Tournaments | Story | 7/12/2020

Rhino Wisconsin plays on at 17u MW Elite

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Nicholas Lavigne (Perfect Game)

MARION, Iowa – While many of the country’s amateur baseball fans were directing their attention to Perfect Game WWBA and BCS national championships being held in Atlanta and Fort Myers, Fla., respectively, several of the more regional events were also drawing some eyes in their direction.

Such was the case on Sunday at the Prospect Meadows Sports Complex, where 25 teams were duking it out in an effort to secure one of the eight playoff berths at the PG 17U Midwest Elite Championship, and they were doing it exhibiting the same competitiveness as the “big boys” were showing down south on the bigger, national stages.

No nationally ranked teams? No PG All-Americans taking the field? The only answer to those queries was, of course: No problem.

Now, make no mistake, there are some high-profile teams like Elite Baseball (Illinois), Longshots Baseball Teal (Illinois), MN Blizzard Blue (Minnesota) and CBT 17u (Wisconsin) that sent nationally ranked class of 2021 prospects out on the field over the past three days, there just aren’t anywhere near as many as there are at the national championship events.

And that couldn’t matter any less to Andy Zchwirtz, the head coach of Appleton-based Rhino Wisconsin 2021, which split a pair of pool  games on Sunday. Despite a one-run, walk-off loss in the pool-play finale, it’s 3-1-0 record was good enough to claim the pool championship based on tie-breaker criteria.

This seems like a good time to note that this is the first Perfect Game tournament any of the players on the Rhino Wisconsin 2021 roster have participated in.

“These guys are great; they play the game the right way,” Zchwirtz told PG after his ballclub improved to 3-0-0 with a big pool-play win Sunday morning. “The one thing that I love about our team is that every day they compete. We don’t care who’s sitting in the other dugout, we just really want to make sure that we control what we can control.

“There are so many rankings, right? … The rankings, they’re out there and on social media they’re big, but at the same time you just have to really believe in yourself and always have confidence in yourself.”

The players wearing the Rhino Wisconsin 2021 uniforms believed enough and had enough confidence in their abilities to slide into Monday morning’s quarterfinal-round of the playoffs as the No. 4 seed; they’ll face the  No. 5 Blizzard 17U Black (3-1-1) at 9 a.m. at Prospect Meadows.

The rest of the quarterfinal pairings look like this: No. 8 Northstar Navy (3-1-)) vs. No. 1 St. Louis Force Baseball-Arell (4-0-0); No. 6 Longshots Baseball Teal (3-1-0) vs. No. 3 Team Easton (4-0-0) and No. 7 MN Blizzard Blue (3-1-0) vs. No. 2 Elite Baseball (4-0-0).

The Rhinos Wisconsin 2021 outscored their four pool-play opponents by a combined 25-12 and actually clinched the pool championship when they beat the 3-0-0 Northstar 17U Navy (Minnesota) in the completion of a game that was suspended by rain Saturday night. Northstar was the only other team in the pool to finish with one loss, so Rhino Wisconsin won pool title based on the head-to-head result.

2021 righthanders Payton Wright and Isaac Bixby combined on a nine-strikeout six-hitter against Northstar, with Wright allowing the two runs on five hits with six punchouts in five innings of work.

That set-up the pool-play finale with 1-2-0 Elite Baseball Training-Jacobsen and the Rhinos had to be feeling pretty good about their lot in life; a 4-0-0 run through pool-play seemed like a fairly good possibility.

“The boys have been having some good approaches at the plate,” Zchwirtz said when asked about the way his team performed in the previous three games. “We’re hunting fastballs, and that’s a big thing for us this year, just trying to get on time with that fastball. They’ve been putting some barrels on it and they’ve been hitting, so I’m really proud of them.”

In the immortal words of ESPN College Game Day’s Lee Corso: “Not so fast, my friend.”

 The game with EBT-Jacobsen was a close affair from the get-go and the Rhinos took a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the sixth. But EBT tied it with a single run in that frame and secured the victory in walk-off fashion with another run in the seventh.

There is no way to state this diplomatically, so to be blunt Rhino Wisconsin 2021 absolutely imploded in this one. EBT totaled only one hit in the game but its batters were walked 14 times by a quartet of Rhino pitchers. It scored the winning run in the seventh on the strength of a walk, two intentional walks and a fielder’s choice groundout.

The Rhinos Wisconsin did total six hits in the loss, with Ian Anderson delivering a triple, a single, two RBI and two runs scored. Nicholas Lavigne and Jaden Hackbarth both singled twice and drove in a pair of runs apiece.

Anderson was terrific during pool-play, going 6 for 12 (.500) with two triples, five RBI and seven runs scored. Austin Holmes and Sage Stellmacher combined for seven hits and eight RBI.

For a team like Rhino Wisconsin 2021, which features players almost exclusively from the Appleton, WI area – none of whom are nationally ranked – it really does come down to playing the game right if they hope to be successful.

As an example, Zchwirtz said he spoke at length with his players about the importance of baserunning. He knows his team must run the bases really well because it can often determine the outcome of a game (they stole 13 bases in four pool-play games).

The coaches also talked about learning how to pitch because, he said, "in today’s game a pitcher is trying to light-up the radar gun by seeing how hard he can throw". Zchwirtz likes to tell his pitchers to “pitch backward” by throwing changeups and curveballs in fastball counts and likes to have them mix in a head-shake and then throw the fastball.

“It’s learning how to play the game; I think in the last couple of years it’s changed a lot,” he said. “I’m just really proud of our kids and how they’ve learned to play the game the right way.”

The Rhino Wisconsin coaches don’t leave any detail unaddressed, beginning with the way the team walks into the ballpark. No flip-flops, jerseys tucked-in and hats on straight. Everything in their mind matters, because it all comes down to showing a healthy respect for the game.

And now the playoffs at the PG 17U Midwest Elite Championship await, and the two teams that reach the championship game will be looking at three games back-to-back-to-back on Monday. None of them would trade that experience for anything else, certainly not in this challenging summer of 2020.

PG WWBA 14U North Championship bracket

Seven teams advanced to bracket-play at the 14u North Championship, with No. 1 seed JBA Clutch 14U Navy (Wisconsin) getting a pass directly into Monday’s semifinal round.

The three quarterfinal matchups are: No. 5 Quad City Hitmen (2-1-1) vs. No. 4 Hitters 2024 Grads (3-1-0); No. 7 GRB Rays Green (2-1-1) vs. No. 2 P2P Millers North 14u; No. 6 Cedar Rapids Reds (3-1-1) vs. No. 3 Iowa Sticks Red (3-1-1).

Quarterfinal games are scheduled for a 9 a.m. first pitch; the semifinal and championship games will follow.

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