Tournaments | Story | 10/24/2015

'Prime' cuts served at Jupiter

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

JUPITER, Fla. – When it comes to the Elite Squad Prime and winning ballgames at the Perfect Game WWBA World Championship, it really does take a village. Or, at least, a really deep pitching staff.

The Prime improved to 2-0 in pool-play with a 5-0 win over Lids Team Indiana in a late afternoon game Friday at the Roger Dean Stadium Complex, and head coach Alan Kunkel didn’t hesitate to use as many arrows from his quiver as needed to get the job done.

2016 right-handers Tyler Santana, Andres Perez, Nick MacDonald and Rylan Thomas; 2016 left-hander Dylan O’Connell and 2017 righty Alex Wiederhold were all called upon to complete a seven-inning no-hitter against Team Indiana, with the six pitchers combining to strikeout 11 and walk three.

In the Elite Squad’s first two wins here – they snuck past Syracuse Sports Zone, 6-5, in their Thursday opener – Kunkel used 12 pitchers with only Perez working as many as two innings; he also sent 12 batters to the plate in the two wins.

If a team is blessed with extraordinary depth and talent, it’s the head coach’s responsibility to put it to use. It is a formula Kunkel, Elite Squad founder, owner and head coach Richie Palmer and every one of the promising prospects on the Prime’s roster will use in their effort to win the organization’s first PG WWBA World Championship tournament title.

“This is the event that everybody talks about all year long; the kids are excited about it even in June,” Kunkel said late Friday afternoon. “Obviously, you’ve got to get through (the PG WWBA National Championship) and you’ve got to get through the PG World Series, but this is the event that everybody talks about. Everybody loves seeing all the golf carts (filled with scouts) … and not only that, everybody looks forward to the level of competition.”

With 22 class of 2016 and 2017 prospects ranked in the top-500 nationally – 12 of whom occupy spots in the top-100, including 2017 No. 1 Alex Toral – this is a team built to win championships. The challenge before the group now is getting the job done right here at the most competitive high school-age amateur baseball tournament in the world.

“We’re just going out there and playing hard, playing as a team and whatever happens, happens,” top 2016 outfield prospect and Florida Atlantic University commit Eric Rivera said. “We’re not really going to worry about winning and losing, we’re just going to go out there every inning and see what happens.”

These Elite Squad players do care about winning and losing, of course, even if at the end of the day a bigger picture comes into focus. Perfect Game National Scouting/Event Coordinator Andrew Krause picked the Prime as the favorite to win the Pool K championship and earn the playoff berth that comes with that title; PG Website Managing Editor Patrick Ebert selected the Elite Squad to win the whole thing. Ebert wrote:

“This year’s Elite Squad Prime’s roster simply jumps out as a unit perfectly assembled to come out on top. From pitching to hitting to defense and overall versatility, there doesn’t seem to be any glaring weakness on this club.”

“I think it’s an honor to have the target on your back,” Kunkel said when reminded of that prediction. “The (outside) expectations are high and the kids have high expectations for themselves. We have high expectations for our organization, too, but like anything else in the high school world, chemistry wins championships … It’s an honor to have that target on your back. The kids think it’s cool but it’s hard to win this event. There are just too many talented (players).”

Elite Squad Baseball is based in Pembroke Pines in South Florida’s Broward County and the group has fielded some of the most competitive high school-aged teams not only in the state of Florida but nationally, as well, for nearly a decade now.

Palmer and his staff have developed a culture that surrounds the program that makes many of the top prospects from South Florida want nothing more than to be a part of it.

Michael Amditis from Boca Raton, Fla., is the national class of 2016’s No. 10-ranked catching prospect and No. 85 overall prospect, and one of seven University of Miami commits on the roster; he has been with Elite Squad Baseball for two years.

“I take a lot of pride in wearing the Elite Squad uniform just because of the reputation that we have; we’re just trying to keep it going,” he said. “We’re a bunch of hard-nosed kids that love playing ball and we’re really dedicated to baseball and the team. We have great relationships with everyone; we’re all very close.”

Left-hander Jesus Luzardo from Parkland, Fla., (ranked No. 43 nationally, U. of Miami recruit); right-hander/shortstop Greg Veliz from Key West, Fla., (No. 71, Miami); infielder Colton Welker from Coral Springs, Fla. (No. 74, Miami) and right-hander/outfielder Anthony Molina from Pembroke Pines (No. 86, uncommitted) join Amditis as the top-ranked 2016s.

First baseman/outfielder Alex Toral from Davie, Fla. (No. 1, Miami) and catcher/right-hander Zach Jackson from Haines City, Fla. (No. 62, Central Florida) are the top 2017s.

“I know that Alex Toral gets a lot of press, and A.T. is a special kid; he’s a great leader,” Kunkel said. “And then you mix in guys like Greg Veliz and Mike Amditis and Colton Welker and new guys like Rylan Thomas and Joe Skinner, the lack of egos that these kids have creates a fun atmosphere, an atmosphere where they continue to fight for one another.”

Welker is a player that has really come into his own playing with the Elite Squad, having been named to the all-tournament team at six PG events in the last two years (he was also named to the Top Prospect List at the PG National Showcase). Like Amditis, he feels a sense of pride putting on the Elite Squad uniform even while knowing a single word makes him the hunted as opposed to the hunter.

“Wearing ‘Squad’ across your chest, everyone’s going to have expectations,” Welker said. “Everyone in the park knows that the top (prospects) play (at the WWBA World), and everyone here has top talent and you can get upset by anyone, so we always have to always play our game and stay within ourselves and not get too big.”

Added Kunkel: “Richie Palmer has done a great job of building this organization and taking great pride in finding kids that in turn take pride in the logo and the Elite Squad name.”

The majority of these players come from in and around the Miami area –Dade and Broward counties – and when they go out on the field like they’re representing their counties, their families, the Elite Squad – they’re representing their communities.

That sense of community seems to extend to the proverbial “next level” when it comes to these prospects making their college choices. Seven Elite Squad players have committed to the University of Miami in Coral Gables, four have said they’re heading to Florida Atlantic with its main campus in Boca Raton and another four will be going a little bit farther out of the neighborhood when they leave for Central Florida University in Orlando.

“I guess everyone took their visits and loved those schools, and they just happened to be in Florida,” Amditis, a Miami guy, said.

“With these kids, if they’re from Dade County most of them grow up Canes fans and that’s their dream,” Kunkel said. “We’ve been accused of being Miami’s JV team, but if that’s the worst thing you’re going to say about us, OK, I can live with that. … Some of our kids aren’t opposed to leaving the state but with a lot of our kids – and it has to do with the South Florida community that we’re in – are very family-oriented; they don’t want to go real far away.”

The players have their own families scattered about and then they have their Elite Squad Baseball family: “We’ re really family-oriented and it feels like everyone is a brother,” Welker said. “We play for each other; we’re definitely not individuals out there. I wouldn’t be where I am today without Richie (Palmer) and (Alan) Kunkel and everybody else that’s here.”

That’s a sentiment shared by all the players on this Elite Squad Prime team. They all feel indebted to the organization for the opportunities they’ve been provided and for learning experiences that will follow them into the next chapter of their lives.

“Ever since I’ve been here they’ve treated me with respect and it’s been great the whole time,” Rivera said.  “It means a lot to wake up every day and to know that I’m on the Elite Squad, playing with the best of the best and playing against the best of the best. It means a lot to me just because of the past Elite Squads and how good they were, and now it’s my turn to put this jersey on.”

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