FORT MYERS, Fla. – The 16u Perfect Game BCS Finals national championship has always been a welcoming event for the entries from the Southwest Florida (SWFL) Baseball organization.
SWFL’s teams have been competitive and have featured outstanding players throughout the history of the event, especially in 2012 when SWFL Baseball 16u won this national championship. It was accomplished behind the efforts of 2015 Donovan Petrey, a Florida State commit and the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, and 2015 Thaddeus Ward, a Central Florida commit. Both are highly ranked and regarded, and playing with SWFL 17u this summer.
This year’s 16u PG BCS Finals entered its third day of pool-play games on Sunday, leading up to the first round of the 32-team playoffs late Monday afternoon, the second round and quarterfinals on Tuesday and the semifinals and national championship game on Wednesday.
After winning all three of its first-set pool-play games Friday and Saturday and its first game of the second set Sunday morning, SWFL was starting to look like it should be in the conversation with other title contenders, if it wasn’t already. There are actually three SWFL Baseball teams entered at this tournament – SWFL Navy and SWFL Prospects Underclass are the others – but the squad known simply as SWFL is the one to keep an eye on.
All of the Perfect Game BCS Finals national tournaments feature a format in which every team – there are 88 at the 16u BCS – plays one set of three pool games after which the pools are reseeded based on the results of those three games; three more pool games are then played.
The champion of each of the 22 reseeded pools earn automatic berths into the 32-team playoff field with the final 10 spots going to wildcard entries. The results of all six pool-play games are taken into account when determining the 10 wildcard recipients.
“With this format, 3-and-0 or 0-and-3, it’s basically a clean slate,” SWFL head coach Clint Montgomery said before his team’s first game – and fourth overall – at the JetBlue Park Player Development Complex Sunday morning.
“You don’t know who saved their pitching in that first pool; it’s kind of like you’re going into this second round blindsided because you don’t know who used what and everything like that,” he said. “Three-and-0, of course, is a good start and that’s where you want to be but more importantly we have to figure out a way to win these next three games.”
SWFL got the first of those next three with an 11-2 victory over SBO Puerto Rico Red Sunday morning and looked as if it might have enough prospect-power to get the job done in the final two pool-play games scheduled Sunday afternoon and Monday morning.
When examining SWFL’s everyday lineup, a good place to start is right at the top of the order with 6-foot-1, 175-pound outfielder and leadoff man Anthony Churlin, a 2016 at Island Coast High School in nearby Cape Coral, Fla. Churlin is the country’s No. 181-ranked overall prospect (No. 23 outfielder) and has committed to the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
In SWFL’s first four games here, Churlin singled five times in 10 at-bats, walked twice, scored six runs and drove in two, and stole a couple of bases. This is the eighth Perfect Game tournament Churlin has played in with SWFL Baseball since late May 2013 and was named to the all-tournament teams at the 2013 16u PG WWBA East Memorial Day Classic, the 2013 PG WWBA Florida Qualifier and the 2014 PG WWBA East Memorial Day Classic.
“I like meeting all the other teams and seeing what they’ve got,” he said of the tournament experiences. “It’s fun seeing other people from other states – even countries – and realizing what they’ve got. It’s exhilarating playing with kids that actually like the game of baseball, too.”
Churlin previously played in six PG tournaments with Iron Pigs Baseball – five in 2012 and one in 2013; he was named to the all-tournament team at the 2013 15u Perfect Game World Series while playing with the Iron Pigs. He’s very comfortable with his decision to move over to SWFL last year.
“Everything has been really good,” Churlin said. “It feels like a real family, and even though we’re not real close together area-wise we come together on the field. When we do get back together (at the end of the school year) you have to break the ice. We have some new kids and breaking the ice is the key. You have to start communicating and joking around a little bit.”
Montgomery is also the head coach at Island Coast High School in Cape Coral which means he has an extended relationship with Churlin; coach and prospect are on the field together practically the year around.
