to right-center field went over the fence, over the trees, and landed on the street.
"He's for real," Emme said of Hartsell, a 5-foot-11, 170-pounder who bats left-handed, is fast, can leadoff, and can play anywhere in the outfield. "We could start a lineup of all underclassmen. Seniors will play, but the best nine will play."
A freshman trio hopes to be in the mix.