FORT MYERS, Fla. -- South Florida Elite Squad Baseball founder, director and field manager Richie Palmer has a little secret that he's not sharing with the players who fill the roster for his SF Elite Squad Louisville Slugger 16u team this weekend
The SFES Louisville Slugger 16u team is one of four SF Elite Squad teams playing in the Perfect Game 16u East Memorial Day Classic this weekend, and probably the best of the group (there are also three SF Elite Squad teams playing in the PG 18u East Memorial Day Classic, which is running concurrently; the SF Elite Squad Louisville Slugger 17u team is considered the premier group of the three).
When the two tournaments started Friday at 15 venues in Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Estero and Port Charlotte it would have been easy to declare SFES Louisville Slugger 16u one of the favorites in the 16u East Memorial Day Classic field. Its roster is filled with top-ranked prospects in the class of 2015, including two that have already committed to NCAA Division I schools.
But this a group that is playing as a group for the first time. Palmer, who manages both the 16u and 17u Louisville Slugger teams, is smart enough to know there will be a period of adjustment.
"To be honest with you, if we struggled it wouldn't surprise me," Palmer said Friday afternoon from City of Palms Park, where both Louisville Slugger teams played. "Do I expect them to win? Absolutely. I expect us to go out there and be one of the more talented teams in any tournament we enter, but unfortunately that doesn't factor into the wins and losses all the time.
"So would it shock me if we kind of struggled a little while the guys were kind of getting used to each other? No. But I won't tell these kids that. I'll tell them that we're expecting to go out there and go pretty deep in every tournament we play, especially this first one."
Andrew Gottfried smacked a two-out, two-run triple in the bottom of the fourth that rallied SF Elite Squad Louisville Slugger 16u from a 5-4 deficit, and it hung on for an 8-6 win over Attatude Baseball in the tournament opener Friday night. Gottfried also pitched a perfect sixth inning with two strikeouts to pick up the save.
SF Elite Squad Louisville Slugger 16u had two more pool-play games scheduled for Saturday and a final one Sunday morning before the playoffs in the 80-team tournament begin late Sunday afternoon.
The team was formed following SF Elite Squad's annual tryouts and very few were recruited to the roster. Palmer estimated that 90 percent of the players on the 16u roster came out of the tryout.
"Most of them talk with each other about the experiences they've had playing with our program," he said. "Kids talk to other kids and say, 'Hey, come out and tryout' ... and we've been lucky every year that more and more talent has shown up; I think that has a lot to do with winning and running an organization where most of our kids go to (college). Wins are great, but I want to make sure these kids go on to a school that's right for them."
Palmer has assembled quite a squad of prospects on this 16u team, almost all of whom just completed their sophomore years at high schools in southeast Florida. The exceptions are a couple of 2016s including Anthony Molina, a highly regarded right-hander who just completed his freshman year at West Broward High School in Pembroke Pines, Fla., and has already committed to Miami (Fla.).
The top 2015s are Julian Infante from Miami; Daniel Reyes from Miami Springs; Dominic DiCaprio from Coral Springs; David Villar from Pembroke Pines; and Zack Kone from Boca Raton. Infante is a 6-foot-3, 193-pound third baseman ranked 22nd nationally and is uncommitted; Reyes, ranked No. 30, is a 6-2, 200-pound outfielder who has committed to Florida; and DiCaprio, the nation's No. 63-ranked prospect, is a 6-foot, 220-pound catcher who is also uncommitted.
Villar, a 6-1, 190-pound corner infielder, is ranked No. 107 and is uncommitted; Kone, a 6-2, 175-pound shortstop is ranked 133rd and has committed to Duke.
"You look at some of the guys I coached the last two years -- Willie Abreu, Zack Collins, Luis Guillorme, Danny Zardon -- these (2015) guys have the ability to be those guys," Palmer said. "I don't want to disrespect any of them and say they have a chance to be better but just for these guys to be mentioned in the same breath with them based on what they did in amateur ball and in Perfect Game tournaments, it's pretty flattering for (the younger) guys. I really do think they have the potential to be that next (elite) group."
The SF Elite Squad Palmer coached in 2011 and 2012 won a pair of Perfect Game national championships, including last year's inaugural 17u Perfect Game World Series. It is flattering when he compares this 16u team to that talented collection of prospects.
"This 2015 class has a chance to be special," Palmer said. "This isn't a knock on the (17u Elite Louisville Slugger team) -- they're a very good team too -- but you always get excited about the young guys. With their size, their ability and the arms that we have, they have a chance to be special. I can't wait to coach those guys."
They will need some coaching. OK, maybe not as much coaching as direction. The players have four days to get acclimated with each other, anticipate each other's moves and learn how to become a cohesive group. That's the challenge facing Palmer and his assistant coaches.
"Talent, obviously, gets you excited, but I think when you have a bunch of young guys -- this is their first time playing with us," Palmer said."Even though that team is talented , there are just a handful of guys that played with us when they were 15 and everybody else is new. In the few practices that we've had, you can see how eager they are. We practice with the 17s, so those young guys are going out there and they're being pushed by the 17-year-olds .. and they want to get to where the 17s are at.
"We haven't even talked about going in there and winning this tournament," he reiterated. "We've just talked about getting to know each other and having a good time. Deep down inside, us coaches -- and I know the players, too -- we all want to win it, but we're going to try to stay away from putting that on (the players) and just letting them go out and play."
This is just late May, after all. There are a lot more tournaments to play, some of which award Perfect Game national championships -- the PG WWBA, PG BCS Finals and 16u PG World Series, to name three. The players on this roster may not continue to play together as the summer progresses but the team goal will always remain the same for South Florida Elite Squad Baseball.
"Our goal is to go out there and play our best baseball in July," Palmer said. "That's the month you're playing WWBA, you're playing the PG World Series, and obviously we have those events highlighted on our calendar. We want to gradually get better every tournament and we don't want to peak too soon."