“He gets on you a little bit but he shows you the fundamentals and everything,” Churlin said, adding that he feels Montgomery has helped him progress with his game, both at the plate and in the field.
“I feel a lot more confident with my hitting. From last year to this year, I feel like I’ve gotten more in the groove,” he said. “I enjoy playing the outfield and I feel like I know how to read a ball. If you know how to read a ball and you know your situations, you are best fit for the outfield and you’ve got to go out there and do what you’ve got to do.”
According to statistics posted on the MaxPreps website, Churlin hit .327 (35-for-70) with four doubles, eight RBI, 20 runs scored and seven walks, and struck out only five times in 24 games as a sophomore this spring; he also stole six bases.
“Anthony is special in the sense that he has incredible hand-eye coordination and he’s a tough kid to strikeout,” Montgomery said. “He brings an at-bat to the table every time he comes up, and you know he’s going to be a tough out for the defense. He brings a little speed and he can run into a ball every now and then.
“He’s still learning – every 16-year-old kid is still learning – no one’s a complete product,’ he continued. “I’m fortunate to have him and he’s a good leader … and he’s everything you could ask for.”
Montgomery was quick to point out that he didn’t add Churlin to the SWFL roster just because he plays at Island Coast HS. He includes only the best players he can find to fill out his SWFL roster and feels fortunate to be able to include a player of Churlin’s caliber on his team, regardless of which high school he attends.
“Right now he’s just one of the guys out there but it has been a good fit, not just for me but for the entire Southwest Florida Baseball organization,” Montgomery said.
Fort Myers is SWFL’s base of operation and the majority of this SWFL team’s roster is filled with players from Fort Myers and nearby cities like Cape Coral, Naples, and Port Charlotte. Six-foot-four, 171-pound right-hander Josh Winckowski, ranked No. 259 nationally, calls Fort Myers home, while 6-foot-4, 200-pound right-hander/first baseman Jordan Spicer, ranked No. 452, is from Hialeah, Fla., over on the Atlantic Coast.
An intriguing pick-up for this tournament is 2016 Mitchell Hagan, a 6-foot-3, 206-pound two-sport standout from Omaha, Neb., whose parents own a home in Naples. Hagan, who is the starting quarterback for the Westside High School football team back in Omaha, is ranked 311th nationally in baseball.
In the first four games, Spicer was 3-for-5 with a pair of doubles, two RBI and four runs and Hagan was 3-for-9 with a triple, three RBI and two runs.
“Once again, we got fortunate and we’ve got a good group of kids; we’ve got some good baseball players,” Montgomery said. “This team took a little longer to mesh together and that’s because we got a few kids from farther out of the area. It’s taken a little longer, but I feel like this week we’re starting to come together as a team; there is more talking on the bench.
“I think our best baseball is yet to come, and I don’t know if it’s this week or next week or when it’s going to be, but I do think there is more in the tank than what we’ve shown so far.”
After four games here, SWFL was hitting .318 as a team and outscored its opponents by a combined 43-7. Montgomery used 11 pitchers that held the opponents to seven hits and one earned run in 23 innings pitched (0.30 ERA) with 25 strikeouts and 17 walks. That includes 2106 right-hander Bryan Eberle from Alva, Fla., who in two appearances threw eight innings without allowing an earned run on four hits with six strikeouts.
And speaking of the 16u PG BCS Finals national championship tournament that has brought everyone together here in SWFL’s hometown, Montgomery thinks he just may have figured out the key to qualifying for the playoffs.
“Tournament baseball and high school basement is definitely different as far as coaching styles,” he said. “In tournament ball you play to prevent runs a little earlier with the infield in and stuff like that, and in this format if you want to get the wildcard, (earning a berth) can go to runs allowed in all six of your (pool-play) games.
“It gets kind of tricky but I think the key to this format is to just go out and win all six of your (pool) games, and then you don’t have to worry about anything.”