FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Of all the top-shelf pitchers that have gathered here this weekend for the PG WWBA Florida Qualifier, the one feeling most comfortable with his teammates just might be the same guy who is the highest-ranked.
Thomas Szapucki, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound left-hander and sophomore (class of 2015) at William T. Dwyer High School in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., is the nation's No. 2-ranked overall prospect in his class and its No. 1-ranked left-handed pitcher.
This is the 13th Perfect Game event Szapucki has attended since July 2011, and almost all of them have been as a member of a team from the All-American Prospects organization.
This weekend is different, though. For only the third time, Szapucki is pitching for the Panther Baseball Club, a team made up almost entirely of his teammates at Dwyer High School and coached by the Dwyer head coach, Frank Torre.
The Panther Baseball Club roster posted for this tournament includes 16 Dwyer seniors, juniors, sophomores and even one freshman (Colton Rendon from Jupiter, Fla.). Only four roster spots are filled by players from other high schools, including two from Cardinal Newman.
"I'm playing with kids I'm with all the time," Szapucki said after a short stint Saturday afternoon at the Player Training and Development 5-Plex. "I see them every day, I see them at every practice and it's really nice just to hang out with them. I really like hanging out with my coach, too."
There are many other teams at the WWBA Florida Qualifier that are top-heavy with prospects from the same high school. The Sarasota Baseball Club, coached by Sarasota High School hall-of-fame coach Clyde Metcalf, is here with a roster that is exclusively Metcalf's players from Sarasota High. It just makes a lot of sense for many of these south Florida high school teams assemble for this fall tournament.
"It's really great to come over to Fort Myers; it's only about a two hour drive for us," Panther Baseball Club/Dwyer High School head coach Torre said. "It's great to play the great competition that you play in these Perfect Game tournaments and really kind of see where your team is at. It's just such a valuable experience."
It's a win-win for the Dwyer boys. They get to continue to play with one another away from their typical spring season, and also get to play against some of the best teams put together primarily with other Florida kids. There are other prospects from all across the eastern part of the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada playing on teams at the Florida Qualifier.
William T. Dwyer HS does play in Florida Class 8A during its spring season, so it is use to seeing the best the state has to offer. But many of the teams at the WWBA Florida Qualifier are essentially all-star teams. This is the third year Torre has brought what is in reality his team from Dwyer to a high-profile PG tournament.
"Seeing the kind of caliber of play and pitching that they're going to see here ... is so valuable to keep them playing against this kind of competition," Torre said. "And it's amazing how many kids get some attention and get some colleges interested in them just by coming up here. It's great for our kids to get this kind of exposure."
A lot of eyes were on Szapucki when he took the mound late Saturday morning. Panther Baseball had just won its first game of the tournament by scoring five runs in the bottom of the seventh to erase a four-run deficit and beat Hitmen Baseball, 5-4, with the winning run scoring on a wild pitch.
Szapucki was probably not at his best, working 2 1/3 innings and giving up two hits and two earned runs with five strikeouts and two walks. His fastball averaged about 86 mph and hit 90, and a scouting report noted that he "keeps hitters off balance" and "attacks hitters" while "being around the plate with all pitches."
There was a steady 15 mph east-northeast wind at the 5-Plex Saturday morning with gusts approaching 25 mph, and Szapucki identified that as his toughest adversary.
"Under the circumstances, with the wind and everything, I felt pretty good. I wasn't 100 percent, but I felt pretty good," he said. "The last time I really pitched in a game was a couple of weeks ago. I just did my bullpen (session) the other day, but this was my first live game in a couple of weeks."
He was challenged pitch-for-pitch by SCORE International 18u right-hajnder Brandon Brosher who threw five one-hit, shutout innings and struck out 11.
Szapucki is one of two Dwyer High School and Panther Baseball Club teammates who have committed to play college baseball at the University of Florida for head coach Kevin O'Sullivan. The other is outfielder/first baseman/right-hander Duke Stunkel, a 2014 top-1,000 prospect.
Stunkel (6-4, 200) started the Panthers' tournament opener Saturday morning and was effective over four innings, allowing one earned run on one hit with six strikeouts and three walks.
"(Szapucki has) gotten a lot of attention from Perfect Game already," Torre said, referring to the high ranking. "Both he and Duke have committed to Florida but we have so many other unsigned seniors and that's the reason you come over here, to catch someone's eye.
"We're going to continue to do more Perfect Game events because we think they're the best with the best exposure and the best competition we can find."
As for his decision to verbally commit to Florida, Szapucki said:
"I always want to be close to my family in Florida, and (the University of) Florida was just the place I clicked with," he said. "I went to visit a couple of other schools, but when I went to Florida the campus and the academics there are really superb, and that's what clicked with me."
The champion of the WWBA Florida Qualifier receives a paid invitation to the prestigious PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., Oct. 25-29. Although the Panther Baseball Club technically isn't one of the high-profile travel ball teams that compete for the WWBA World Championship title, Torre would love to see his guys get a chance to line up against the best in the country.
"We want our guys to come over here and try to win the tournament; we always talk about winning stuff," he said. "Jupiter is right next door to us, so we'd love to keep playing and hopefully get an opportunity to go play in that tournament."