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Tournaments | Story | 7/31/2021

Birds rally, land in 17u Series semis

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Ethan Hedges (Perfect Game)

SURPRISE, Ariz. – So Cal Birds head coach Mike Cosgrove was somewhat direct in his assessment of the Birds’ team that he brought to this week’s preeminent Perfect Game 17u World Series when he stated on Friday that he has quite a few guys on his roster “who aren’t really famous.”

And that’s OK. Nothing wrong with that at all. Especially when your under-the-radar guys are playing at a such a high level they’ve earned a seat at an exclusive table-for-four on Championship Saturday at the PG 17u Series.

The No. 2-seeded Corona, Calif.-based So Cal Birds rallied from an early three-run deficit to escape No. 7 Manhattan Beach, Calif.-based GBG Navy National, 5-3, in quarterfinal play at the Surprise Spring Training Complex Friday afternoon, and advance to Saturday’s semifinals.

The entire quarterfinal round produced some compelling baseball in desert temperatures that hovered around 100 degrees, and left standing four outstanding clubs, each of which would be a worthy champion come Saturday afternoon.

The No. 2 So Cal Birds (4-0-1) will face the No. 6 Texas-based Banditos 17u Scout Team (5-1-0) in one of the semis, while Southern California-based entrants the No. 1 So Cal Giants (5-0-0) and the No. 4 CBA Marucci National (5-1-0) are set to get after it in the other semi. The So Cal Giants and Birds received byes out of the playoffs’ first round directly into the quarters because they were the top-2 seeds.

The So Cal Birds program is selective when it comes to the PG events it attends and the ones it does tend to be the more high-profile, invitation-only tournaments like the PG 17u World Series. In other words, the tournaments that are most likely to have a lot of college coaches in attendance.

“We take our guys who are in our program to these events to get them seen in front of college coaches – we put them in front of colleges,” Cosgrove told PG Friday. “I say, ‘Go play hard, compete in the batters’ box, throw strikes and whatever happens, happens.' And we’re a 2-seed; that’s what gets you to be a 2-seed I guess.”

The Birds’ quarterfinal matchup with GBG Navy National was everything that could be expected during the playoffs of a PG national championship tournament like the 17u WS. GBG’s Jarrod Hocking (more on him in a bit) gave the Navy National a 3-0 lead in the top of second with a three-run home run and then GBG went on the defensive. It’s just that in this case, and it’s rare, GBG’s defense wasn’t up to the task.

The Birds scored a single run in the bottom of the fourth when Ryan Hetzler stroked a leadoff double and scored on a one-out sac fly off the bat of Sean McCance. They added two more in the fifth when Zach L'Heureux matched Hetzler’s leadoff double, Ethan Hedges (remember that name) followed with a single putting L’Heureux in position to score on a wild pitch; Hedges knotted the score at 3 when Owen Gott reached on an error.

What turned out to be the winning runs crossed in the sixth when McCance reached on a one-out GBG error, Jack Kleveno and L'Heureux both walked and Hedges reached on an error that chased both runners home.

In addition to his contributions at the plate, Hetzler, a 2023 right-hander, pitched 3 1/3 innings of shutout middle-relief without allowing a hit and striking out two.

Hedges, a top-1000 ranked uncommitted 2022 shortstop, has been terrific this week.  Swinging from the right side, he's 11-for-17 (.647) with a home run, two doubles, four RBI and seven runs scored in the Birds’ five games.

“I’ve been feeling great at the plate; I’m seeing the ball really big and putting good swings on it,” Hedges said Friday. “I take it in stride because it’s not always going to be easy but when it is, it feels good.”

Added Coach Cosgrove: “Offensively, Ethan Hedges has probably been the best player at this event. He’s unbelievable; he’s been unbelievable for four years and it’s just him doing it on a big stage. What he’s doing this week we see every weekend – he shows up and gets his work in. What everyone is finally starting to see, we see all the time.”

