Tournaments | Story | 10/7/2016

Squad's trophy? College commits

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – None of the 250 teams in attendance at this weekend’s Perfect Game WWBA Underclass World Championship came into the PG national championship event with the goal of struggling through pool-play, taking part in a consolation game and limping back home while considering the 2016 underclass tournament season a wrap.

Every player, every coach – every parent – wants to win. Every active member of a team wants to be fitted for a PG national championship ring and pose for photos holding a PG national championship trophy while standing behind a PG national championship banner. It is the essence – the very nature – of being a competitor.

But there are different definitions of winning and losing, and that holds true even for the powerhouse travel ball programs. They are the ones that have made a habit of accumulating PG national championship rings, trophies and banners, but for most of those programs, the hardware is the least significant prize of all.

The Pembroke Pines, Fla.-based Elite Squad Baseball – founded by Richie Palmer just over a decade ago and formerly known as the South Florida Elite Squad – has never won a PG WWBA Underclass World Championship title, but has certainly done its share of winning at other PG-sanctioned tournaments. And a lot of those victories don’t necessarily show up in pool-play standings or on the final line of a playoff bracket.

“All of these events are hard to win, so I think if that’s our goal, how are we unlike the other (250) teams that are here,” Elite Squad Underclass Black head coach Alan Kunkel said Friday morning before sending his team out for its 8 o’clock pool-play opener on windy but relatively dry Connie Mack Field at Terry Park. “If it’s our goal in terms of just saying, ‘Hey listen, it’s win or go home,’ I think that goal is too small.

“Our goal is, let’s play well and see how many college offers we can get out of this,” he continued. “We’re playing in front of more college coaches, probably, then these guys have played in front of since (the PG WWBA National Championships in Georgia), and that’s important.”

When speaking Friday morning, Kunkel – also the head coach at Fort Lauderdale Calvary Christian High School, which won the Florida Class 4A state championship this past spring – called the PG WWBA Underclass World the “Jupiter for the young guys.”

That was in reference to the PG WWBA World Championship, held annually in Jupiter, Fla., the third or fourth weekend in October. The PG WWBA World draws more than 1,000 college coaches and MLB scouts while this event – the PG WWBA Underclass World – belongs to the colleges. “There’s always a good, quality group of teams,” Kunkel noted. “It’s good baseball and the colleges really turn out.”

The Elite Squad Underclass Black is one of four teams the organization has here this weekend, and it boasts the program’s premier underclass roster. There are nine class of 2018 or 2019 prospects listed that have already committed to NCAA Division-I schools, including Miami, Florida, Florida International, South Florida, Notre Dame and Pepperdine.

Kunkel is missing a couple of this top players for the weekend, including 6-foot-4, 240-pound left-handed hitting corner-infielder Tristan Casas, a U. of Miami commit from Pembroke Pines. Casas, the No. 2-ranked national prospect in the class of 2019, is the only high school sophomore (2019) playing with the USA Baseball 18u National Team at this week’s COPABE Pan American “AAA” Championships in Monterrey, Mexico; he has been batting cleanup in the National Team’s batting order. Also missing is No. 76 2018 Cory Acton, a Florida recruit who is rehabbing an injury and is reported to be coming along just fine.

But that leaves top 2018s like middle-infielders Alexander Bello (No. 266, South Florida) and Henry Vilar (No. 291, Miami), and right-hander Alex Rau (No. 330, Notre Dame). 2019 catcher Jake Holland is the real prize: the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Miami recruit is ranked No. 8 in his class.

“It’s definitely important to be here because the more times you’re seen the less you’re going to be nervous the next time it happens,” Holland said Friday when asked about the significance of the PG WWBA Underclass World, even for a committed prospect like himself.

“The more the college coaches see you, the more they know you and then you have a track record with them,” he said. “So it’s very important to come to events like this. And going up against all these other top teams might be the most fun thing ever.”

It’s kind of remarkable that any of the players with the Elite Squad program made it over here at all, with Hurricane Matthew causing so much anxiety up and down Florida’s east coast the last several days –  the state ultimately avoided a direct hit from the Category 3 storm. But as his players slowly made their way into Terry Park Friday morning, Kunkel breathed a sigh of relief.

“This is a scary time of year for us. If you live in Florida, hurricane season is a tough time,” he said. “We’ve got kids coming from anywhere up around West Palm Beach all the way down to Dade County, so it really kind of depended on where you were. We had some kids and families who were frantically boarding up houses, and what do you tell them? … So the kids got here when they could; a lot of them left this morning at 4:30. But we’ve got enough here to play.”

And once the players arrived, Kunkel was eager to get after it. He identified this event as one that always seems to bring out the best in his young players: “This is a fun group. They’re scrappy; they play hard. This group just loves to play baseball. Right now, for them, the game is just a little more pure, so these guys just go out and have fun.

“The score doesn’t bother them. Whether they’re up or down or tied, they just continue to play the game and they have fun doing it. … It’s an athletic group and we just have to throw strikes and put some balls in play.”

If the Elite Squad Underclass Black hopes to make a deep run into the playoffs – or any kind of run, for that matter – they’re going to need some help. They did not play well – two hits, two errors, two unearned runs – and dropped their opener to MSI 2019 Grad National out of Garnett Valley, Pa., by a 2-1 count, placing their backs firmly against the wall.

Only the champion from the Underclass Black’s four-team pool advances to the playoffs, so they will have to win their next two games, hope someone knocks off MSI and then most likely come out on top in a necessary tie-breaker procedure in order to move on.

During his conversation with PG on Friday, Kunkel repeated time and again how much he enjoys this tournament simply because of the large number of college coaches on hand. There are a lot more uncommitted kids on Elite Squad’s four rosters here than committed players, so there is still work to be done. He called it an “exciting” time because a lot of these youngsters will make their commitments in the next six weeks six or seven weeks leading into December.

“It’s an opportunity for them to finish up their fall well … and if they play well, they’re going to draw that interest,” Kunkel said. “Our trophies are college commits. The kids want to go out and win every event, and rightfully so – they’re competitive – but as a coaching staff and as the Elite Squad organization, we want to make sure we can reduce as much college debt as possible. Be sure that these kids find not just a college home but the right college home so that they can be successful for years to come.”

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