Tournaments | Story | 10/6/2016

Panthers pack a potent punch

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – With deadly Hurricane Matthew churning out in the Atlantic Ocean and preparing to lay siege to Florida’s East Coast as early as Thursday night, thousands of young baseball players and their coaches and families found shelter from the storm on the state’s Gulf Coast.

Hurricane Matthew did disrupt travel plans for several teams and as of mid-afternoon Thursday, about a dozen teams had been forced to withdraw from the event. But when play began on Thursday, there were still 252 teams planning on not only participating but competing for the title at the 15th annual Perfect Game WWBA Underclass World Championship.

They began arriving here as early as Wednesday and then dozens of the teams – like the South Charlotte (N.C.) Panthers 2018 – showed up at venues such as Terry Park, the Player Development 5-Plex and the jetBlue Park Player Development Complex in an attempt to get their pool-play schedules started. So, of course, it rained, but not enough to dampen the enthusiasm of the teams that managed to make their way here, like, well, the South Charlotte Panthers 2018.

About half of the members of this Panthers’ team drove here from their homes in North Carolina and the other half flew, and they didn’t encounter too many travel woes associated with the hurricane. There were a few hiccups with closures on I-95, but they were still able to get into Southwest Florida not a whole lot worse for the wear.

“This is a tournament we point to; it’s basically the highlight of our fall,” program director and head coach Don Hutchins said before his team was scheduled a play a game at the Terry Park Stadium at 4:30 p.m. (it didn’t get started until about four hours later). “We give these guys a little bit of time off at the end of the summer and then we start building them back up.”

One of those players Hutchins is building back up is standout 2018 Owen White, a 6-foot-3, 170-pound hard-throwing right-hander from Mount Ulla, N.C., who is ranked No. 16 overall nationally (No. 5 right-handed pitcher) and also happens to be uncommitted.

He and No. 4-ranked outfielder Joe Gray Jr. with the EvoShield Canes 17 are the only two of the 10 2018 prospects in attendance ranked in the top-21 that haven’t committed to a school, so expect a lot of college eyes to be locked on them over the next four days.

“Coach Don (Hutchins) has been preaching to the whole team about getting mentally focused for this event,” White said Thursday in what turned out to be about six hours before he could make his scheduled start. “He knows it’s a big event and it can open up opportunities for everyone on the team, and this is one tournament that we’ve always been looking forward to coming down to.

“It’s definitely important for me to be here,” he continued. “My parents preach to me to work hard every day and now I get the opportunity to come out here and show my talents out in front of everybody. Hopefully, in the future I can go to college and play baseball.”

Hutchins recollected that 10 or 12 years ago when he first started bringing South Charlotte Panthers teams to this event, the juniors and sophomores were just getting started with the recruiting process. A transition to earlier and earlier commitments followed for a number of years, but Hutchins feels like colleges are once again backing off on the really early commits.

“When we talk to the colleges, especially the ones we deal with a lot, this is definitely a go-to event,” he said. “It also gives us the opportunity to see – just like Atlanta (PG WWBA National Championships) does – colleges from across the nation versus the regional-type schools. … I can point out a number of times when guys got opportunities outside of the region, and a lot of times those happened here or up in Atlanta at the WWBA.”

Hutchins feels that if he had this same group three or four years ago when the early commitment craze was its peak, three-quarters of the roster would already be committed. As it is, the only commitments so far have come from 2018 top-500 outfielder Cameron Brantley from Charlotte (to North Carolina) and top-500 2018 right-hander Ryan Sutton from Weddington, N.C. (Campbell).

“All of them, I truly believe, will be committed to a school that is a fit for them – they’re all college-type players,” Hutchins said. “Some of our top-end guys aren’t committed because they have so many options. Owen (White) is a guy who could commit to a lot of schools tomorrow but he doesn’t have to, and he knows that. He’s not stringing people a long, he just wants to make sure he crosses his ‘t’s’ and dots his ‘i’s in regards to what the best fit is for him.”

A player attending the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship also must deal with missing class time back home, and Hutchins helps with that, as well. He makes sure each player is communicating with his teachers and academic counselor, and getting all of his ducks in a row. This group of prospects appears to be doing just that; Hutchins said the roster includes an unusually high number of players that excel academically.

