Tournaments : : Story
Thursday, July 28, 2016

Gators look to finish one off

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

CARTERSVILLE, Ga. – When the all-tournament teams from three Perfect Game national championship events – one 15u, one 16u and one 17u – contested over the last calendar year were compiled, they were filthy with Central Florida Gators.

It was sick the way the Gators made their presence felt on those honor squads, an in-your-face takeover made sicker by the fact that 11 Gators had performed at such a high level that they were listed on two of the three post-tournament teams; six were a perfect three-for-three. Even more eye-popping, perhaps? The Gators’ top-ranked player from the class of 2018 – No. 5 outfielder/third baseman Elijah Cabell – was included on only one of those all-tourney teams, and that was exactly a year ago.

These already heavily decorated Central Florida Gators are back at it again this week, looking to add to their treasure trove while playing lights out at the 16u PG World Series. On Thursday, the elite tournament completed the third day of what will be a five-day run for the four teams that advance to Saturday’s semifinals.

A championship at the 16u PG World Series would mean a lot to this hungry congregation of Gators, because while they did a whole heck of a lot of winning at their last three tournament events – and have the all-tournament recognition to vouch for it – they weren’t able to leave PG Park South-LakePoint with a coveted gold trophy, a PG national championship banner or PG national championship rings.

They finished 7-1-0 and as runner-up at the 2015 15u PG World Series after a 3-1 championship game loss to the Houston Banditos last July; they were 8-1-0 after a loss in the third-round of the playoffs at the 2016 17u PG National Championship early this July; and they went 8-1-1 after a loss in the quarterfinals at the 16u PG WWBA National Championship a couple of weeks later. That’s a combined record of 23-3-1 without a title to tout. Hungry Gators, indeed.

“We were excited that we’ve made some deep runs in those tournaments, but these guys come out and expect to win every ballgame whether they’re playing an age-up or whether they’re playing right here in their own age-group,” Central Florida Gators head coach Joe Mercadante said late Thursday afternoon before his team went out to play its fourth pool game. “They’re going to always play at a high level and they’ve done a good job of that so far this summer, but obviously they come into this one with their eyes on winning the championship.”

This year’s 16u PG World Series – like last year’s 15u version – is a different beast then the mega events the PG WWBA National Championships have grown into. It’s a 24-team field this week, with all 24 considered to be among the best in the nation. The teams are divided into four, six-team pools with only the four pool champions playing on Saturday.

The Gators took their first step towards that elusive title on Thursday when they clinched their pool championship with a 5-3 win over the Florida Burn. Mercadante can now take it easy with his pitching in the pool-play finale Friday and save his top arms for what he hopes will be two games on Saturday.

“With this tournament, you know you’re going to have good competition with everybody you play, and you’re going to run into some good arms,” he said. “But these guys are always up for these tournaments; they don’t ever come into a game and not expect the other team’s best shot. So we’ve had a good week, we’ve had some good ballgames the guys have responded well.”

The wins early in the week came against the Indiana Prospects, 8-3; the Georgia Jackets, 11-0 in five innings; and the Tri-State Arsenal Prime 1-0. 2018 left-hander Matthew Liberatore and 2018 righties Bret Neilan and Conner Thurman combined on a five-inning no-hitter, striking out seven and walking two, in the win over the Jackets; 2018 right-hander Mason Denaburg threw a complete-game, three-hit shutout with five strikeouts and a walk at the Arsenal.

“Mason Denaburg did an outstanding job for us (Wednesday),” Mercadante said. “I was going to keep him under 80 pitches regardless but he managed to go seven innings and keep it under 80 for me, which I really appreciated. He did a great job for us and really saved us some pitching.”

Mercadante handed the ball to top 2019 right-hander Joseph Charles against the Burn, and while he wasn’t at his best – he gave up three earned runs on four hits with four strikeouts and a pair of walks in four innings – he did enough to get the win.

The Gators swung the bats extremely well in their four wins, hitting .356 as a team while averaging just a hair more than six runs per game. Eight pitchers combined to give up five earned runs in 26 innings pitched (1.35 ERA) while striking out 25 and walking seven.

“I’m really excited because I think our hitting is probably the best it’s been all summer. Everybody’s kind of feeling it right now, and that’s definitely good,” Charles said before making Thursday’s start. “The whole summer our pitching has been really solid; that’s probably our best part. But I really think the best thing about this team is that we have more than just one strength.”

