FORT MYERS, Fla. – They are both “Elite” and they are both “Prime” but on this one particular afternoon, anyway, the “Squad” was just a little bit better then the “Team”.
The Elite Squad Prime cranked it up a notch both at the plate and on the mound – something they had done on a regular basis here over the last six days – and danced away with the 16u Perfect Game BCS Finals national championship after a 10-0 blanking of the Team Elite Prime in the title game Wednesday at JetBlue Park.
It was a classic national championship title game on paper – the Elite Squad Prime was the tournament’s No. 4 seed and the Team Elite Prime was No. 3 – but by the time a couple of hundred spectators filed out of JetBlue Park at mid-afternoon, the Squad had left little doubt it was better then the Team on this particular day.
“This means everything,” Elite Squad founder, owner and head coach Richie Palmer said after the decisive win. “First and foremost we want to get kids to the next level and one thing we’ve prided ourselves on is that not only do we showcase our kids but we teach them lessons through going out there and trying to win championships.
“I think it reveals a lot of character, going through adversity and playing for something. These kids play for each other and they have a chance to be very special.”
At the risk of letting the cat out of the bag, the Elite Squad Prime are already looking pretty special. They finished 11-0 at a PG national championship event that included a lot of the top 16u teams and a lot of the top class of 2016 prospects in the country.
They outscored their 11 opponents by a combined 101-13, with their lineup compiling a .413 team batting average and their pitching staff a combined 1.00 ERA after 61 innings of work.
Both the bats and the arms were on display in the championship game. The Elite Squad put 20 runners on base with 13 hits and seven walks and managed to get 10 of them to cross the plate. Eric Rivera, Alejandro Toral and Landon Silver each had two hits – Rivera drove in two runs – and Gregory Veliz and Steven Revilla each doubled and drove in a run.
Palmer, who has two of the country’s top-ranked right-handers in Anthony Molina and Veliz on his staff, chose to send 5-foot-9, 130-pound righty Nick McDonald out on the hill to start the championship game and he looked brilliant for doing so. McDonald threw a six-inning, five-hit shutout with seven strikeouts and four walks and picked up the win.
“I’ve pitched here before and I have confidence (throwing) on this mound, and with this team behind me I knew right off the bat that we were going to get off to a good start,” McDonald said, thinking back to a two-run top of the first inning. “I was feeling relaxed and I went out there and just dealed; I had my best stuff.”
He certainly mixed his “stuff” up nicely. He threw 81 pitches in the championship game and only 39 were fastballs that topped-out at 83 mph. He also delivered a combination of 42 curveballs and changeups, with the curve topping out at 68 mph and the change at 72.
It was McDonald’s third appearance at the tournament and he finished 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA after allowing six hits, striking out eight and walking four in nine innings of work. He was named the PG national tournament’s Most Valuable Pitcher.
“I love this experience,” McDonald said. “Fort Myers is a great place to host a tournament with all these ballparks; great facilities, great employees on the field. I’m just happy that I can be a part of it and play out here; I’m blessed.”
Veliz is the No. 3-ranked right-handed pitching prospect in the class of 2016 (No. 4 overall prospect) but he also plays shortstop and handles a bat from the left side of the plate in a way that is almost as impressive as his 95 mile-per-hour fastballs.
He hit .444 (12-for-27) with three doubles, two triples and a home run over the last six days and 11 games, and had team-highs of 14 RBI and 11 runs scored. His slugging percentage soared to .815 and his on-base-plus-slugging percentage to 1.300.
“The way I was seeing the ball it’s hard to not be comfortable,” Veliz said of the way he slipped into a groove at the plate. “I was staying in and seeing the ball big and being comfortable. I was just having fun and smiling the whole time and enjoying the ride.”
Veliz showed another side of his game by stealing four bases, perhaps just to keep opposing pitchers and catchers honest; those offensive numbers – when added up and properly examined – led to Veliz being named the Most Valuable Player.
“This has been a great tournament,” he said. “We came out hitting well and we just kept it going through the whole tournament. We got behind in the first game today (the semifinals) and we worked as a team and came and kept battling.
“It’s pretty awesome coming here to get a ring,” he added. “Especially coming from Key West with all the (high school) state championships, all you want as a little kid is to get a ring. Now to be getting a ring here is special.”
The Team Elite Prime (10-1) enjoyed a terrific tournament before bumping heads with the Elite Squad Prime. They outscored their previous 10 opponents 67-12 and boasted a 1.15 team ERA before surrendering the 10 earned runs to the Elite Squad.
