FORT MYERS, Fla. – This isn’t really about Ian Elliott or Ethan Gallagher or any of the other individuals that comprise the roster for the Arena Starz 15u squad that is present at 15u Perfect Game BCS Finals national championship tournament that began its six-day run Friday morning.
This is more about the Starz as a whole, a team from Bel Air, Md., that showed up at last year’s 14u PG BCS Finals here in Southwest Florida and surprised just about everyone but themselves when they returned to the Baltimore area with a PG national championship trophy while awaiting the arrival of their PG national championship rings.
It’s a team that is coming into this event a tad bit on the wobbly side, with a couple of its best arms sidelined with injuries. Not that it should matter all that much for a team of seasoned 15-year-olds that has learned how to succeed and win on the biggest stages only over the last four years when Arena Starz 15u founder and head coach Scott Elliott first put this team together with a huge assist from his son, Ian.
The Arena Starz won the PG national championship at the 14u PG BCS Finals a year ago after posting a 4-2 win over the heralded Houston Banditos Black in the title game, a result that left the Starz with a 9-0-1 record at the tournament and the Banditos Black at 9-1-0. The kids from Maryland were sitting in the catbird’s seat and grinning all the way to the hardware story.
“Playing here last year and doing well gave us the confidence to come in here and play well again this year,” Ian Elliott told PG Friday afternoon before the Starz opened tournament play with a 4-0 win over the RBI Playmakers from Jacksonville, Fla. “It’s a lot of the same faces, a lot of the guys are experienced now and I think we’ve grown as a team from then to now, and I think we can do the same thing this year that we did last year.”
“We have a real good group of guys and staying together and growing together and trying to get to where we want to be as a group is real fun,” he continued, speaking much more eloquently than any prospect in the class of 2016 has a right to. “We have a real good mixture of our aggressiveness and our ability to come through as a team in that aggressiveness. We can kind of translate our attack as a group all in the same direction, pushing each other; it’s a real fun thing to be a part of.”
Ian Elliott, a 2016 outfielder/right-hander, and Ethan Gallagher, a 2017 outfielder/right-hander, joined 2017 right-hander Raphael Baumgardner and 2017 shortstop Jeremy Arocho on the all-tournament team at the 2013 14u PG BCS Finals; all four are here for this tournament. In all, 11 players that were on the national championship roster a year ago are back on the roster head coach Scott Elliott has here.
“This team has a very unique mojo,” Scott Elliott said Friday. “They are all very good individual players but when they play together they all play better. A number of parents and the players have told me that: there’s something about when they put on that jersey, they hit better, they pitch better, they feel better. They care a lot about each other, they never quit and they grind.
“These tournaments … you have to grind because you’re tired and you’re out there all day … but they grind it out and they don’t make excuses and they’re just tough, tough kids,” he continued. “They love playing together and they love the fact that they’ve built something, they put this together, they recruited each other and they went out and did it on a national scene instead of just the local scene.”
One of the grinders is Gallagher, an impressive 6-foot-1, 215-pound prospect from Calonsville, Md. He is part of the core of this group that plans on winning a lot more PG national championships before their run through high school is done in two or three years.
“We really hope to win another championship like last year but it’s going to be hard though because our pitching’s a little limited,” he said Friday. “I think we’ll be all right, though, because we rely on our defense and our offense carrying us a lot at these tournaments. Our coach likes to put a lot of pressure on the other teams’ defense and making them throw the ball around; just push them to their limit and we usually break them.”
The Arena Club is a fitness center owned by Keith and Kathy Rawlings located in Bel Air, Md.; that’s not far from the Ripken Baseball Complex in Aberdeen, Md. Keith Rawlings and Billy Ripken are good friends of Scott Elliott – himself a former player at Georgetown University who spent one season in the minor leagues – and the Arena Starz are able to train at both the Arena Club and the Ripken facility.
