Tournaments | Story | 10/25/2015

Play-in? Hey, let's play ball

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

JUPITER, Fla. – Talented Team EvoShield from Fredericksburg, Va., and the dangerous Dallas Tigers out of Coppell, Texas, were two teams that did exactly what they wanted to do the first two or three days of pool-play at the Perfect Game WWBA World Championship.

The Fighting EvoShields played their four pool games on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, finished 3-0-1 and won the championship in Pool Q; the Tigers bunched their four pool-play games into Friday and Saturday, finished 4-0-0 and won the championship in Pool P.

For those solid efforts, Team EvoShield and the Dallas Tigers were awarded with a spot in … the play-in game. Because there are 17, five-team pools in the elite 85-team PG national championship tournament, the champions of two pre-selected pools – this year pools P and Q – face-off in a winner-take-all one game play-in, with a spot in the official 16-team bracket as the reward.

What is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this scenario – a format that at first glance might seem a magnet for controversy – is that no one seems to mind. This is the PG WWBA World Championship. This is Jupiter. Who’s going to complain about being one of 17 teams that gets to play a meaningful game on Sunday afternoon, and stay in contention for a spot in Monday’s semifinal and championship games?

“I think everybody wants to be here,” EvoShield Canes Baseball general manager, head of recruiting and college placement, and Team EvoShield head coach Dan Glitzen said Sunday from Roger Dean Stadium before his team and the Tigers were ready to exchange pitches and at-bats. I don’t think the circumstances whether you have to play a play-in game or have to play two games tonight really matters.

“Kids want to play baseball; that’s the bottom line,” he said. “This is the biggest tournament of the year and the kids that are playing on our team, at least, a lot of them are 2017s and 2018s and they’re just glad to be here at the end of the day playing in front of college coaches.”

The words wafting out of the Dallas Tigers’ dugout Sunday morning were notably similar to those spoken by Glitzen. Dallas Tigers Baseball Club founder and long-time head coach Tommy Hernandez was certainly accepting of the situation, even if somewhat begrudgingly.

“You really don’t want to play in the play-in game especially as well as we’ve played – 4-0 and we kind of handled everybody – but these kids get it and they see our schedule and we’re going to play whoever they tell us to play,” he said.

By 3 o’clock Sunday afternoon, the playoff bracket for the 17th annual PG WWBA World Championship was completely filled out and the winner of the play-in game had been awarded its rightful – and hard-earned – spot in the 16-team second-round.

The play-in game winner would be playing three games in less than 12 hours if it won its second-round game Sunday afternoon and its quarterfinal game later on Sunday night.

After two scoreless innings to start the game, Team EvoShield got on the board and took the lead in the top of the third. Rafi Vasquez received a one-out walk and moved to second on a fielder’s choice groundout, and E.P. Reese came through with a two-out, line-drive, RBI single to left field for a 1-0 lead. Noah Campbell, Buddy Kennedy and Tanner Morris were all issued two-out walks, giving Team EvoShield a 2-0 lead heading into the bottom of the third.

This is a young Team EvoShield squad, the little brother, if you will, of the two-time defending Jupiter champion EvoShield Canes, which rolled into the playoffs having won its four pool-play games by a combined count of 24-0.

This is basically the organization’s premier underclass team with highly ranked and highly regarded class of 2017 prospects Jordan Adell (No. 6, Louisville commit), JeVon Ward (No. 16, Southern Cal) and Noah Campbell (No. 43, South Carolina) serving as the head-liners.

“The best thing with this group right here is that you’ve got a lot of kids that in their age-group are leaders already,” Glitzen said. “You mix them with a couple of older guys that have worked really, really hard to have this opportunity, and being able to have two teams down here is a big, big deal.”

It’s big because this way the Canes can include top-end 2016s like No. 147-ranked E.P. Reese (North Carolina State) and No. 424 Elliott Zoellner (Maryland), along with top-500s Cameron Locklear (Liberty U.), Jack Cosca (California-Berkeley), Rafi Vasquez (Coastal Carolina), Jacob Hennessy (Clemson) and Chris Joyner (UNC-Wilmington) on this roster to provide a leadership element.