2016 right-hander Will Ethridge made three appearances and pitched nine innings without giving up an earned run, striking out 11. Twin brothers Nick and Austin Wilhite led Team Elite at the plate with Nick finishing 12-for-33 (.364) with eight RBI and seven runs scored; Austin was 7-for-23 (.304) with seven RBI and 10 runs.
“My expectation is to come down here and compete at the highest level we can compete at,” Team Elite Prime head coach Shane Hopper told PG earlier this week. “… My expectation for a 16-year-old kid is to learn how to play the game the right way; learn how to play at full-speed; learn how to go out there and compete in a tough environment. And develop, not only physically as a player but mentally, as well. That’s my main objective with these guys.”
The Elite Squad Prime had to scrap and claw just to advance to the championship game, finally escaping the No. 9-seeded MBA Pride Elite, 5-4, in a semifinal game played Wednesday morning. The Pride Elite’s Alec Sanchez led off the game with a solo home run off of Veliz – the start of a three-run top of the first inning – and the Elite Squad was in an early hole.
Veliz did not have his best stuff from the mound on Wednesday. He pitched 3 1/3 innings; gave up four runs, two earned; struck out two, walked three and hit two batters. His fastball, which touched 95 mph at the PG Junior National Showcase the second week of June, reached 92 mph against MBA.
2016 right-handers Zach Jackson and Tyler Santana came in and shut the door on the Pride Elite after Veliz was lifted. The combined throw 3 2/3 shutout innings, allowing two hits with three strikeouts and a walk.
What Veliz may have lacked from the mound, he made up for it at the plate. He doubled to drive in a run that gave the Prime a short-lived 4-3 lead in the bottom of the third, and drove in what proved to be the winning run with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the fifth.
Other Elite Squad batters also hit the ball well, as has been their M.O. the entire tournament. Derek Cartaya was 2-for-2 with a double, an RBI and a run scored and Colton Welker – the nation’s 119th-ranked 2016 prospect – was 2-for-3 with two runs driven in.
“This morning was not an easy game to get through; MBA played very well,” Palmer said. “We got down 3-to-nothing in the first inning and these kids responded very well with two runs just to get back in the game, and they were never out of it. That’s a testament to these guys; we’ve been fortunate to have this group and they’ve bought in since day one.”
The MBA Pride Elite (9-2), playing with a 15-and-under roster, enjoyed a tremendous tournament. They outscored their three previous playoff opponents by a combined 15-4, beating the Mid-Ohio Bullets Blue, 4-0; the No. 8 Elite Squad Slugger, 3-1 and the No. 17 Goose’s Gamers, 8-3.
Trailing 1-0 after two innings, Team Elite put up five runs in the bottom of the third and added two more in the bottom, and went on to beat the No. 23-seeded Florida Burn Pennant, 9-3, in the semifinal round.
Austin Wilhite (ranked 120th nationally) had a pair of hits, including a double, and drove in four runs to lead Team Elite. Aaron Schunk (No. 108) singled and drove in two runs Nick Wilhite (No. 121) singled and drove in two runs.
2016 left-hander Johnathan Jahn and ’16 righty Nate Richardson combined to allow three runs on eight hits over seven innings, with five strikeouts and four walks.
Parke Phillips singled and doubled and drove in a run, the only batter in the Florida Burn Pennant’s lineup with more than one hit. Seven others collected a hit apiece, including doubles from the class of 2016’s No. 1-ranked national prospect, Austin Bergner and Rylan Thomas, a 2016 Central Florida commit ranked No. 57 nationally.
The Florida Burn Pennant (8-2) lost their second game in the second round of pool-play and needed a wildcard berth to get into the playoffs, although at No. 23 they were the highest seeded wildcard entry. The Burn Pennant beat No. 10 SWFL, 9-3, in the first round of the playoffs; the No. 26 Florida Surge, 12-0, in the second round; and No. 2 Team Demartini Puerto Rico, 10-3, in the quarterfinals.
It is already July and the summer is passing quickly. Now the proud owners of one Perfect Game national championship, the Elite Squad Prime will be looking for more hardware to lug back to the Miami area in the comings weeks.
“The biggest thing now, and we’ll talk about it, is the WBBA,” Palmer said of the PG WWBA 16u National Championship that will be played in the northwest Atlanta suburbs July 11-18. “That’s going to be our next goal and it’s not going to be easy; this wasn’t easy and neither is that.
“I know these kids, if I know anything about them, they’re going to stay hungry and they’re going get after it because they really enjoy playing with each other and winning, and that’s why I think they have a chance to be special.”
2014 16u BCS Finals runner-up: Team Elite Prime
2014 16u BCS Finals MVP: Gregory Veliz, Elite Squad Prime
2014 16u BCS Finals MV-Pitcher: Nick McDonald, Elite Squad Prime