It's never too early to measure your skills against the best in the country. Four young players with ties to the Urban Youth Academy system have been selected to compete in next month's National Team Development Program, a crash course for talented prospects in the finer points of the game.
Those four players -- Kelvin Bender, Pablo Salazar, Cody Williams and Tre Turner -- come from three UYA facilities, and they'll have a chance to show that they belong on the biggest of stages.
Bender, the youngest of the group, played at the Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., and he'll be playing with the 14-and-under players. The other three -- Salazar and Williams from the Houston academy, and Tre Turner from New Orleans -- will be vying for a shot at the 17-and-under team.
The days will be long, and so will the odds. Two players from the 14-and-under group and two players from the 17-and-under group will be invited to try out for the national team, and eight players total will be invited to the USA Baseball Tournament of Stars. But along the way, each of the participants will be given invaluable tutoring sessions from some distinguished coaches and former college players.
Williams, who will be a junior at Pearland High School in Pearland, Texas, said he's looking forward to the experience and to growing in the game of baseball. Williams said he plays first base, third base and right field -- anywhere to get his bat in the lineup -- and that he hopes to play college ball someday.
"This is my first time being with USA Baseball and doing something like this, so it will be a great experience for me to go out there and showcase what I've got," Williams said. "It's a little bit nerve-wracking to me, but I'm also excited because I'll get to see what other kids around the country have to offer, and I'll get to compare myself to some of the best people that we have in the country."
The weeklong National Team Development Program will be held in Cary, N.C., at the USA Baseball National Training Complex in early August. The 17-and-under age group will get tutelage from Rick Vanderhook, the coach at Cal State Fullerton. Mark Calvi, the coach at University of South Alabama, will also be part of the staff, as will Billy Jones, the coach at Appalachian State University.
Two former big league players -- Brad Wilkerson and Ernie Young -- will be part of the training session. Both Wilkerson and Young starred for Team USA before moving on to the Major Leagues.
Williams said he's learned a lot while playing at the Urban Youth Academy in Houston, and he said he's looking forward to playing in front of Major League and college scouts in North Carolina.
Salazar, about to enter his senior year at Lutheran South Academy in Houston, would also like to play college ball someday, and he's confident that he'll get the opportunity.
Right now, Salazar pitches and plays at both third base and shortstop, and he's excited to learn more about his craft. Salazar wants to make the most of his chance at the National Team Development Program, and he said he was honored to be part of the 40-man group invited by USA Baseball.
"Baseball has been a big part of my life since I was little. And it's even more now," Salazar said of the academy and the National Team Development Program. "It's going to be pretty difficult because there's a lot of talent out there. Honestly, we got picked out of so many kids, and we're like the top 40. There's going to be a lot of talent, and I'm going to have to show something to get their eyes on me."
That can be intimidating in some respects, but Salazar won't allow that to happen. He said that even though it's a challenge, at the end of the day, he's playing the game that he loves. And Salazar believes his time at the Urban Youth Academy has already prepared him for bigger and better things.
"I've been at the academy for the last three years," Salazar said. "It's really helped me grow as a player and as a person. They've given me a lot of opportunities and helped me out a lot with my skillset and in giving me the exposure that I need. I'm really grateful to be a part of the academy."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.