Glitzen explained that with this young team, he and his assistants set a goal over the first two days of play to take care of business and, as he put it, “let small mistakes stay small mistakes.” They only wanted their players to make the most of the opportunities that were put in front of them, and for the most part their kids did just that.

With its pitchers and defensive efforts still keeping the Tigers from crossing home plate, Team EvoShield plated two more runs in the top of the fifth. With one out, Noah Campbell singled and Buddy Kennedy walked, and both scored on a two-out Tigers’ fielding error, good for a 4-0 EvoShield lead heading into the bottom of the frame.

Team EvoShield kicked-off pool-play with a 5-1 win over the Atlanta Blue Jays (Kennesaw, Ga.) and followed that up with a 5-0 blanking of Elite Squad Louisville Slugger (Miami) before being forced to settle for a 0-0 tie with the Body Armor Titans (Bayport, N.Y.). The Fighting EvoShields clinched the pool championship with a 9-8 escape of the Chattanooga Cyclones (Ooltewah, Tenn.) in the pool-play finale.

A seamless, leak-proof argument could be made that EvoShield Canes Baseball has been the nation’s most dominant organization over the last three years, with four Perfect Game tournament national championships since 2013. This is a team that will be counted upon to carry that dominance into 2016 and beyond.

“For our program, our expectations anytime we enter a Perfect Game tournament – whether we’re the youngest guys in the tournament or the oldest guys in the tournament – is that we’re playing on Sunday for something that matters,” Glitzen said. “For this group, right now, we’re pleased with where we are. Will I be happier if we’re playing on Monday? Absolutely.

“At this point in time I think it’s a big goal for any kid who is a year away from being draft eligible to be playing on this stage,” he continued. “Now they have that experience, and next year when they come back they’re not taken by surprise.”

Tyler Solomon led off the top of the sixth with a single and came home with yet another run on the strength of a two-out single off the bat of Jeremy Arocho: Team EvoShield 5, Dallas Tigers 0, heading into the bottom of the sixth.

Tommy Hernandez started the Dallas Tigers club in 1993, has been bringing a team to Jupiter every year for as long as the PG WWBA World Championship has been held here, and he always arrives with a roster of players that that have been with him since they got involved in travel ball.

After a quick head-count, Hernandez determined that about half of the 15-man roster had been with him since they were 13 years old and the other half came on board when they were 14 years old.

“This is a great opportunity for my kids,” he said. “We play as a team and everybody knows one another, and they know how to win and they know how to execute. They get it, and it’s fun bringing your own guys here. They know each other and they know what we’re all about.”

The Dallas Tigers program fields age-group teams from 8u to 18u, and Hernandez calls it “one big happy family with the 400 families we have in the club.”

Had this tournament’s playoff field been seeded, the Tigers would have likely earned at least a top-three seed after outscoring its four pool-play opponents by a combined 25-6: They beat the On Deck O’s from Pineville, N.C., 5-2; Stars Baseball Marucci Prime from Oakton, Va., 10-1; Team Elite Louisville Slugger out of Winder, Ga., 6-3; and Iowa Select from Cedar Rapids, 4-0.

This hometown team – this family team – features eight prospects from the class of 2016 and seven 2017s. The top 2016s include No. 51-ranked right-hander Charles King (Texas Christian) and No. 160 third baseman Ray Gaither (Dallas Baptist). The class of 2017 includes No. 18 shortstop Ryan Vilvade (Oklahoma State), No. 45 left-hander/first baseman Russell Smith (Texas Christian) and No. 124 outfielder/right-hander Zachary DeLoach (Texas A&M).

“These guys love to compete and we teach that from day-one when they get here,” Hernandez said. “Nobody is handed a spot and everybody has to compete because they’re going to have to compete when they go to high school or when they go to college; we make them compete and we don’t promise anybody anything.

“We make sure they know they’re going to get good instruction and they’re going to learn how to be a good teammate and we’ll let the chips fall where they may.”

Both teams had six hits in TE’s 5-0 victory, but the winning team certainly received a big boost from the seven walks issued by three Tigers’ pitchers; TE left eight runners on base, Tigers left seven. 2018 right-handers Austin Becker and Ethan Smith, and 2016 lefty Jacob Hennessy combined on the six-hit shutout, striking out two and walking one.

Team EvoShield survived to play again. There would be more meaningful baseball to be played Sunday night.

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