FORT MYERS, Fla. – Eleven of the top prospects in the country from the class of 2015 were gathered under one, big expansive umbrella for this weekend’s surprisingly rain-free (so far) PG WWBA Underclass World Championship.
The Elite 11, as they could be called, are all ranked in the top-433 in Perfect Game’s 2015 national rankings and all are all-in with the EvoShield Canes at this week’s second to last PG national championship tournament on the 2013 calendar.
It has to be among one of the more imposing rosters assembled for the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship in its 12 year history. The tournament enjoyed its first full day Saturday in perfectly beautiful weather conditions with temperatures in the 80s and not a hint of any raindrops at any of the more than 15 venues.
All things considered it looked like the three-game pool-play segment of this tournament was going to be a walk-through for the Canes, one of the country’s finest, best run organizations based in Fredericksburg, Va.
As it turned out they were challenged right from the get-go by East Coast Baseball out of Cordova, Tenn., after the managed to escape with a 6-5 win due to a struggling pitching staff. Four EvoCanes pitchers allowed five runs (two earned) on six hits with nine strikeouts and five walks.
“You know everybody’s going to be good and we know we’re going to see everybody’s good pitchers,” EvoShield Canes head coach Gregg Connor said Friday afternoon. “We struggled throwing strikes a little bit but we found a way (to win), and sometimes that’s what you have to do in the first game.”
Most of the players on this roster played together with the Canes’ top 16u team all summer and were members on the team that won the PG WWBA 16u National Championship in July. Some of the guys who played during the summer months elected not to play in the fall, so a few able hands were brought in from other EvoShield Canes team within the program.
“We don’t have anybody that’s new to this program. They’ve been with us all fall,” Connor said. “We believe that you have to play together. No matter how much talent you have, it’s a team game and you’ve got to play that way.”
The Canes certainly played that way while improving to 2-0 on Friday afternoon with a 10-0, five-inning win over the Miami (Fla.) Chiefs. Right-hander Hunter Parsons and lefties Pat Daly and Aaron Coates combined on a no-hit shutout with seven Ks and five walks. In two games, No. 192-ranked Stevie Magrum from Charlottesville, Va., and a Virginia Tech recruit, was 4-for-6 (.667) with a triple and four RBI.
It was an excellent way for one of the several high-level teams considered one of the favorites at the 208-team event to get things started. It’s still a long row to hoe at this point but Connor said even a close call on opening day of pool-play will do nothing to dampen expectations.
“With the Canes program, everywhere we go we expect to be in the hunt,” Connor said. “Things have got to go your way and you’ve got to get a break here or there but we go in thinking that we have a chance. If you don’t think that you’re not going to have a chance.”
So what is the makeup of this class of 2015 all-star team? What is its dynamic coming in as basically the same group of young prospects that will challenge for a second Perfect Game national championship during the 2013 tournament season?
This group of highly ranked underclass prospects with 10 NCAA Division I commitments between them already, is battle tested and the main players are eager to recapture the energy they harnessed while winning the PG WWBA 16u National Championship up in Marietta, Ga.
“That was a fantastic experience. We came down there and had a great week and everybody contributed. They won as a team and everybody did their part,” Connor said.
“That was probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball,” 2015 outfielder Danny Blair said Friday. “We clicked, we played as a team, we had our ‘A’ game on and it showed, obviously. We played real well, especially the last couple of days, and everything just clicked.”
Blair, out of Bel Air, MD., is a shortstop by trade who has climbed to the No. 63 spot in PG’s national prospect rankings. He has committed to South Carolina.
“A lot of people have been asking us if we’re the team that won the WWBA in East Cobb,” he said Friday. “We’ve kind of put that (behind) us; we’ve got a big target on our back coming into this one and we’re in it to win it.”
Blair came into the summer uncommitted despite having a lot of conversations with many NCAA Division I schools. He ultimately committed to South Carolina in June, one of four prospects on the EvoShield Canes roster that have committed to the Gamecocks.
