EMERSON, Ga. – WWBA 16u National Championship kicked off Wednesday with the nightcaps at Perfect Game Park South at LakePoint and, like every Perfect Game tournament, with the best teams come the best players. This was the case when the Midland Tomahawks, a team from a very reputable organization, sent crafty southpaw Nick Bennett to the mound against the Chattanooga Cyclones.
The uncommitted lefty kept several college recruiting coordinators very busy jotting down notes and getting velocities for nearly two hours behind the backstop. Bennett threw a seven-inning no-hitter to start Midland’s playoff run on the highest of notes. It took him just 86 pitches to throw the complete game, giving up one earned run off of three walks, while tallying an impressive 10 strikeouts and sending his team home 6-1 winners. He had a perfect game through the first four innings of the ballgame.
“It was an elimination game, so we were just trying to get the job done,” said Bennett. “I went out just trying to throw strikes, get the job done, and get outs, that’s all I wanted. I thought I did pretty well. I think all my pitches were working for me. My changeup was a lot better than normal and my curveball was as good as I like and my fastball was helping out a lot too.”
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound hurler pounded the strike zone from the start, throwing close to 61-percent of his pitches for strikes and throwing first-pitch strikes to 14 of the 24 batters he faced in his second outing of the tournament.
“Usually when I go out there I just wanna throw strikes, pound the zone, and let my fielders make plays for me,” Bennett said. “My strength is my ability to throw my off-speed for a strike. In 3-2 counts, I’ll throw my off-speed a lot. Hitters don’t usually expect that.”
Bennett has quite an impressive stat line in his tournament, throwing 13 innings and giving up just three earned runs on five hits and six walks. The number that really stands out is his 18 strikeouts, averaging well over one strikeout per inning.
“It’s pretty much what we’ve come to expect from Nick,” said head coach Brian Carney. “He’s as consistent a pitcher as we’ve ever seen or had and when we need a ‘W’ we can always turn to Nick. That’s generally what he gives us in big games.”
The Cincinnati, Ohio native has gotten accustomed to performing on the big stage. The class of 2016 lefty performed against the best amateur baseball players in the country last October at the WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., most of whom were two classes above him. Even more impressive, he earned All-Tournament honors while pitching at the highly scouted event.
“It was my first time playing in front of a lot of scouts, so it was a little mind-boggling, but it was a lot of fun,” Bennett said. “Having all those scouts watch me was really awesome and I’ll be going back down there this fall, so I’m looking forward to it.”
The young lefty never shies away from playing on the biggest stage he can. Ranked No. 141 nationally by Perfect Game for the 2016 high school class, Bennett pitches for his high school, Archbishop Moeller, which his a long tradition of excellence. The Crusaders have won numerous state champions and call former Major Leaguers Barry Larkin and Ken Griffey Jr. alumni.
“It’s a great tradition at Moeller,” said Bennett. “We won back-to-back state championships in 2012 and 2013 and we tried again this year and couldn’t get it done, but it’s a really great privilege to play there.”
When he’s not busy sporting the Crusaders blue and gold, he’s rocking the Midland blue and maize with fellow lights-out lefty and close friend Dion Henderson.
Henderson pitched his team to the pool-clinching victory Wednesday morning in a 9-1 victory over the Diamond Elite 2016’s, throwing a complete game with seven strikeouts, while touching 90 mph twice on the radar guns.
“I just wanted to fill it up with fastballs pretty much,” Henderson said of his six-inning complete game. “I had my cutter working pretty well, so it was a good win all-around. I had some good offense behind me. The guys really had my back throughout the whole game.”
Turning to Henderson for the pool-clinching win, and then ten hours later being able to lean on Bennett for the team’s first playoff victory is a luxury Carney is well aware of.
“If you have two hammers like that, it gives us a lot of confidence because we know that if we can manage to score a few runs that’s usually all we need to win the game,” said Carney.
What may be more impressive is their work ethic. The two define the meaning of a competitor and, being a couple of the best arms in the country, feel comfortable learning from one another and encouraging each other to keep improving.
“We’re actually pretty much best friends,” Bennett said of his friendship with Henderson. “He’ll throw a game and I’ll know he’ll do great, then I’ll come in and he’ll know I’ll do great. We have a great trust with each other.”
The 6-foot-4, 190-pound Dearborn, Mich. native Henderson had similar words about he and Bennett’s relationship.
“If one of us has a bad game, we’ll talk to each other about it,” said Henderson. “We’ll talk about what we could’ve done, what we should’ve done. We’ll go out to the Midland field and work on some drills together and it’s good to have a best friend like that who’s there with you all the way.”
Henderson and Bennett have been teammates with Midland for a few summers now and have enjoyed every second in the maize and blue.
“These are my best friends,” Bennett said. “I’ve been playing with these guys for a long time and I love all of them. We love playing baseball together.”
“I really love this program and can’t wait to see what’s in store for us,” added Henderson.
The team chemistry is evident when the Tomahawks take the field. It’s evident in their six WWBA 16u National Championship wins. Henderson is confident in the team’s tournament chances.
“I’m thinking we can make a really good run in this tournament,” Henderson said. “Once we get rolling, we’re pretty solid.”