FORT MYERS, Fla. – When the 16u Perfect Game BCS Finals national championship tournament got under way at venues across Lee County on Friday morning, the Indiana Prospects had two sources of momentum working on their side – one originating from just last week and one originating from last year.
Last week, in preparation for what they hope will be a six-day stay at the 16u PG BCS Finals, the Indiana Prospects were playing in a 17-and-under tournament at the University of South Carolina. At that event, the Prospects did the unimaginable when they beat the national powerhouse EvoShield Canes 17u twice in back-to-back games. It was as if the sea had parted and the Prospects had marched gloriously into the promised land.
“This group definitely does not quit,” Prospects head coach Jeff Surbey said Friday before his team played its 16u PG BCS Finals opener at the Lee County Sports Complex, spring training home of the Minnesota Twins.
“They’re very competitive; they’ve been down in games and they’ve come back,” he said. “They beat a very top, elite 17u team last weekend – not once but twice back-to-back – and in both games they were behind. … Our kids just don’t quit.”
This is, in fact, the first tournament of the summer that the Indiana Prospects will be playing against a 16-and-under field, choosing to play-up against 17u competition leading up to the 16u PG BCS Finals.
“We’re going into this tournament having tried to be prepared for older kids – seeing some 90-mile-an-hour arms on a consistent basis – just to be prepared for this tournament,” Surbey said. “We’re really just looking at winning one game at a time.
“We’re coming off a very successful tournament last week in South Carolina, and we want to continue to keep hitting the baseball and playing good defense, and have the great pitching that we’ve had.”
Last weekend wasn’t the first time this same group of Indiana Prospects made noise. Ten of the players on this 16u roster were members of the Prospects team that finished runner-up at last year’s 15u PG BCS Finals national championship, although not all 10 were able to make the trip this week. The Indiana Prospects Blue finished 8-1-1 at that tournament after a 3-2 loss to the Texas Drillers in the championship game (the Drillers are not in the 16u field this year).
Four Prospects that are here this week were named to the 2013 15u PG BCS Finals all-tournament team: outfielder/left-hander J.J. Bleday (2016, Titusville, Pa.); third baseman/middle-infielder Jack Dunn (2016, Bradenton, Fla.); catcher Coy Cronk (2016, Delphi, Ind.) and outfielder/left-hander Julian Ossias (2015, Brandon, Fla.).
Bleday, a 6-foot-3, 185-pound two-way standout who has committed to Vanderbilt, is the most high-profile of the group. He is ranked 178th nationally in his class and has been named to the all-tournament team at the four of the six Perfect Game tournaments he’s played in with the Indiana Prospect. He remembers last year’s run at the 15u PG BCS Finals like it happened last week.
“It was awesome, you know, because we didn’t have a 22-man roster like a lot of those other teams,” Bleday said. “We were down on (pitching) arms and we really decided to stick together, help each other out, back each other up; that’s really what helped us make it to the championship (game). I don’t know any other 10 kids that could have done that besides us.”
The Prospects got off to a strong start at the 16u PG BCS Finals, beating the East Cobb Black Knights out of Marietta, Ga., 10-0 in a five-inning affair mid-day Friday.
Conrado Skepple, a high-follow 2015 from Brandon, Fla., doubled twice and drove in three runs; Bill Chillari, a top-1,000 2016 from Newport, N.J., singled and drove in two; and Dunn, a high follow, and Ty Reginelli, a high-follow 2015 from Gibsonia, Pa., each doubled, drove in a run and scored a run. Ossias allowed three hits in 4 1/3 innings, striking out seven without a walk.
“I’m looking forward to the competition,” said Bleday, who walked and scored a run in the opener. “Just going out there and playing our best baseball as a team, working together as a team and sticking with each other as a team.”
The Prospects are based in Fishers, Ind., but their players come several states; the roster lists guys from Indiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida and Alabama.
“We like to play good competition,” Surbey said. “We’re based out of Indiana but we’re a national team and we’ll go where ever there is good competition. We realize that we’re going to have our hands full in every game down here but we want to play the best competition we can.”
This is a close-knit group even if the players are separated by hundreds of miles during the school year. Surbey said quite of the guys got into Fort Myers on Wednesday and took advantage of the day off to go deep-sea fishing. It wasn’t the entire team, but while one group might have gone fishing another group was hanging out together doing something else.
It’s what 16-year-olds do in the summertime – hang out with their best friends who, in this case, also happen to be passionate about baseball.
“It’s all about developing camaraderie between the players; they get along very well,” Surbey said. “When we’re not together playing, they’re in contact with one another throughout the offseason; they’re in contact through the week during the season on our off-days. They hang out together; they’re a good group of kids, they’re fine young me, and they carry themselves well on and off the field.”
One of the team’s finest attributes is its ability to stay focused from game to game. The key to that, Surbey said, is keeping things simple while also trying to help keep the kids loose during games and between games. That “between games” situation can be especially important at this event when the Southwest Florida summertime heat and humidity can drain the energy – and the focus – out of the most highly trained athletes.
“They beat an elite team twice last week, and now that’s over with,” Surbey said of his players continuing to look ahead. “That’s in the past and now they’ll focus on today; that’s really what’s helped them be successful.”
This has been quite a couple of weeks for Bleday. Not only did he get to enjoy the two victories over the EvoShield Canes in South Carolina with his Indiana Prospects’ teammates, he also got watch his beloved Vanderbilt Commodores win the first NCAA Division I College World Series National Championship in school history.
“It was a really fun week,” Bleday said with a wide smile. “I was humbled to be the No. 1 recruit (in the 2016 class) at Vanderbilt. Now that’s over and done with and I just have to take it day-by-day and continue to become a better baseball player.”
All the experiences, all the momentum that was built up from the runner-up finish at last year’s 15u PG BCS Finals and last weekend’s sweep of one of the best 17u teams in the country has the Prospects brimming with confidence.
“We didn’t win it, obviously, but we’re definitely feeding off that experience,” Bleday said of the 2013 15u PG BCS Finals playoff run. “Hopefully we can get (PG national championship) rings and bring the championship back to Indiana. Last week when we beat the EvoShield Canes twice, back-to-back, that just really pumped us up. We really want to win this tournament and we think we can.”
Momentum, old and new, just might be on their side.