FORT MYERS, Fla. – SWFL 17u Grey came into the Perfect Game Florida State Championship with high expectations after placing third in the BCS. So far this week, they have done nothing to damper the positive vibes around the team, as they enter the final day of the tournament with a resounding 6-0 record.
“Our approach is running high off of our accomplishments in the BCS, finishing in third place,” said SWFL coach Ryan Horton. “We just tried to keep the momentum running into this tournament. Our pitchers and hitters have come up big throughout the entire tournament, we’ve coached them to play small-ball and hit gap-to-gap, and we’ve been doing that all weekend while our pitchers have been filling it up and doing a very good job for us.”
SWFL isn’t just a smart team that plays the game the right way; they are supremely talented. They currently have four players already committed to play at elite college programs in Florida as well as numerous players who will also make the leap to the Division I or pro level.
One of SWFL’s elite players was on display Tuesday night in the Quarterfinal round. Right-hander Thaddeus Ward is currently ranked as the No. 285 player in the class of 2015, and should rise even higher after his performance this summer. Ward threw a no-hitter last week in the BCS tournament, and came out tonight and shut down Florida Pokers Underclass Carolina, leading SWFL to an 8-0 victory with a one-hit gem.
“I was just trying to throw strikes and fill up the zone,” said Ward, who is committed to the University of Central Florida. “I wasn’t too concerned about guys putting the ball in play because I knew I had a great defense behind me, and I trust my guys.”
Ward threw an economical 45 pitches in his five innings while striking out four, a result of his improving mentality on the mound. According to Horton, “Thaddeus has progressed more than I have seen a kid progress in a long time, from his freshman year to now it’s been unreal. He’s been the heart and soul of our team this year.”
Ward sees his mental approach to the game as the area in which he has improved the most this summer. He explained how, “in the beginning of the season, I was just trying to blow kids away with the fastball, but instead now I’m just trying to hit my spots and stay inside the zone. I think throughout the whole season I’ve grown a lot mentally.”
From the way Ward attacked the zone on Tuesday, it’s clear that he has taken a major step forward as a pitcher. He has the physical ability to be a star with his low-90s fastball and projectable frame, but it will be his ability to pitch intelligently that will put him over the top moving forward.
With Ward’s improving mental approach, UCF could have a monster in the coming years. As for his goals going forward, Ward said, “for my senior season, I’m trying to get bigger, faster, stronger, hopefully preparing myself for college, potentially the draft, but succeeding in college is my No. 1 goal.”
Ward is far from SWFL’s only stud pitcher, however. Tomorrow, they plan on using another star on the mound in Troy Bacon. Bacon, who is committed to play at Florida, is an athletic right-hander who is also a threat at the plate.
“Troy is a power arm, 88-91 with a very good breaking ball,” Horton said. “He just knows how to pitch, how to fill it up and how to mix his fastball with different velocities. He can reach back at times when he needs a big pitch to get a big out for us.”
SWFL also received a great combined pitching performance on Tuesday from Garrett Bye and Jose Valmana. Bye had to deal with a 4-hour rain delay, but came back to shut down the Gainesville Naturals. In five innings, Bye gave up just two hits while striking out 12. Valmana, the team’s closer, shut the door and completed the two-inning save while giving up just one hit.
At the plate, it is a combined effort for SWFL. Top-ranked players like Bacon, Zuriel Collins, and Garrett Zech power their offense, but according to Horton, “to be honest, this tournament it’s been everybody. We’ve been rolling out almost the same lineup each game; we’ve had big hits and big contributions from our whole lineup. I’m really proud of what we’ve been doing the past couple weeks.”
For SWFL, it all starts at the top of their lineup with leadoff hitter Jacob Silverstein. Silverstein currently isn’t ranked by Perfect Game, but the school that lands him will be glad they did. “He really sets the table well for us every game, getting on in the first inning. With his speed, it really gets to the pitcher, he can create a run for us on his own.” Silverstein isn’t just a speedster, however, as he also has solid gap power and has the ability to drive in runs as well.
SWFL heads into the final day of the PG Florida State Championship with their eyes on the tournament prize. They have already proved that they are among the best programs in the country, but now it is their time to prove themselves as the dominant organization in the state of Florida.
They will have a tough battle in the semifinal against North Florida Storm Black, who have battled their way to this point in the tournament. However, with their elite pitching and deep lineup, it’s hard to imagine any team beating SWFL during the rest of the tournament.