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Tournaments | Story | 10/21/2014

Back-to-back tough task at Jupiter

Jeff Dahn     
Photo: Perfect Game

Editor's note: When the following story was published on Oct. 20, 2014, the current editorial staff at Perfect Game was unaware that the 2006 champion Reds Scout Team and 2007 champion Braves Scout Team were both part of the storied Midland Redskins organization. The “Midland Redskins” name was not mentioned in reference to either team in Perfect Game’s tournament archives. Perfect Game regrets this oversight and wants to recognize the Midland organization for doing something no other program had done before or since, and that’s win back-to-back championships at the PG WWBA World Championship.

2014 WWBA World Championship Pool Previews

JUPITER, Fla. – Ever since Perfect Game held its inaugural Lone Star Showdown in San Antonio, Texas, back in 1998, this event has bared witness to greatness.

The elite tournament, now the PG WWBA World Championship and known universally simply as “Jupiter” because of its permanent home in Jupiter, Fla., has seen 410 of its alumni move on to the major leagues; 3,338 of them drafted and more than 9,000 make college commitments.

As Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer prepares to play in his first World Series game Tuesday night in Kansas City, Mo., he can think back just seven years when he was named the Most Valuable Player at the 2007 PG WWBA World Championship while playing for the Braves Scout Team, the tournament champion that year.

But while Jupiter certainly provides a showcase for the individual prospects while they perform in front of nearly 1,000 professional scouts and college recruiters over the course of five days, this is also Perfect Game’s premier national team tournament. The top travel ball organizations from across the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada will have teams at the premier, invitation-only event and only one will get fitted for championship rings Monday afternoon.

And it is interesting from a competitive standpoint that none of the elite travel team programs have been able to claim this championship in consecutive years. Not even powerhouse East Cobb Baseball – with three PG WWBA World Championship titles on its resume – has ever gone back-to-back.

When the 16th annual PG WWBA World Championship begins its five-day run Thursday at the Roger Dean Complex – the Grapefruit League spring training home of the St. Louis Cardinals and the Miami Marlins – the Virginia-based EvoShield Canes organization will look to become the first program to take back-to-back titles in the history of the event.

They return with a completely different roster this week, and the whole concept of capturing back-to-back championships at this event is difficult to grasp, according to the Canes’ general manager and head coach Jeff Petty.

“I don’t think it’s ever happened because the parity at the event is unlike any of the other tournaments that you play in,” he said during a telephone interview late last week. “You don’t really find an easy game there. Any win there is hard-fought and not only do you have to be good but you’ve got to have some luck along the way.”

Petty described a scenario where you might be facing an opponent in a pool-play game or in a playoff game that threw their best pitcher in the previous game. Although it’s almost certain the guy they do trot out to the mound is going to be stout, you may have been fortunate enough to dodge the potential first-rounder.

“All the stars have to align,” he said. “Obviously you have to be good but there’s a lot of luck that plays into it. … It’s a lot of matchups and a lot of things going your way … and, honestly, you’ve got to be really deep in the mound at that tournament in order to pull this off.”

Organizations have won or shared championships in two out of three years but never two straight. The East Cobb Astros won the title in 2003, missed out in 2004, and then finished as co-champs with Chet Lemon’s Juice in 2005 (East Cobb Baseball won the championship in 2012; the Juice were co-champs with the Dirtbags in 2010 and finished as runner-up to ECB in 2012).

After winning the 2007 title with Hosmer swinging his big bat, the Braves Scout Team skipped a year and won a second championship in 2009 when Hosmer had finished his first full minor league season. But no team has ever put itself in position to win back-to-back championships simply because no team has been able to get back to the championship game the year after winning it all.

The Houston Banditos won this summer’s 17u Perfect Game World Series – topping the defending champion EvoShield Canes in the championship game – and have won four straight PG WWBA South Qualifiers, earning a paid invitation to Jupiter with each of those four titles.

The Banditos know how to string tournament championships together year-after-year, but program founder and head coach Ray DeLeon knows how difficult it is to win a championship in Jupiter – the Banditos have never won one.