Roster members 2017 catcher/middle-infielder Bryant Holtzapple, 2017 left-hander Matt Thomas and 2016 right-hander/first baseman Hayden Seig are from the Philadelphia area in eastern Pennsylvania but the rest of the team are all Marylanders, albeit from all corners of the state. They run into each other on a regular basis throughout the school year.
“I play against all of these kids during the high school season,” Gallagher said. “That’s when it’s fun because I’ll play against them in high school and then I’ll see them on my summer team.”
The real impetus behind this team being formed was Ian Elliott, his father said. Had Ian not done a good job of projecting himself as a possible top-notch prospect, become friends with these other players and then brought the players to his father as a group, the Arena Starz would have never been established.
“If he wanted to just play on the local scene that would have been fine; if he wanted to play football that was fine with me, too,” Scott Elliott said. “But when he brought this group of guys together and said, ‘Hey, I think we can do this’ it was kind of like a partnership between he and I to get out and do it.”
In four short years, the program has grown to where it is now nationally recognized. Back when these Maryland boys were 11 and 12 years old, not many would have thought they would enter a PG national championship tournament not only as a previous champion but as a favorite the next year. They have definitely grown both older and closer through the years.
“We’ve been together for like four or five years and we feel like a big family,” Gallagher said. “We all get along really well and there are no problems on the team; we like to have fun. If we fly, we all fly together; if we drive, we all drive together; when we eat, we all eat together. It’s fun to be a part of a family like this.”
He remembered just three years or four years ago when he and his teammates would talk about traveling south and playing all the top teams, primarily those from Georgia and Florida. Just two weeks ago the Starz competed at the PG WWBA 15u National Championship at Perfect Game Park South at LakePoint in Emerson, Ga., and other points north of Atlanta, and finished with a very impressive 8-1 record after losing to the eventual champion Georgia Jackets in the quarterfinals.
Along the way, the Marylanders posted a 3-1 win over the famed East Cobb Astros, a huge feather in their caps that didn’t go unnoticed. “We got to play them and we beat them,” Gallagher said. “It’s like we’re at the bottom of the totem pole and we just have to go out and knock off each team.”
This was not said to show any disrespect to the East Cobb Astros. In fact, it was said with the utmost respect.
“It’s a lot of fun because it’s a whole different culture of baseball,” Gallagher added. “It’s something we try to model our program after, because down south they play a lot faster and up north it’s kind of slow. Our coach likes to play fast and that picks the tempo up.”
An emerging program like the Arena Starz is also trying to emulate the East Cobbs of the world in another important way. The players are seeking – and are starting to find – college scholarship money just by doing what they love to do – playing baseball.
“All of the guys on our team are looking forward to that and have their eyes set on playing on the next level,” Ian Elliott said. “It’s good to be a part of something so great, and what they put together at Perfect Game really brings all these like-minded people together. It’s a really fun thing to be a part of and get to experience.”
The Arena Starz 15u’s 4-0 win over the RBI Playmakers Friday afternoon wasn’t necessarily majestic, but the starter Sieg and three relievers – including Ian Elliott – managed to put aside a few of the doubts about the health of the pitching staff; they combined on a seven-inning, three-hit shutout with eight strikeouts and three walks.
“I think you have to high expectations and you need to be aiming for that no matter what happens,” Ian Elliott said. “You have to aim high and keep hoping for the best. All of guys have made the commitment that we want to be together and we want to play together and we’ve got a great group so we’ll keep it together and keep playing ball.”
His father, Scott Elliott, added: “We’re a young program but we’ve got a great group of guys. They’ve shown they can compete in any national tournament we’ve put them in and we’ve always done very well. We’re a little gimpy this tournament because of our pitching staff being injured but I have to get them healthy again. They have showcases in the fall and this is a big year for them, and we can’t just totally burn them out; we have to be very careful with that.
“It’s been a lot of growth rapidly for us but I give all the credit to Keith and Kathy Rawlings at the Arena Club because they are really the ones that made it happen.”
With one huge assist from his son.