GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A talented team of high school seniors from the state of Maryland first came out to the Perfect Game/EvoShield National Championship (Upperclass) a year ago and came up just short of advancing to the playoffs.
Before Team Maryland was officially eliminated from that 2011 tournament, veteran head coach Larry Williams told PG what he expected of his young prospects at the event:
"Play well. Compete. At the end of the day the scoreboard is what it is, but I want to make sure our guys compete both mentally and physically, and we do. If you beat us, you're going to know you were in a game. That's all I ask for."
Williams and Team Maryland General Manager Sean O'Connor brought a new group here this weekend, and about the only thing the squad hasn't done so far is lose. And after winning a pair of playoff games on Sunday, Team Maryland finds itself in Monday's final four at the PG/EvoShield Upper with its sights on winning the first Perfect Game national championship ever by a team from the state of Maryland.
Baltimore-based Team Maryland (5-0), the No. 1 seed in the 16-team playoffs, will face the No. 4 So Cal Bombers 2013 Black (5-0) out of La Puente, Calif., in a 9 a.m. semifinal Monday at the Goodyear Sports and Recreation Complex.
The No. 7 Trombly Nighthawks (5-0) out of Placentia, Calif., will square-off against the Cedar Rapids-based and No. 11-seeded Iowa Select Black (4-1) in the other semifinal at the same time. The championship game is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. at Goodyear Ballpark, the spring training home of the Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians. It's worth noting that the eight quarterfinalists at the tournament had a combined record of 31-1.
After missing out on the playoffs last year, Team Maryland came into this year's PG/Evo Upper thinking it could do better, even while facing an expanded field with even more talented teams.
"As you go, and you get here on Sunday, you go, 'Man, we have an opportunity to do something special," O'Connor said Sunday after his team beat No. 9 Team CALIFORNIA Baseball, 4-0, in the quarterfinals. He also noted that this is the first time a Maryland-based team had entered the playoffs at a Perfect Game event as the No. 1 seed.
"That's a great accomplishment for these guys to do that," he said. "Our goal is to come out here and show people we can play baseball in the state of Maryland and hopefully that will bring college recruiters to the state of Maryland knowing that this is the type of kids we can produce."
Team Maryland is sponsored by the Maryland State Association of Baseball Coaches (MSTABC) and the group that is the Valley this weekend is essentially a state all-star team made up of many – but not all – of the top high school seniors in the state. There are also a handful of juniors on the squad.
"This is a state association (commitment) and we're asking you to do something different; you're representing the state of Maryland," O'Connor said of the message the coaches deliver to their players. "And they've bought into that and they're playing for every kid that's in Maryland right now."
Team Maryland earned the tournament's No. 1 seed after outscoring its three pool-play opponents by a combined 14-1. It beat AZ Pro 18u, 5-4, in the playoffs' first round before disposing of Team CAL in the quarters.
There has been a constant for the Marylanders throughout their three-day march to Monday: great pitching. The nine pitchers Williams used through the first five games compiled a 0.80 team ERA with 47 strikeouts in 35 innings.
Right-hander Elijah Ginsburg (2013, Phoenix, Md.) pitched six innings of three-hit, shutout ball with four strikeouts in the win over Team CAL Sunday afternoon. He's worked eight innings and allowed four hits while striking out seven in two appearances here this weekend.
Lefty J.D. Caulkins (2013, Pasadena, Md.) pitched 6 2/3 innings in three appearances and allowed only two hits and one earned run (1.05 ERA) while striking out 10, and right-handers Josh Kutchey (2013, Frederick, Md.) and Ryan Selmer (2013, Upper Marlboro, Md.) combined to pitch 8 1/3 innings and gave up no runs on three hits while striking out 10 and walking none.
"If you go into a tournament like this and give up one run in pool-play, that shows you've got pitching," O'Connor said. "We've got great arms and that's what everybody wants to see, so maybe these kids have an opportunity to catch a junior college or a West Coast school out here and it's an opportunity to get their name out there."
The top bats have belonged to University of Maryland commit Bradley Keith (2013, Millersville, Md.) and Carl Colbert (2013, Hyattsville, Md.). Keith hit .538 (7-for-13) with two doubles, a triple and four RBI and Colbert .500 (6-for-12) with a triple and five RBI through the first five games.
O'Connor said the state of Maryland gets unwarranted knocks for its ability to produce quality baseball players, pointing to such native standouts as Hall of Famers Cal Ripken Jr. and Al Kaline, Mark Teixeira, Charlie Keller and Gavin Floyd. There are dozens and dozens of other Maryland natives that have played in the big-leagues.
But playing on the East Coast where inclement weather sometimes limits opportunities and creates obstacles is the reason why Team Maryland is in the Valley of the Sun this weekend. Playing in this Perfect Game tournament gives the Maryland prospects a chance to see how they stack up against their peers from the West Coast while also getting seen by West Coast scouts and college recruiters.
"As an East Coast state, to have the ability to come out here and play in these beautiful facilities -- spring training facilities -- against West Coast competition, it means a lot," O'Connor said. "We tell the kids, 'We have fall ball, they don't; they play the year around.'
"For us it's an opportunity to come out and show what we are and it's totally different baseball," he continued. "You're not playing the same East Coast teams that you've already played, you have the opportunity for these other teams to say, 'Who are these guys?' It's a great opportunity."