The other three 2015 Canes on this weekend’s roster that may join Blair as South Carolina commits are: nationally No. 93-ranked right-hander Cody Morris from Laurel, Md.; No. 118 left-hander Logan Allen from Fletcher, N.C., and No. 344 right-hander Kaleb Bowman from Round Hill, Va.
“I’m just looking forward to finishing up high school ball in the next couple of years and then going where ever baseball takes me. I’m looking forward to it,” Blair said.
The highest ranked 2015 prospect on the team that remains uncommitted is 6-foot-3, 200-pound outfielder Bryant Harris from Hampton, Ga. Harris is ranked 30th nationally and early Friday afternoon was anxiously awaiting his team’s second game at the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship.
“We’ve been preparing for this a lot,” Harris said. “The previous weekend we had a couple of practices and played a couple of games against older teams just to see a little bit better competition; it’s been working out pretty good so far.”
Six others have committed to D-I schools, including shortstop Xavier LeGrant from Charlotte, N.C., the No. 168-ranked national prospect that is headed to North Carolina State. Other D-I schools committed to by these Canes are North Florida, Wake Forest, Louisville and Virginia Tech.
Harris may be the highest ranked of the uncommitted Canes in the class of 2015 but he is not alone. Outfielder Darius Hill from Plano, Texas is ranked 160th and right-hander Hunter Parsons from Fruitland, Md., is ranked 191st, and neither has chosen a school as of yet.
“I feel like I’ve got a lot to learn; I’m not even halfway done with my (high school career),” Harris said. “I can get a lot better and I’m still working at it but I’m satisfied with where I’m at right now. But I’m not content and I don’t want to stay this way. I want to get better and I feel like this weekend could make me a lot better.”
Connor has coached baseball at Powatan (Va.) High School just outside of Richmond for 30 years, so he’s use to dealing with older teenage ballplayers. He doesn’t necessarily see any special challenges with dealing with this particular age group.
“It’s a love of the game and a lot depends on what kind of knowledge they brought in with them,” Connor said. “They’re coming from so many different places and these guys are more talented than my guys (at Powatan High) but they still have the same needs. They still need to learn the little things about the game but that makes the whole thing work.”
Whenever such a fine collection of young talent is assembled there is always the concern of you egos getting the way. That doesn’t appear to be a concern with this group.
“They’re not selfish for anything; it’s really like they want other people to be as good as them,” Harris said of his teammates that have already committed. “So, it’s really constructive nobody gets nervous or is saying, hey, I’ve got to be better than him. It’s a lot of everybody treating everybody equal.”
Connor, with all his experience, was asked if the prospects were able to check their egos at the door and put them high on the shelf for no one else to see.
“It’s amazing to me but yes, the answer is yes,” he said. “When I first got involved with the Canes (two years ago) my concern as a high school coach was that I don’t do big egos, and I’ve seen none from these Canes kids. It’s truly been amazing and it makes it fun, really.
“A part of the kind of the kind of players the Canes look for are guys that are team guys,” he said. “We preach family; anytime you see stuff written about us it’s got ‘family’ right in there. Everybody’s rooting for everybody (else) and it’s amazing to me how quickly they can come together just for one summer and become so close.”
The PG WWBA Underclass World Championship is more important to the uncommitted prospects than those who have already verbally permitted. The Player Development 5-Plex was thick with college coaches and recruiters on Friday and it is certainly reasonable to assume that scene was repeated at the other venues.
“Because we have a reputation for having good players we have a lot of people watching us play,” Connor said. “They have a chance to show their stuff and we try to give them every opportunity to go out there and do it.”
The EvoShield Canes cannot escape the tag they have earned as tournament favorite down here this weekend although at least a half-dozen other high-profile nationally prominent teams could easily wear the same name tag. Connor feels it’s important to keep the real mission – getting kids much desired exposure in front of the recruiting and scouting communities – at the forefront.
“The way baseball has become now with these big events like this, you’ve got so many quality players in one place and it’s a chance to play against other quality players, and they also get to meet a lot of good quality kids. All of that is a part of it,” Connor said. “We want to win, without a doubt, but the other part is important to us, also.”