FORT MYERS, Fla. – The hometown prospects from neighborhoods right here in Southwest Florida (SWFL) are growing up in front of our eyes and an ever so subtle name-change reflects that. The SWFL 16u team that enjoyed so much success over the past 17 months played in last weekend’s PG WWBA Florida Qualifier under its new, more mature sounding name: SWFL 17u.
They are at it again this week, playing as SWFL 17u at the 12th annual PG WWBA Underclass World Championship, a 208-team extravaganza that kicked off late Thursday afternoon with an abbreviated schedule of 25 games. Hundreds of games will be in the books by the time the tournament concludes on Monday.
Clint Montgomery has been the head coach of the SWFL 16u (now SWFL 17u) team over the last two summer and fall seasons and has watched this team grow from the best seats in the house – the practice fields and the third base coach’s box.
He is also the head coach at Island Coast High School in Cape Coral, Fla., and realizes what an important time in life it is for his mostly 16-year-old players – of them juniors in high school – in terms of locking in on their college futures. It is for that reason Montgomery thinks the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship is the most important event on PG’s annual tournament schedule.
“We’re very excited about this event; this is what Perfect Game is all about, right here – getting these kids seen (by colleges),” Montgomery said Thursday afternoon before SWFL played its tournament opener against Puerto Rico Prospects 2 at the jetBlue Player Development Complex.
“I fielded over 15 phone calls from different universities from Florida all the way up to New York that were coming down to see us this weekend,” he said. “We’ve been starting to get these 16-and-under guys signed and I think this is going to be a big weekend; we’re very excited to get these guys seen.”
Phone calls like that are what warms a coach’s heart and keeps them doing what they do, and there were more than a dozen college coaches watching SWFL 17u’s 4-0 win over the Puerto Rico Prospects 2. They watched uncommitted 2015s Zuriel Collins and Alex Goebel each double and drive in a run, and four SWFL pitchers combine on a seven-inning two-hitter with six strikeouts.
The most effective among that foursome was starter Thaddeus Ward, a 2015 right-hander from Fort Myers, who has committed to the University of Central Florida. He is one of three 2015 prospects on Montgomery’s roster that has already committed to a D-I school: outfielder/left-hander Donovan Petrey from Aracadia is a Florida State commit and right-hander/shortstop Troy Bacon from Tampa has committed to Florida International.
Bacon is ranked 150th nationally in the 2015 class, Ward is ranked 169th and Petrey 235th. Uncommitted left-hander Garrett Bye from Riverview is ranked 339th. Four others on SWFL 17u’s roster are listed as top-1,000 or “high follow” prospects.
The core of this group has done a lot of winning since late May of 2012, when they established themselves on the scene by winning the championship at the 16u PG WWBA East Memorial Day Classic here in Fort Myers. About a month later they returned to their backyard fields and won the 16u PG BCS Finals national championship.
SWFL 16u started this summer season out by repeating as champions at the 16u PG WWBA East Memorial Day Classic and then performed very well at a pair of Perfect Game national championship tournaments. It advanced to the final four at the PG WWBA 16u National Championship in Marietta, Ga., and went 6-0 in pool-play but finished out of the top three at the 16u PG BCS Finals when the tournament slate was wiped out by rain and the top three were determined by playoff seeding.
The team playing here this weekend is basically the same one that won the three championships and played together all summer. Eleven roster spots are filled by prospects that won the 2013 16u PG WWBA Memorial Day Classic in late May; Collins was the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. Montgomery has somehow managed to keep this team together in a highly competitive marketplace.
“With success comes happiness,” he said with a laugh. “As long as we keep doing good the kids want to keep coming and playing. We added some good players since the summer, a guy like Donovan Petrey, and he’s a big piece to our team. We lost some guys, too, with football but the kids seem very happy and they’ve meshed together and they’ve been happy to stay together.”
Petrey played with SWFL throughout 2011 and 2012 and was on both of the 16u clubs that won the PG championships in 2012. He played with the Florida Express (FLEX) in three events this summer before returning to SWFL 17u for the Florida Qualifier and Underclass World.