“This is a great venue for that because the Ivy League schools come; the service academies come,” he said. “I always strive to get good students and I even have a benchmark they have to meet to play for us, but I just happen to have an exceptional bunch in that regard.”

White and Brantley spent the summer playing up with the South Charlotte Panthers 2017 team but they also enjoy playing with their classmates at an underclass tournament such as this. And their experiences playing alongside older prospects can provide a spark when they’re back amongst their peers, which can turn a really solid team into an exceptionally good team.

There are only two teams – and upper-class and an underclass – that suit-up for Hutchins every year, and he does everything he can to build a culture of camaraderie and “team.” He enjoys watching his players each year build upon the successes of the teams that came before them.

This group of 2018s can certainly learn a lot from the 2017s before them. The South Charlotte Panthers 2017 finished 10-1-1 after losing to powerhouse FTB Tucci in the championship game at the blockbuster 17u PG WWBA National Championship this past summer.

White and Brantley were both members of that 17u team and were also on the underclass team that finished 4-1-2 at the 16u PG WWBA National Championship. Both received all-tournament recognition at the 17u event; White was also honored at the 16u tournament.

The Panthers’ pool-play schedule this weekend includes games against the Team Mississippi Prospects from Starkville; Ostinger’s Baseball Academy from Lithia, Fla.; and Diamond Pro Baseball out of Rochester, N.Y. It’s a nice little cross-section of teams from three distinct regions of the country and Hutchins enjoys the challenge that presents to his team.

“We haven’t seen any of those teams this year … and it’s always good for these guys to see and experience play against (those teams) and see how they stack up,” he said. “It’s all good. I hope we learn something and we play good, have some good fun and meet some new people.”

Hutchins is being assisted this weekend by Trent Thornton, a right-handed pitcher and South Charlotte Panthers’ alumnus from the class of 2012. He went on to enjoy an all-Atlantic Coast Conference career at North Carolina before being selected by the Houston Astros in the fifth-round of the 2015 MLB Amateur Draft. He finished the 2016 season at Double-A Corpus Christi in the Texas League.

“When you have a kid like that come back and he’s able to interface with these guys and they go, ‘Wow,’ it makes a big difference; it’s kind of fun to see,” Hutchins said. “It’s part of the fun with what we’re able to do and experience out here in this funny little game that we play.”

Although about a dozen teams had to alter their plans of participating here this weekend, the field remains as strong as ever. Team Elite 17’s Prime with the Nos. 1- and 9-ranked 2018 prospects Kumar Rocker and Ethan Hankins, respectively, promise to be a tough out; EvoShield Canes 17 led by the aforementioned No. 4 Joe Gray Jr. and No. 17 Austin Becker looks particularly formidable.

And don’t forget about the super-salty Central Florida Gators – the No. 1 team in Perfect Game’s 16u Summer Travel Ball National Rankings – and their top 2018s in No. 5 Elijah Cabell, No. 12 Mason Denaburg, No. 21 Nolan Gorman and No. 44 Carter Stewart, and top 2019s in Nos. 13 and 18 Tyler Callihan and Joseph Charles, respectively. But don’t overlook the Panthers.

“I come down here to win, and anybody that knows me knows that,” Hutchins said. “This is all coach-talk, but every team puts on their pants the same way and we come to these things to win. I always add a couple more arms just to make sure I have the (pitching) to manage through that aspect of it. …

“We’re going to have to get hot; we’re going to have to have a few guys get a little bit hotter than maybe they have been, but it seems like this (event) always brings that out in them.”

White finally did get to make his start Thursday night, and he struck out five of the six batters he faced (one reached first on a dropped third strike). Hutchins lifted him after the big right-hander had thrown only 30 pitchers, obviously with the idea in mind of bringing him back for a playoff game in a couple of days. The Panthers beat the Team Mississippi Prospects, 10-0, in five innings; White also tripled and drove in two runs.

“We all come out here and grind every day; we work hard,” he said. “Once we come together as a unit I think we’ll all be working for the chance to try to win this tournament. We all grind, so hopefully we’ll be in good shape.

“Everybody on this team has been playing baseball for a long time,” he concluded. “We’ve worked hard all summer and starting the fall now, we’re still working hard.”

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