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Tournaments | Story | 7/21/2016

17u PGWS now 'favorite event'

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

MESA, Ariz. – Early in the 2012 calendar year, Perfect Game officials first hatched their plan to stage the exclusive 17u Perfect Game World Series at the Cactus League spring training home of the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners in Peoria, Ariz.; the elite tournament would be played the last week of July.

It was determined that the event would be invitation-only, and those invites would be extended only to the 16 top 17u teams in the country. The teams came from coast-to-coast, border-to-border and put on an exquisite show in front of a strong contingent of MLB scouts and college coaches and recruiters, each of whom figuratively stood and shouted “Encore!” when the event reached its conclusion.

Also at its conclusion, a talented team known as the South Florida Elite Squad had earned the PG National Championship thanks to a hard-fought 7-5 victory over the Georgia-based East Cobb Braves in the championship game.

The 5th annual 17u Perfect Game World Series began its five-day run Thursday using a new venue and boasting an expanded field that is still tight enough for the 17u PGWS to maintain its exclusiveness. The 24 invitees competing this weekend arrived at the beautiful (Chicago) Cubs Park Riverview spring training complex from Oregon and Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania, California and Virginia, Arizona and Illinois, and quite a few other states that lie in between. And right there, certainly not lost in the shuffle, is a team that has shortened its name simply to the Elite Squad.

“This event is great, and it is my favorite event,” Elite Squad head coach Alan Kunkel said early Thursday morning before his team played its opener against the Southern California-based San Gabriel Valley (SGV) Arsenal. “It’s my favorite event because it’s an intimate setting. It’s (six) fields, it’s 24 teams, every game means something and the competition’s great.

“Our kids come out here to a new area – for three-quarters of our kids, this is their first time ever being in Arizona – and they’re excited, they’re in awe. This is a big change for them.”

And It’s a big change that could very conceivably open some doors for these young players, particularly those who have not yet committed to a college. This allows them to be seen by coaches and recruiters from the West Coast schools that don’t have the opportunity to scout prospects from South Florida on a regular basis.

A program like Elite Squad Baseball always puts gaining exposure for its young prospects front and center. Its directors and coaches certainly appreciate PG’s heavily scouted mega events like the annual PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., or the 16u and 17u PG WWBA National Championships in the north Atlanta suburbs, but Kunkel said there is something about the intimacy of the 17u PG World Series – and the younger age-group PG World Series that will be held in Atlanta next week –that kind of puts everyone at ease.

“The kids can go out and just play hard; there really isn’t a lot of pressure, I don’t think,” he said. “They don’t need to feel like they have to come out here and light up the gun, they just need to pitch. This is a really cool event; it’s just my favorite.”

This Elite Squad roster is actually missing three of its most prominent regulars this weekend in 2016 Perfect Game All-Americans Alejandro Toral (ranked No. 2), Mark Vientos (No. 13) and Quentin Holmes (No. 24), but it certainly is not lacking for star-power.

Nine prospects from the class of 2017 filling roster spots are ranked in the top-350 nationally, including No. 63 shortstop Jeter Downs (U. of Miami recruit), No. 75 outfielder Leugim Costello (Oklahoma), No. 96 corner-infielder Joseph Perez (uncommitted), No. 121 catcher Zach Jackson (Florida) and No. 192 outfielder Gabriel Rivera (Miami).

“The good thing about the vast majority of our group being from Dade and Broward (Fla.) counties rather than pulling them together from all over the place, we can interchange from team to team to team and the chemistry stays the same,” Kunkel said. “The kids are just as excited about having someone like (No. 284 infielder) Ubaldo Lopez up here with them as they are Alejandro Toral. Obviously, we’re going to miss A.T. … but it just gives another kid an opportunity.”

Perez is a 6-foot-3, 205-pound incoming senior at perennial Florida high school state champion Archbishop McCarthy High School. He is unique in that he is one of only five 2017s on the 15-man roster that has yet to make a college commitment; the other 10 are all committed to NCAA Division I schools, including four to Miami.

That in no way speaks towards Perez’s abilities, because as the No. 96-ranked prospect in the country his skills are obviously off the charts. It simply speaks of a young man who is considering all his options – he carries a 4.17 GPA at McCarthy – and who looks forward to an event like the 17u PG World Series expanding those options even more.

“Obviously, it’s a great experience playing at a nice complex like this,” he said Thursday. “This is just one of the many great tournaments and experiences that I’m able to have, and it’s great competition. … I don’t want to try to do too much, I just want to keep doing what I have been doing and I know I’ll be fine.”

The Elite Squad totaled only three singles in its tournament-opener against the SGV Arsenal Thursday morning, but used four Arsenal errors to plate two unearned runs in their 3-1 victory; Perez had one of the three singles and also pitched a 1-2-3 seventh inning to pick up a save. 2017 left-hander Joseph Sanchez pitched five shutout innings, scattering four hits, to start the game.

When Perez was an underclassman, he almost always played “up” with the Elite Squad’s upper-class teams so he has enjoyed playing this summer with kids in his same age-group. A good number of them are classmates and teammates of his at Archbishop McCarthy HS and they’ve certainly enjoyed a lot success together through the years.

They are coming off a somewhat disappointing appearance – by their standards, anyway – at the 17u PG WWBA National Championship where they finished 4-2-0 in pool-play and didn’t make the playoffs.

But this is a whole new week, a whole new venue and a whole new set of opponents. The Elite Squad will play three teams from California and one each from Arizona and Pennsylvania during pool-play in four days’ time, and that’s just not something they get to do every day back home in South Florida.

“There’s a bunch of great teams on the east side (of the country) but there aren’t many times when you get to play against the best from the west side,” Perez said. “When the two come together it’s really a lot of fun. …

“There’s different coaching on the west side, there’s different playing styles on the west side, and when you pick things apart and use the best from both sides, you end up with best of both worlds,” he said. “You can really enhance your own game that way.”

That South Florida Elite Squad team that won the inaugural 17u PG World Series back in July of 2012 was coached by program founder Richie Palmer and featured a special talent by the name of Zack Collins. That’s the same Zack Collins who just completed an All-American career at the U. of Miami and who the Chicago White Sox made the No. 10 overall pick of the first round in last month’s MLB Amateur Draft.

This is a different group, to be sure, but it’s one Kunkel thinks can accomplish a lot down here in the desert over the next four days. But accomplishments aside, the overall experience offered by the 17u PG World Series hasn’t lessened in value over the past five years, and its intimacy will always be something Kunkel holds dear.

“For me, I get excited about hanging out with Coach (Jason) Mills and Coach (Tim) Lowery with EvoShield (the Canes), I get excited about seeing Michael Garciaparra with GBG and (Jon) Paino with CBA,” Kunkel said. “Again, the intimacy of this gives us the opportunity to catch up where (other events) are so big you don’t even run into each other.

“It’s nice to be able to see the guys that are running strong programs and to be able to step up with those guys and bounce some ideas off one another. It’s just a great event to do that sort of thing.”

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