MILTON, Ga. – Having a tournament that has 304 teams participating in it, like the 17u WWBA National Championship does, makes it very feasible to have many pools that have multiple great teams in it. With only the top team in each pool advancing to bracket play, each game in the pool has high stakes. These high stakes and the competitiveness of this tournament bring out a fire in teams.
In Tuesday’s Pool V matchup between the GBSA Blue Rays and the Scorpions 2016 Prime at Cambridge High School, the stakes were higher than ever and both teams were fired up. GBSA started the game in first place with a spotless 5-0 record, having allowed just eight runs. They had looked solid so far, and they had a chance to win the pool outright with a win.
The Scorpions 2016 Prime, on the other hand, had faltered a little bit early in the tournament and entered the game with a 3-2 record, which was good enough for third place in the pool.
Another team sitting in top portion of the pool entering Tuesday was the BigStix Gamers 17u. After tying their game against Diamond Skills baseball earlier in the day, they sat in second place in the pool with a 4-1-1 record. Their lone loss was against the Scorpions 2016 Prime. With the tie, they had mathematically eliminated the Scorpions 2016 Prime. But, the outcome of the BigStix game was unknown to both GBSA and the Scorpions when their game started because of the game times. Thus, both teams came in thinking they had a chance to win the pool making the game all the more intense.
GBSA’s start to the tournament was one that can be defined simply by one word: offense. In their first five games, they posted a team batting average of .391. They had five guys who had at least nine plate appearance in the tournament that were batting over .400. Leading the charge were 2015-grads Tekwaan Whyte with a .714 average (10-for-14) and Dexter “DJ” Neal who had an average of .667 (8-for-12). Neal was especially impressive having posted nine RBI in the fives game and four home runs.
“We haven’t been missing our pitches,” GBSA head coach Kentaus Carter (KC) said. “We’ve been getting our pitches, and we haven’t been missing them. We’ve been hitting the ball hard and we’ll run into one every now and again, especially DJ Neal. He went three straight games with a home run. So, we’ve been hitting our pitches.
Neal is a player that sometimes flies under the radar on this team because of Whyte and Bacari Gayle who are top talents who both were invited to the National Showcase this past June in Fort Myers, Florida. His 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame makes him a force at the plate. But, the reason he may not be getting as much attention on the baseball field as he should is because of his commitment to another sport.
Neal is a standout wide receiver on the Stephenson High School football team, which is located in Lithonia, GA. Stephenson, is a powerhouse football program playing in Georgia’s 5A classification. According to Rivals.com, he is the 233rd best player in the nation. His ability on the football field has led him to commit to play football at the University of South Carolina. But with his success on the baseball field, he will have to make a decision whether he wants to pursue baseball after high school.
Whyte, on the other hand, is all about baseball. His 6-foot-1, 170-pound frame is deceiving in that he is not overly big, but he is impressive to watch. Having the opportunity to go down to the National Showcase was something that he felt blessed to be able to do.
“National was a big deal for me,” Whyte said. “Going down there having good numbers and playing with some of the best players in the nation, it was a good experience.”
Whyte was the starting pitcher against the Scorpions 2016 Prime. He was very effective in his five innings of work, allowing just four hits. He also struck out nine and walked none with an impressive fastball that sat between 89 and 92 mph (miles per hour). But, he left the game trailing 3-0 thanks to some clutch hitting by the Scorpions.
Leading the Scorpions was Drew Mendoza. Mendoza, a 2016 player from Minneola, FL, has been on the national scene for a while now. He currently ranks as the 11th best player in the class and is committed to play college baseball at Florida State University. Recently, he attended the Perfect Game Junior National Showcase where he showed off his skills against the best players at his age.
“I felt just being around those top guys I felt like I know where I’m at among the top players in the nation,” Mendoza said. “I just need to step my game up and improve my skills, and I thought that coming here it’s the same thing. You’re playing against the best competition and you have to step your game up, and I feel like I did that today.”
He did exactly that against GBSA. He went 2-for-3 at the plate, including a home run in the top of the fourth inning. He also accounted for two of the Scorpions three runs on the day. He also came into pitch an inning of relief for the team. His fastball was impressive sitting between 89 and 91 mph. This being the first time he had thrown in a while, he was anxious to have a good showing.
“I’ve been waiting for so long to get back on the mound,” Mendoza said. “I’ve struggled with some things, and just getting back out there it felt great. My adrenaline was pumping. I felt good. My stuff felt good, and it all worked out.”
After Carlos Cortes’ home run in the top of the fifth for the Scorpions, things got a little testy between the two teams, adding to intense-nature of the game. In the end, the Scorpions prevailed 3-0, and they achieved what they set out to do when the day started.
“We were going into it looking to beat a 5-0 team,” Mendoza said. “We accomplished our goal to go 2-0 for the day, and it was a good team effort. We played well.”
With the loss, GBSA now sits at 5-1 in pool play. The craziness of this pool continues because tomorrow, the last day of pool play, they will face the BigStix Gamers 17u. This game will serve as a winner-take-all game with the victor advancing to bracket play. The importance of this game cannot be stressed enough, and KC and Whyte understand that.
“It feels good that we control our own destiny,” Whyte said. “All we have to do is win. And, tomorrow’s game is probably the biggest game of the pool; like the championship, so it’s going to be a tough game tomorrow.”
“The game tomorrow is the biggest game of the summer season for us,” KC said. “If we don’t win it then all the work we’ve done up to this point is just void. So, it’s a big game for us, and we just need to come out there and win one game; play good defense, pitch well, and get some timely hitting.”
GBSA will be in for another competitive, intense atmosphere Wednesday. They will look to write a different script than the one from Tuesday and vault themselves into a chance at a title.