Tournaments | Story | 3/5/2021

Vets, youngsters carry Cartersville

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Micah Earwood (Perfect Game)

HOOVER, Ala. – Youth was served in ample portions in the White Bracket Pool C on opening day Thursday at the 9th annual Perfect Game High School Showdown, but that’s not to imply that the senior class from the three teams involved accounted for nothing but table scraps.

The Cartersville (Ga.) Hurricanes, Mountain Brook (Ala.) Spartans and the North Broward Prep (Fla.) Eagles spent the warm and sun-splashed afternoon and the cool but still comfortable evening at the Hoover Met Complex exchanging jabs and landing blows in impressive fashion.

And they did it with rosters largely dominated by underclassmen with the exception of North Broward Prep, which enlisted the help of seven seniors, many of whom played prominent roles. But these three schools, each with a history of success at the PGHS Showdown, showed the future will continue to be just as bright as the present and the recent past.

“Our young guys can play and they will play while they’re here,” North Broward Prep Head Coach Brian Campbell told PG Thursday afternoon. “You’ve got the good senior leadership and guys that have been tested at the highest ranks of varsity baseball. And then you’ve got the young guys who are kind of learning as they go and being taught by the older guys. So, I love the mix of our roster; I like my team.”

The Hurricanes’ and Spartans’ rosters are much younger than that of the Eagles, but their coaches like their teams just as much as Campbell likes his.

And it showed in the on-field results on Thursday when the three teams played a two-game round-robin and it was none other than the Hurricanes – a PGHS Showdown regular – who emerged unblemished with a 2-0 record thanks to a 5-1 win over NBP and a come-from-behind 4-2 victory over Mountain Brook.

What does it mean? Only that the Canes earned the No. 1 seed in the White Bracket playoff pairings and will face the No. 4 Oxford (Ala.) Yellow Jackets in one of two White semifinals Friday afternoon at the Hoover Met.

What’s instructive for the purpose of this essay is that Cartersville just might be the greenest group of the trio with only six seniors on their 26-man roster. The 2021s are led by right-hander Micah Earwood, a top-500 Georgia State signee who threw a complete-game, 10-strikeout, one-hitter in Cartersville’s 5-1 win over NBP Thursday afternoon.

Other top seniors include infielder Davis Williams (t-1000, Birmingham Southern Coll.) and right-hander/corner infielder Mason McBee (HF, Coastal Alabama CC).

Earwood told PG that he and his senior classmates/teammates take their responsibilities as team leaders seriously. They want to make sure everyone is working hard and working toward a common goal, which at Cartersville has historically meant making a nice run come Georgia state tournament time.

“All of the juniors and sophomores that we have, they put in the work last year in this tournament; they really were the stars so we just came together as a team,” Earwood said. “The seniors, we kind of lead it but everybody’s working, everybody’s doing their thing.”

Added Coach Tucker: “While we don’t have big numbers of seniors, they all play very vital roles on the team; my biggest thing to them is to lead by example. They’re not the most vocal, but that’s OK – you don’t have to be a yeller and a screamer to be a leader...

“They know the tradition at our school and they know the tradition of us in this tournament,” he added. “We’ve been very close but we also know the margin of error is very slim in this tournament.”

As an example of how a team can make contributions from all three classes work to its advantage, look no further than what happened in Cartersville’s pool championship-clinching win over Mountain Brook late Thursday night.

The Hurricanes trailed 2-0 heading into the top of the sixth before junior Blake Sutton delivered a two-run single as part of a three-run frame to give his team the lead; they tacked on another run in the top of the seventh on an RBI double from senior Parker McPherson.

Meanwhile, sophomore right-hander Philip Schiltz was putting the finishing touches on a complete-game, nine-strikeout one-hitter that was just what the doctor ordered.

The relatively veteran NBP Eagles boast the talents of seniors (class of 2021) Kobe Benson (top-500 ranked, Coastal Carolina signee), Jonah Diaz (t-500, Jacksonville), Joshua Steidl (t-500, Jacksonville), Shane Huntsberger (t-500, W. Carolina) and Ethan Zimmerman (HF, Tampa).