The Central Florida Gators take a lot of pride in this group because most of the players have stuck it out and played together for at least three or four years now, although there have been some piecemeal additions every now and then. Many of the 14 guys who were on the 2015 15u Perfect Game World Series runner-up team are back this year, including nine of the 10 that were named to the all-tournament team.

Strength is in numbers, and the Gators certainly have the national ranking numbers on their side. The top 2018s include No. 5 Cabell (Winter Park, Fla., LSU), the Most Valuable Player at last year’s 15u PGWS; No. 30 Denaburg (Merritt Island, Fla., U. of Florida); No. 38 Nolan Gorman (Glendale, Ariz., U. of Arizona); No. 65 Liberatore (Peoria, Ariz., uncommitted); No. 89 Thurman (SanTan Valley, Ariz., uncommitted); and No. 105 Connor Ollio (Renfrew, Pa., uncommitted).

The top 2019s are No. 25 Charles (Celebration, Fla., uncommitted); No. 38 Tyler Callihan (Neptune Beach, Fla., U. of South Carolina) and No. 44 Andrew Roberts (Altamonte Springs, Fla., uncommitted).

Now, here’s that all-tournament team rundown: Denaburg, Gorman, Liberatore, Ollio, Charles and 2017 Eric Foggo made all three honor squads (’15 15u PGWS, ’16 16u PG WWBA and ’16 17u PG WWBA); Thurman, Neilan and 2017 Tommy Ben (’16 16u, 17u PG WWBA) and Callihan and Roberts (’15 15u PGWS., ’16 16u PG WWBA) were all cited twice. Taken as a whole, the names and honors represent a boatload of talent on one roster.

“There really aren’t any egos on this team because we’re not one of those teams that just has the one guy who is the big contributor and puts everybody on his back. It’s different guys stepping up every game,” Charles said. “I’m mainly a pitcher and yesterday I was able to come with a big hit. It’s just different guys coming through in different situations.”

The connection between the Central Florida Gators and their trio of highly ranked Arizona prospects couldn’t be any less sinister. It started when Glendale’s Gorman somehow managed to hook-up with the Gators at a 12u national tournament event in Cooperstown, N.Y., back in 2012, and the young Gorman made some friendships he wasn’t eager to let go of. He played in his first PG event with the Gators at the 2013 14u PG BCS Finals in Fort Myers, Fla.

After becoming comfortable and having so much fun playing with all of his Gators’ teammates, Gorman decided to get a couple more of his pals from the desert involved. He first introduced Liberatore to Mercadante and some of his teammates before the summer of 2015, and Liberatore was immediately excited to join the group. The same thing happened before this summer season when Thurman jumped on board.

“It’s really been kind of word-of-mouth thing,” Mercadante said. “The guys enjoy it and they feel like they have a good home, and it’s nice because it’s a small group. We keep a relatively small roster for the type of events that we play in; everybody feels like they’re part of the family which is the way we want to keep it.”

This congregation (the preferred word when referring to a large group of alligators) of Gators has proven it can excel at the 200- and 300-team events like the 17u and 16u PG WWBA National Championships and can also hold its own at the more intimate 24-team PG World Series events.

Mercadante told PG he enjoys playing both, but likes the big World Wood Bat Association tournaments because they give his players the opportunity to see a large cross-section of baseball talent from all across the country. One day, most likely during a pool-play, a team will fill the dugout on the other side of the diamond that comes from a place none of his Gators have ever heard of. But, of course, he has a lot of appreciation for the World Series events.

“Obviously, when you get to this event it’s kind of the cream of the crop where you can really kind of lock-in and know you’re going to get everybody’s best shot every day,” he said. “Our guys prep for this one and it’s a fun event. It’s definitely something that’s on our radar and we’re looking forward to finishing it out.”

“This is (a tournament) we’re out to win,” Charles added. “Coach Joe always stresses to us that on paper it might look good (to have a winning record) but we’re out here to win championships and that’s really our main goal.”

The 16-year-old Charles has been playing with the Central Florida Gators since he was 9 years old, so he really doesn’t really have any frame of reference when it comes to comparing his baseball experiences with those of others.

He is one of the six Gators to earn all-tournament recognition at each of the last three PG national championships they’ve played in and one of nine who earned all-tournament honors at the 2015 15u PGWS after losing in the title game. It still stings a little bit.

“We know what it takes to get to the championship and what we need to improve upon. As a whole, I think we’re ready to make a good run,” he said, before continuing. “… It’s just a lot fun being out here with all the other guys; I’ve played with them forever. It’s so much fun playing with them and it really is like a family. … We really are all best friends.”

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