And, of course, Hedges hasn’t done it alone. Austin Kiernan is also getting it done at the plate, hitting 8-for-16 (.500) with two doubles and four RBI; Gott is 5-for-12 (.417) with three doubles and five ribbies.

Cosgrove also pointed to the outstanding work his catchers, Gott (’22 t-500) and Kleveno (’23 follow, Hawaii) have been doing behind the plate. Shortstop Olin Snakenborg (’23 t-500) has been “fantastic” and the first baseman Kiernan also drew praise from the head coach.

“We’ve got guys who refuse to lose; their outs are productive and we just hang on,” Cosgrove said. “Our pitchers and our defense, they get back in the dugout and give our offense a chance to score runs. That’s what we’ve been doing; it’s awesome.”

The Birds earned that No. 2 seed despite a 6-6 tie with the Alpha Prime in their second pool-play game of the day back on Tuesday because they outscored their four opponents by a combined 23-8. That means the pitching has been pretty darn good as well, led by the efforts of ’22 right-hander Riley Kelly (follow, UC Irvine), ’22 lefty Grant Faris (follow, Washington State) and ’22 righty Jack Kirrer (t-500, UC Santa Barbara).

“We’ve got a bunch of great guys with great personalities,” Hedges said. “We’ve all kind of blended together and jelled and it’s been really special to play here this week with all of them...It’s definitely more fun, definitely more special because that shows that we’re a great group of guys.”

The Birds’ roster is top-heavy with prospects from the 2022 class, with only a couple of 2023s and one 2024. They all come from communities in and around the cities of Irvine, Corona and Torrance and are familiar with one another, but in fact this is the first time this roster has ever been together on the field as a team.

But Cosgrove told PG that the underlying philosophy that guides the way he runs his program is based on his personal experiences as a player. He was never part of a winning team, he explained, but always felt like a winner because he did his best to contribute when he was out on the field.

“I try to explain to the kids that hey, if everybody’s doing their part the outcome is going to be what you want it to be,” Cosgrove said. “So this is the first time this team has ever been on the field and it’s probably the last. We’ll do other stuff and I’ll mix and match guys because that’s what we do...

“But they’ve bought into doing their part, and part of that part is being a great teammate and that’s what we’ve got going on right now”

The GBG Navy National (4-2-0) obviously played very well themselves in making it to the quarterfinals and a lot of that had to do with the play of the aforementioned Jarrod Hocking, a top-500 2022 outfielder and a UCLA commit.

“Lights out” doesn’t begin to describe Hocking’s power surge during GBG’s six ballgames, hitting 9-for-21 (.429) with a double, five home runs, 11 RBI and seven runs scored. His teammate Jet Gilliam was pretty good, too, hitting 9-for-20 (.450) with two doubles, a triple, five RBI and two runs.

“My routine going into the game and when I’m on the on-deck circle, I’m going to try to get my timing down,” Hocking told PG on Friday. “All I think about there is just hit the ball hard. I try not to stay super mental up there, kind of clear my head and tell myself, be on time, get ready to hit something hard and that’s really worked for me this tournament.”

The So Cal Birds will settle into their seat at a table-for-four first thing Saturday morning and they’ll be ready to take on the day. According to Coach Cosgrove, the team will show up on the Royals’ side of the Surprise Spring Training Complex, the coaches will talk briefly about expectations and the players will go out and execute.

He knows that when people look at the prospect rankings and the number of college commitments – which Cosgrove expects to rise after this event – and think this a team without a lot of star-power. And that’s OK because the head coach knows he has a lot of guys that have done a really good job this week with the best still to come.

“We’ve just been kind of playing as a team,” Hedges said. “We looked at some of the [elite] rosters out here...and we’ve kind of stayed humble, stayed together and fought through some of the tough times. We’ve really gone out and showed everyone what we’ve got...We’re up for a challenge; we’re not going to back down from anything.”

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