“I love this senior class; it’s a good, hard-working group,” Campbell said. “Most of them have been in our program for four years and it’s important to them and it means something to them...I really like this senior class and I’m really going to be sad to see them go.”

But they also have one of the best juniors (2022) in the country in third baseman Yoel Tejeda Jr. (No. 49, Florida) and top sophomores (2023) with Jacob Gomberg (No. 170, Florida) and Nathanael Coupet (No. 277, uncommitted).

Benson, a middle infielder and the team’s leadoff hitter who was a home run short of hitting for the cycle in the tournament-opening victory over Mountain Brook, called the Showdown “awesome” and an event that will only make everyone on the team better because of the level of competition; he also praised his underclass teammates.

“It’s a really good young group of players,” he told PG Thursday. “We have a really good group of seniors, too, and that’s kind of guiding them and leaving really good footsteps for this program to move on and succeed. The seniors before us all saw us and they taught us and we’re just trying to do the same thing for these kids.”

Coach Campbell acknowledged that it wasn’t easy getting his team here due to the COVID-related protocols North Broward Prep administrators put into place, but he really wanted his younger players to experience the event.

He wanted them to be away from home together, enjoy each other’s company and learn as much as they could from their senior teammates; to his way of thinking, the seniors deserved the opportunity, as well.

“They’ve been coming for the last four years to the PG Showdown, so it’s something we look forward to every year and it was something I really didn’t want these kids to miss,” Campbell said. “We’re very fortunate to be here and we’re not going to take one second for granted.”

Mountain Brook HS is located just up the highway in Birmingham and was the surprise of the 2020 Showdown when it won its Blue Bracket pool championship.

The Spartans then beat favored Bob Jones (Ala.) and Buford (Ga.) in the semifinals and the championship game, respectively, to take home the Blue Bracket title. Head Coach Lee Gann graduated 15 seniors from that team which left him with only four upperclassmen on this year’s roster.

“It was good for our program in its entirety to come to a prestigious tournament like this and be able to win against some of the teams we had to compete against,” Gann said on Thursday. “It did bring a sense of pride to our team to where we want to be as a program year in, year out.

“We did lose 15 seniors last year who were really, really good players and that presents a challenge this year, but our guys so far have been playing really, really well.”

The four seniors, all uncommitted, are corner infielder Braxton Wetzler, middle infielder/right-hander Brennan Holden, right-hander/infielder Brock Payne and outfielder/right-hander Tanner Plummer. The other 16 players on the roster, all uncommitted, are juniors and sophomores.

Wetzler, like his other fellow 2021s, will never forget that championship feeling of a year ago, mostly because COVID-19 brought the season to a crushing end a week after the Showdown concluded.

“It was a great learning experience from when I was a junior with those seniors, so I knew what leadership was,” he said Thursday. “To get to see those seniors come in as underdogs and beat (the favorites); they didn’t even know who we were...It was one of my favorite baseball memories I’ve ever had; it was a great time.”

But it’s a new season with a whole lot of new faces looking to make names for themselves over the next two or three years. Gann said it’s been a great group to work with, one that shows up to practice or to games every day ready to get better.

“We want to play against tough competition like this in this tournament,” the veteran coach said. “We know it’s going to make us better; we want to compete and we want to play against the best teams around, and this tournament is certainly going to make us have to do that.”

It is, indeed, and as Cartersville moves into Friday’s 12-team playoffs, these players and coaches were asked one last time to look back at the 2020 edition of the PGHS Showdown.

It was an event that offered an abundance of hope and promise when it began its three-day run the first week of March, only to leave teams wondering what might have been had not a global pandemic changed the course of history.

“It sucked losing the season but we just used it as an opportunity to go to work,” Cartersville’s Earwood said after the win over North Broward. “We made it to the semifinals last year and we knew we had what it took to come in here and do it again. All the work we’ve put in paid off today.”

NBP’s Campbell was a slightly more profound.

“At the end of the day we’re here to coach baseball and have some fun with it, and make sure we help these kids become the best version of themselves as people and learn valuable lessons from the game of baseball,” he concluded. “I think that the shutdown kind of changed everybody’s perspective a little bit...

“The message is every practice, every game, don’t take a second for granted because we know from last year you never know when that can be taken away.”

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