FORT MYERS, Fla. – It was back in June of 2012 when a group of mostly 12-year-olds playing for an upstart team operating out of Daytona Beach, Fla., and with an NCAA Division I head coach serving as their head coach, thought they’d see what they could accomplish against an elite field of 13-and-under teams. It’s a practice called “playing up.”
The team was the MBA Prime Elite and the head coach was Mervyl Melendez, who had just taken over the D-I program at Alabama State in Montgomery, Ala., after a long stint at Bethune- Cookman University in Daytona Beach. It was the first time the youngsters playing under the MBA (Melendez Baseball Academy) banner would play up an age-class and things went so well it would not be the last.
The MBA Pride Elite won the 13u Perfect Game BCS Finals national championship in 2012, led by young athletes like Tyler Myrick (class of 2016), M.J. Melendez (2017), Jose Ciccarello (2017), Alec Sanchez (2018) and Chase Sanguinetti (2018).
That core group – along with at least one very key addition from that 2012 tournament – has stuck together and now that they are a couple of years older have continued to experience success at each subsequent level.
MBA Pride Elite won its third straight game in the second set of pool-play Monday morning at the Player Development 5-Plex to win its pool championship and advance to the first round of the playoffs at the 16u PG BCS Finals national championship. The Pride Elite took a 5-1 record into the 32-team playoffs which were scheduled to begin late Monday afternoon.
“It’s just been amazing to be able to go out and play with these kids,” said Sanguinetti, a 5-foot-7, 150-pound left-hander and first baseman who was named the Most Valuable Pitcher at the 2012 13u PG BCS Finals. “These are all the top ballplayers in the country, and to be able to share all these experiences with them, it’s amazing, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
The Pride Elite has played well at this tournament, an event at which they just might be the youngest team by average age. They’ve hit .384 as a team with 19 extra-base hits – including five home runs – and have outscored their six opponents by a combined 57-18.
There was one blip, however. After lopsided wins over Storm Baseball and SWFL Navy, they lost their third game of the tournament in the first set of three pool-play games to the GBSA Sox, a setback that worked against them when the playoff seeds were determined.
But they did rally two win three straight – 11-5 over the Excel Blue Sox (Oxford, Ala.); 8-3 over Team Elite Louisville Slugger (Winder, Ga.); 10-2 over the So Cal National Travel Team (June Lake, Calif.) to earn an automatic playoff berth.
“We’re a 15-and-under team … and we’ve been playing 16-and-under Perfect Game tournaments all summer long, and we’ve done fairly well,” MBA Pride Elite head coach Phillip Hurst said. “We come down here to Florida where we’re from … and we came out flat that third game, but that’s baseball. If you don’t come out ready to play every day – there are great travel ball teams down here – you’ll get beat.
“After that game we talked to the kids and we told them, ‘You have to want it; you have to hate losing more than like to win,’” he continued. “I have a great group of kids, I have a great group of parents and assistant coaches, and the kids are starting to respond; we’re on the right path again.”
Added Sanguinetti: “We knew we had to come out and play our kind of baseball. That loss did kind of hurt us for the overall (playoff) seeding and our coach told us we had to do better than that, we had to step up and we needed to go out and play the way we’re capable of playing, and so far we’ve done that.”
With the core of this MBA Pride Elite team having played together since they were 11 years old, the coaching staff decided they were capable of playing up an age group whenever possible. New pieces have been added to the core over the last couple of years but the newcomers have fit in easily and the winning has continued.
“We have great chemistry,” Hurst said. “All of our kids really, really enjoy playing together and we have fun doing it. Most (teams) go their separate ways after their ‘little kids’ stuff is over and we’ve all stayed together and had a great run.”
One important addition to the team came with the arrival of 2016 outfielder/right-handed pitcher Donnie Gleneski from Orange Park, Fla., and his arrival did not come without some irony. Gleneski was named the Most Valuable Player at the 2012 13u PG BCS Finals while playing for Team Florida, the team the MBA Pride Elite beat in the championship game.
After winning the MVP Award for Team Florida at the 2012 13u PG BCS Finals, Gleneski spent the summer of 2013 playing in two PG tournaments with the East Cobb Astros and one with the MBA Pride Elite – the 15u PG BCS Finals where he again was named to the all-tournament team.
“I just really started liking MBA after I started playing with them here and there (in 2013),” Gleneski said. “They’ve really helped me out, the coaches are real great and it’s a fun atmosphere to be around. It’s been a real good fit for me.”
Gleneski is one of five MBA Pride Elite hitters to smack a home run at the 16u PG BCS Finals –Sanguinetti, Sanchez, Melendez and Jose Ciccarello (2017) are the others – and went 9-for-18 (.500) with nine RBI, seven runs scored and an .889 slugging percentage through the first six games. He also pitched in two games and allowed two earned runs over eight innings (2.62 ERA) on eight hits with seven strikeouts and two walks.
Sanchez went 10-for-21 (.476) with five RBI, 10 runs and a .762 slugging percentage; Ciccarello was 6-for-14 (.400) with six RBI, eight runs and a .733 slugging percentage.
“We just didn’t want to get another loss,” Gleneski said of his team’s three-game winning streak heading into the playoffs. “We knew we had to come back strong and put good at-bats together, score a lot of runs and limit the walks from the mound and errors in the field – just make routine plays.”
The MBA Pride Elite has already done their share of winning this spring and summer. They captured the championship at the PG WWBA 16u National Championship Qualifier and finished runner-up at the 16u Perfect Game-East Cobb Invitational, both earlier this month at Perfect Game Park South at LakePoint in Emerson, Ga. Those top-two finishes came on the heels of a final four finish at the 2013 14u Perfect Game World Series here in Fort Myers in early August.
“We’re trying to push ourselves to be the best 15u team in the nation,” Hurst said. “I’ve talked to different people at Perfect Game and they’ve asked me what our goal is, well, our goal is to be the No. 1 team (in 15u). Not No. 2 (but) No. 1. We finished (tied for) third at the (14u) Perfect Game World Series last year and it really left a bad taste in all of our mouths.”
With so many winning tournament experiences already under their belts, the camaraderie between the players gets strengthens with each additional appearance. The more time they spend together and the more success they experience leads to even tighter bonds and even higher expectations.
“We’re all close and we do everything together; I consider this team my family,” Sanguinetti said. “We came into this tournament feeling like we’re the best 15u team in the nation and we think we can play with any 16u team.”
It’s a belief that is pounded into the players’ heads with each passing success. Hurst and the other coaches challenge their players to push themselves and strive to be “the best that we possibly can be.”
“All of these kids have bright futures at the next level,” Hurst said. “By playing Perfect Game tournaments we get to see good pitching and good teams that are going to challenge us to be the best team that we possibly can be.”
Gleneski was the winning pitcher in the 10-2 automatic playoff berth-clinching win over the So Cal NTT Monday morning. His association with both the MBA Pride Elite and the East Cobb Astros has given him the opportunity to play with some outstanding travel ball teams in the last couple of years, and he likes this one as much as any other.
“We’re a really strong team and we have really high expectations of being one of the top 15-year-old teams in the country,” he said. “A lot of people look at us like we have a target on our backs and they want to get after us.
“I really do feel like we belong here in this situation,” Gleneski concluded. “We’ve got a real strong team and I think we’ve got a good shot at winning it.”