FORT MYERS, Fla. – They came into Monday’s quarterfinal round of the Perfect Game 18U WWBA Memorial Day Classic unheralded and maybe even a bit unnoticed.
While 2012 top pitching prospects Lance McCullers from the Tampa Bay Warriors and Walker Weickel from the Orlando Scorpions 17U Purple battled one another at an adjacent field, FTB Pride and St. Pete Hurricanes Elite 18U quietly went about their business.
FTB Pride tip-toed into the 16-team playoff field as the No. 14 seed after achieving a tie in its first pool-play game with the Florida Pokers 17U. The Hurricanes won all four of their games before facing the Pride in the quarters, but after outscoring their three pool-play opponents 28-12, earned no better than the No. 11 seed in the playoffs.
They were both upset winners in the first round of the playoffs on Sunday: the Pride beat No. 3 seed Team Xtreme, 2-1, and the Hurricanes whipped No. 6 Palm Beach Baseball 18U, 7-3. They were then pitted against each other in a quarterfinal late Memorial Day morning.
They were the two highest seeds still playing after the playoffs’ first round. Yet neither squad was surprised to still be playing on Monday.
“When we put this team together, these are mostly young guys – sophomores, 16-year-olds – but they’re a very good group,” Hurricanes bench coach Mike Mann said before the quarterfinal. “We play ‘up’ in these tournaments so they can see the competition they’re used to playing against (in high school) and you tend to get better competition every game when you play up.
“Every tournament we enter we fully expect to win, and as far as we get, we’re pleased to get there,” he continued. “If we get into the championship day, great. If we don’t and some good things have happened … they build on it and that’s how they get better.”
The Hurricanes ultimately moved on to the semifinals with a 4-3 win over the Pride Monday morning. Left-hander Justin Tedder pitched a seven inning complete game, scattering eight hits and allowing two earned runs while striking out 10. He also had a pair of hits.
There isn’t a player on this Hurricane roster that has made a college commitment yet. But it’s a team that has proved it has enough young talent on its roster to advance deep into a tournament while playing some of the best travel teams in the country.
The Hurricanes’ pool-play wins came over the Cape Coral Cannons, 7-5; Team Reebok PSA 17U White, 5-0; and Orlando Baseball Academy 2012, 10-3.
The St. Pete Hurricanes organization was founded in 2006 with youth teams all under the age of 12. The Hurricanes Elite team that was here this weekend was, for the most part, the original Hurricanes 12U team.
“This is a developmental type team,” Mann said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t want to win, but the main goal is to build and build and build. (The players) are never in awe. From the time they were 11-years-old they’ve been playing the older kids, so the size difference, the age difference, they’re just all use to it.
“They’re worried about playing as a team and winning,” he continued. “Ultimately, that’s what it’s about. It’s a team sport with individual stats. We try to teach that – regardless of all the individualality, it’s still a team sport.”
FTB Pride operates much the same way, and like Mann, Pride head coach James Anderson wasn’t surprised his young team was still playing Monday.
“When we go into every tournament we are expecting to be playing on that last day with the opportunity to win, just in terms of how our pitching lines up – that’s always going to be the big question for us and every other team,” he said, also before playing the quarterfinal game. “Even with a 14-seed we were feeling very confident … about being here where we are.”
The FTB (Florida Travel Ball) organization has five teams under its umbrella, and FTB Pride is one of the five. The most nationally prominent of the group is the FTB Mizuno 17U team.
Pride is an 18U team but has only three 2011 players on its roster – the rest are in the classes of ’12 and ’13, with even one in ’14.
Eight prospects on the Pride roster have already committed to NCAA Division I colleges, including first baseman/left-hander Justin Bellinger from Weston, Mass., who will attend Vanderbilt.
The others, all from Florida, are right-hander Brandon Castro (2012, Bethune-Cookman), outfielder Omar Garcia (2011, High Point), right-hander Frank Frandinette (2012, U. of Miami), catcher Tomas Nido (2012, Florida Atlantic), outfielder Edwin Gabriel Rios (2012, Florida International), right-hander Gabe Rivera (2011, Florida Gulf Coast) and outfielder Eugene Vazquez (2013, Central Florida).
When Anderson spoke Monday morning, he said the tournament had been going just about as he had hoped.
“It’s been OK,” he said. “We won our first tournament last week up in Kissimmee and didn’t lose, so for us and this group of kids, we have expectations to be playing in the championship game. That’s what comes along with being part of the FTB family.”
It’s certain fans (and scouts and college coaches) will see a lot more of the Hurricanes and the Pride at other Perfect Game events as the summer progresses.
“When summer comes along, this is the place to be seen,” Anderson said. “It's fun for the kids – most of our kids are central Florida kids – and they’ve competed against each other during the high school, and to see them come together and get down here and compete is pretty fun.”
“We have enough committed kids to still garner interest from professional scouts, but you never know when that college guy is going to be around to see the kid who hasn’t committed. This is huge for us.”