Tournaments | Story | 6/29/2015

643 DP Cougars look to turn 2

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – The 30-team playoff field at the 16u PG BCS Finals fit nicely into place Monday after a another much-appreciated rain-free day in this corner of Southwest Florida, and it should have come as no surprise to anyone that the 643 DP Cougars Sterling emerged as one of the very top seeds.

The 643 DP organization, which operates out of one of the country’s top high school baseball hotbeds in Marietta, Ga., has grown in recent years to become one of the country’s elite travel ball organizations. This year’s 16u Cougars Sterling group – the team under the direction of head coach Ryan Sterling is one of three 16u teams within the organization – is emerging as one of the best it’s put on the field.

“We’re a pretty talented group that has been together for quite a while,” Sterling said Monday. “This week we came in with some pretty high expectations and this week we’ve lived up to them. We want to finish pool-play on a strong note so we can roll right into bracket-play.”

Having already clinched a spot in the playoffs before Monday morning’s game gave Sterling a ton of options for the pool-play finale. He didn’t want to go through arms left-and-right just to keep his team’s runs-allowed total down – the second criteria considered in seeding after the won-lost record – but he also didn’t want to see the underdog NJ Panthers put six or seven runs on the board.

Sure enough, the Panthers scored two in the top of the first inning but Cougars’ starter Jake Womack settled in and gave Sterling three successive shutout innings, and with the help of an eight-run third, 643 DP skated to a 10-2, five-inning win.

“We totally believe that if we play good defense we’ll be able to keep our runs down and possibly get one of those top-two seeds, which would give us a free game,” Sterling said before the game.

Ask and you shall receive – or something like that. The 10-2 outcome meant the Cougars outscored their five pool foes by a combined 45-8, good enough for the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye into Tuesday’s second round.

Chain National (5-0-0) out of Warner Robins, Ga. – its 15u team won last week’s 15u PG BCS Finals national championship – earned the No. 1 seed after besting its five pool-play opponents by a combined 38-5 and earned the other first-round bye. Team Elite Prime 16u (6-0-0) from Winder, Ga., earned the No. 3 seed and the Xtreme Tornadoes (6-0-0) out of West Coast, Fla., gained the No. 4 seed, and both won first-round playoff games Monday and advanced to Tuesday’s second round.

Sterling calls this team an “offensive-based group” but feels like it’s the way the team has pitched and played defense here over the last five days that helped them achieve the No. 2 seed. When the Cougars pitch and play defense to the best of their abilities, Sterling believes, they can play with any 16u team in the country, and that’s certainly proved to be the case down here with two days to play.

Eight 643 DP Cougars’ pitchers worked 29 2/3 innings in the five pool-play wins and allowed six earned runs (1.52 ERA) on 23 hits; they struck out 26 and walked 11.

Five of those pitchers tied with a team high four innings worked, including 6-foot-6, 230-pound 2017 left-hander Brant Hurter and 2017 lefty Zach Williams, who both started a game and put in four shutout innings. 2017 right-hander Skylar McPhee racked up his four innings of work in three appearances.

Incredibly, Sterling has 10 primary left-handed pitchers on his staff, including 2017 southpaw Ryan Webb, a University of Georgia commit ranked the country’s No. 8 lefty in his class who didn’t pitch or play in the first five games.

The Cougars Sterling hit .371 during pool-play and averaged nine runs a game. McPhee and Williams each smacked six hits, including a double apiece, and Kennet Sorenson, Jamie Taylor and Jack Ferguson each had five hits; Sorenson doubled and tripled and drove in a team-high five runs and Taylor stroked three doubles. It should be noted that Ferguson, one of those left-handers, was also one of the five Cougars to pitch four innings; he allowed one earned run on four hits.

Oddly, perhaps, the Cougars’ three most highly ranked prospects, including Webb, have been largely held in check. 2017 catcher/right-hander Sean Mootrey, ranked the country’s No. 118 overall prospect in his class, went for 2-for-9 (.222) but tripled, was hit by a pitch three times and drove in four runs while scoring six.

Drew Waters, a 2017 outfielder/middle-infielder who like Webb has committed to Georgia, is ranked 150th nationally but has only two singles in 11 at-bats (.189). That hasn’t kept Waters from noticing how his teammates have been contributing.

“I feel like we’ve been very strong offensively and our pitchers are throwing strikes, and it’s paid off,” he said. “Everyone on this team can hit, and not just for contact – everyone can hit for power; we can run the bases, too.”

The Cougars Sterling are coming off winning the PG WWBA 16u National Championship Qualifier at Perfect Game South at LakePoint in Emerson, Ga., June 12-17. Waters was named the Most Valuable Player at the tournament and 15 other Cougars were named to the all-tournament team, including Webb, Ferguson, Williams, McPhee, Mootrey, Taylor and Hurter.

“We’ve all played together for a while and it seems like this season we’ve really hit our stride,” Webb said. “We’ve just been playing really good baseball. Winning that World Wood Bat Qualifier, we’ve taken that momentum into this tournament and so far we’ve just played good, clean 643 baseball and just kind of done our thing.”

Sterling told PG this is a team of 15- and 16-year-olds brought together from the north Atlanta suburbs of Acworth, Woodstock, Marietta and points in between – including Atlanta proper – with members that genuinely love one another. The core has been playing together for most of the past six or seven years and have grown to care deeply about one another.

“They’re constantly joking with each other – both good and bad – but at the end of the day they’re all here for the same goal,” he said. “They have a passion for coming out here and doing things right and that’s a message that they’ve heard since they were really young.”

Waters has been with 643 for three years and talks about how much he’s learned during his association with the program. Webb said pretty much the same thing and talked about how the program – which he joined as an 8-year-old – turned him into the top prospect that he’s grown into.

“Obviously we want to win this tournament just because that’s always a lot of fun,” Webb said. “We’ve just really come together as a team really well and I don’t want our team to forget that – how well we’ve come together and how we need to stay together as a unit.”

The 643 DP Cougars Sterling have positioned themselves nicely to make a run at a second Perfect Game tournament championship in two weeks, this one of the PG national championship variety (think rings). The team will leave Southwest Florida in the next couple of days and play in both the 17u and 16u PG WWBA National Championships back at Perfect Game South-LakePoint up in Emerson. They’ll be ready.

“This is an exciting tournament for us because we such good competition,” Sterling said. “If we’re ever lacking that passion this tournament kind of gives us that right before we go into our World Wood Bat tournaments; it’s something where we can really come together and be on the same page and try to win something.”

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