 “This does prepare for you for the grease,” he said after winning the South Qualifier in late September, “but, now, that’s a different beast out there (in Jupiter). Everybody knows that’s the granddaddy of them all, that’s the Daytona 500, man, that’s the main deal. We all dream of winning that deal and that’s about the only thing we haven’t won yet.”

Led by 2014 first-round MLB draft pick Grant Holmes and second-rounder Grant Hockin, the Canes capped a wildly successful 2013 summer and fall season by beating the Florida Burn in the championship game at last year’s PG WWBA World Championship.

A year ago, Petty and the Canes benefitted by being able to start Holmes in the tournament opener on Thursday and then bringing him back to pitch four three-hit innings in the Canes’ 4-3 win over the Orlando Scorpions/Mets Scout Team in Monday’s semifinals.

Holmes has moved on to the professional ranks and a new cast of Canes are here in his place. It’s the year-to-year turnover on these teams that makes repeating as champion even all the more difficult.

Only 2015 left-hander/outfielder Logan Allen, a South Carolina recruit from Fletcher, N.C., ranked No. 82 nationally, returns from the 2013 title team. But every prospect on the Canes’ 25-man roster has committed to an NCAA Division-I program and seven from the class of 2015 and one from the class of 2016 are ranked in the top-95 nationally.

The top arms – all from the class of 2015 – belong to right-hander Ashe Russell (ranked No. 5, Texas A&M recruit); right-hander Beau Burrows (No. 8, Texas A&M); right-hander Ryan Johnson (primary outfielder, No. 18, Texas Christian); the lefty Allen (No. 82, South Carolina) and righty Evan Sperling (No. 88, Virginia).

Johnson, first baseman Desmond Lindsay (No. 58, North Carolina), shortstop L.T. Tolbert (No. 76, South Carolina), middle-infielder Xavier LeGrant (No. 87, N.C. State), outfielder Danny Blair (No. 95, South Carolina) and 2016 catcher Brad Debo (No. 33, South Carolina) are among the top position players.

 “This is an entirely different team,” Petty said. “It’s a completely different club but these guys want to win. A lot of these guys have been with us for three years and this is the last tournament they will ever play with us, so their sights are definitely set on winning another championship. These guys know how to win and they want to go out on top.”

One of the biggest challenges the Canes may face as they attempt to become the first repeat champion is that is very likely they will face everyone’s ace in their four pool-play games: 2015 No. 40-ranked Tristan English with the Homeplate Chilidogs; 2015 No. 192 Andrew Miller with the 9ers Prime; 2015 No. 321 Ryley Gilliam with the Toronto Blue Jays Scout Team and 2016 high follow Christian Cuba with Miami PG Columbia Blue.

“We’re not looking past anybody and we kind of feel like everyone is probably going to throw their best arm at us,” Petty said. “That’s kind of a bulls-eye on our back but that’s just what you expect when you won it last year; it’s going to be a challenge for us, for sure.”

When Petty and his staff put this team together over the winter they did so with one eye on late October. There were triumphs over the summer, with the Canes winning PG national championship rings at the PG WWBA 2015 Grads or 17u National Championship in Emerson, Ga., in early July – Lindsay was the Most Valuable Player and Russell and Burrows shared MV Pitcher honors – and then finishing as runner-up at the 17u PG World Series in Glendale, Ariz., in late July.

So, yes, the PG WWBA World Championship reeks of greatness. The EvoShield Canes have the opportunity to become the first organization to win back-to-back titles at the prestigious event, which would put them in a class of “greatness” all by themselves.

“We are always, in the back of our minds, thinking about what we’re going to finish with (in Jupiter); we take that tournament extremely seriously,” Petty said. “I think a lot of programs show up with showcase kids – we show up to win championships. The showcase experience is nice – our kids like to be scouted – but none of our players are going down there because they want to be scouted, and that’s the beautiful thing about it.

“If you asked every kid on our roster if they’re going to Jupiter to be showcased or are they going to Jupiter to win, they would all answer win first, showcase second,” he concluded. “… We feel like we’re going down there with a good team and we’re obviously always planning and building for this event and trying to put the best team on the field to compete.”

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