“My summer went really good,” Petrey said. “I was able to put my name out there a lot, the team was good and I was happy with how I played.” But he’s also glad to be back under the SWFL umbrella.
“We’re just really good together,” he said. “We have a lot of fun together and we jell together as a team, and it’s like a huge big family. We play hard together and we all have the same common goal, to win games. I’ve loved playing (with SWFL); that’s one of the reasons I came back is because I missed it.”
He also likes playing for Montgomery.
“He brings the attitude that he wants to win right along with us,” Petrey said of the head coach. “He doesn’t take any crap from anybody; he makes you play hard and if you don’t play hard you’re not going to play at all.”
SWFL 17u finished 3-2 at the PG WWBA Florida Qualifier after losing a first-round playoff game to FTB Louisville Slugger. “We made it to the playoffs and we just got beat,” Montgomery said. “We didn’t do anything wrong, the other team (FTB) just beat us. It was a well-played game and the other team just got more hits than us in the end.”
Montgomery answered “I hope so,” when asked if that tournament provided a good tune-up for the much more challenging test that lies ahead over the next four or five days. All 208 teams in attendance expect to still be playing on Monday but every one of them – including SWFL 17u – will face its share of roadblocks.
“We’ve got to get through today,” Montgomery said Thursday. “Unfortunately for us, like a lot of the other teams here playing on Thursday with a skeleton crew, we’re going to be stronger tomorrow and by Saturday we’re going to be at full strength. If we can get through these first two days and make it to the playoffs we’ve got some good arms to potentially make a good run.”
Ward is a 6-foot-3, 180-pound junior at Bishop Verot in Fort Myers, the same high school that produced 2011 first-round draft pick Hudson Boyd and second-rounder Daniel Vogelbach. He found the experience of playing in the Florida Q right in front of the Underclass World to be a valuable one.
“It was fantastic playing against the older guys and better competition,” he said Thursday. “I think it definitely prepared us for this weekend, or any weekend. Anytime you get to see the best some of the best teams in the state playing in one tournament it’s a good opportunity and it prepared us pretty well.”
Ward was also a part of SWFL 16u’s three PG championship teams and pitched for them all summer. This past summer treated the young righty well as he watched his national ranking rise to No. 169 and also received a scholarship off from and committed to UCF. He attributes his rise in standing to his association with SWFL.
“It’s been beyond any of my expectations,” Ward said. “I came into the 2012 year expecting not to play too much but they made sure everybody got good playing time and we were still able to win with that. It’s been unreal; it’s hard to really describe.
“Our team meshes very well together,” he continued. “We all have fun and we play well while we’re having fun. It’s one of those teams that if you take things loosely we’ll do well, and if you take it too seriously we don’t do as well.”
Past successes are just that: in the past. What lies ahead over the next four days is what Montgomery honestly believes is the premier event on PG’s annual tournament schedule.
“They’ve had a good summer … but this is a whole different animal,” he said. “This is a whole new beast here and this is a totally different type of tournament than Memorial Day and there a lot of good teams here. And everybody’s older so we’ll see how we shape up.”
The PG WWBA Underclass World Championship features all of the top travel ball teams from the Texas on east and dozens of top-100 prospects from the classes of 2015 and 2016. Out there ready to pounce are historically strong programs like Marucci Elite, FTB Chandler, EvoShield Canes, Orlando Scorpions, Dirtbags and East Cobb Baseball – to name but a few – and all of them are seeking PG national championship rings.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Montgomery said. “If we’re fortunate to get through pool-play this weekend we plan on meeting those teams; they’re always good games and I think those teams would say the same about us. We always present a good game against them and as a coach and hopefully for the players, you always want the top competition.
“That’s what makes these tournaments fun,” he continued. “They know us and we know them and we all want to be considered the best … so it always makes it fun to play each other.”
Petrey, back with his old pals, could only agree.
“There are a lot of good teams here and we’re really good,” he said with a shrug. “We’re going in trying to win it all.”