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Tournaments  | Story  | 10/18/2016

Best of West eye Jupiter glory

Jeff Dahn     
Photo: Perfect Game

Jupiter Pool Preview | Event Schedule

JUPITER, Fla. – Maybe it's California dreamin’. Maybe it's their own instilled West Coast bias. Or maybe it's simply the culmination of years spent molding very young teenagers into top-tier high school prospects who now populate rosters consisting almost exclusively of kids from California and Arizona that leads to this hard-earned mutual confidence.

Regardless of what's behind it, these are ballplayers and their coaches from out West who firmly believe they are members of the team that will end the national powerhouse EvoShield Canes' three-year championship reign at the Perfect Game WWBA World Championship.

The 16th annual PG WWBA World Championship is set to begin its five-day run at the Roger Dean Stadium Complex – the Grapefruit League spring training home of the Marlins and Cardinals – on Thursday. And four teams with their roots planted firmly in western soil are expected to contend for this PG national championship title, the most prestigious on the PG’s annual tournament schedule.

In fact, PG’s scouting department projects California-based CBA Marucci, GBG Marucci and BPA, and Arizona-based AZ T-Rex Rawlings to win their respective pool championships and advance into the weekend’s playoffs. Pool-play and the playoffs have been good to GBG Marucci the last two years, with both its 2014 and 2015 runs ending in the semifinal round.

“We have a lot of guys that know how to compete and who have been with us for years now,” GBG Marucci manager Michael Garciaparra said last week. “We kind of know what we’ve got and we’ve got some other guys helping us out, but we were talking (amongst) the coaches and we’re kind of sick getting third-place.

“We try to bring a team where the guys know each other and that’s what we’ve kind of brought every year,” he said. “Hopefully we’re playing in that stadium on that final day and fighting for rings and the big trophy; that’s what everybody on this team wants.”

No team has had an answer for the Canes the last three years. In fact, the program has been a force in Jupiter for six years running, with semifinal appearances in 2010 and 2012 before their championships in 2013-15. The Canes identify Fredericksburg, Va., as their base of operation but their roster is annually filled with players from across the country; this year’s 22-man roster features players from 13 states, including five from Virginia.

A team built predominantly around West Coast players has not won the PG WWBA World Championship title since the California-based Braves Scout Team beat the Cali-based OC Boxers in the championship game in 2009. They grabbed the title just one year after Southern California’s ABD Bulldogs captured the 2008 PG WWBA World Championship crown.

CBA Marucci manager Jon Paino was on the coaching staff of both the 2008 and 2009 Jupiter championship teams, and feels like the team he’ll have at Roger Dean later this week meets the expectations for what PG national championship teams look like. And this is a team that has done a lot of winning since it was first assembled.

“We’re pretty confident with the group that we have, and this group – the 2017 class – has been our most successful class over time, with what they’ve accomplished the last two years,” he said. “We know the kids are excited about coming out and playing and being a part of it and I think we’ve got just as good a shot (of winning it) as anybody.”

The two Marucci’s – GBG and CBA – have enjoyed the Jupiter experience in previous years; BPA and AZ T-Rex Rawlings, on the other hand, will be in attendance for the first time. But like GBG and CBA, BPA and T-Rex have done a lot of winning at the PG national championship tournament level and T-Rex won championships at both the 17u PG World Series and the PG/EvoShield Upperclass National Championship this summer.

“We’re really looking forward to going to Jupiter,” AZ T-Rex manager Rex Gonzalez said last month. “The best of the best will be out there and that’s kind of what we’re looking for – a measuring stick. And that’s definitely a measuring stick for everybody, with future pro ball players and even future major-leaguers. I think Jupiter is going to be a good stepping stone, if you will, to evaluate some talent and see exactly where they’re going to be.”

BPA manager Jared Sandler fully expects his team of top California prospects to hold its own: “Every time we play (in a PG tournament), we feel like we have a chance to win it,” he said. “It starts getting harder sometimes at the older ages with the draft guys and people doing other things, and obviously match-up and your pool (pairings) and all that stuff matters.”

As is to be expected, many of the top prospects from both the 2017 and 2018 classes are suiting up for the traditional powers like the EvoShield Canes, the Florida-based Astros Scout Team/Elite Squad Prime and Astros Scout Team/FTB Tucci, Georgia-based Team Elite Prime and the New Jersey-based Tri-State Arsenal Prime. But these guys from out West cannot be overlooked.

CBA Marucci features 10 2017 prospects ranked in the top-400 nationally, including No. 17 PG All-American Nick Allen (Southern California) and No. 51 PG All-American Tyler Freeman (Texas Christian); a third PG All-American, right-hander Jeremiah Estrada, was on an original roster but was not listed late last week. Other impactful 2017s include No. 142 Tyler Hardman (Oklahoma), No. 148 Jonathan Stroman (Arizona), No. 152 Donta Williams (Arizona) and No. 164 Brian Gursky.

The All-American Allen recently returned from Mexico where he helped the USA Baseball 18u National Team win the gold medal at the COPABE Pan American “AAA” Championship played in Monterrey. Paino said his star shortstop never considered skipping the PG WWBA World.

“Nick is a rare kid; he’s the true definition of a grinder,” Paino said. “Nick has been a part of our program for about seven years now, so this is kind of culmination of that time. I’d definitely like to go out strong with this one last event with him (on the roster).”

BPA, with six 2017s ranked in the top-400, will enjoy the services of PG All-American and No. 32-ranked 2017 Jayson Gonzalez (Vanderbilt) and may even have another All-American, No. 6-ranked right-hander Hans Crouse (Southern California). He was also on the USA Baseball 18u National Team and was the starter and winner in the 18u National Team’s 6-1 win over Cuba in the championship game.

2017 left-hander Jack Owen (No. 156, Mississippi State) has proven himself in pressure situations time and again, and the BPA roster also includes top 2018s Preston Hartsell (No. 65, Southern California) and Tony Jacob (No. 92, Vanderbilt).

“We have good infielders with Jayson Gonzalez and Brett Borgogno, and we feel like we run well – we’ve got speed; our outfield’s fast – and the guys swing the bat really well,” Sandler said. “We feel really good about heading out there.”

GBG has 10 top-400 2017s led by No. 59 Daniel Cabrera (Louisiana State), No. 108 Blake Beers (Michigan) and No. 118 Johnny Deluca (Oregon), top 2018s with No. 19 Kameron Ojeda (Cal State Fullerton) and No. 68 Michael Perez (UCLA) and standout 2019 in No. 43 Chris Villaman (North Carolina State).

“I still get nervous for it; I want the kids to do well,” Garciaparra said. “It’s a big scouting event for them, obviously, and it’s something I want them to get to use to. They need to have the feeling that there’s a lot on the line, they need to work hard for their teammates and their team and really go out and compete for a championship. … That’s what I want these guys to get used to so they have that feeling when they get to the next level.”

The AZ T-Rex Rawlings’ roster is equally stacked, with seven 2017s ranked in the top-400. PG All-American and No. 45-ranked Jacob Gonzalez is the leader and 2017s Boyd Vander Kooi (No. 167, Oregon) and Nick Brueser (No. 182, Stanford) also stand out; this is a team that absolutely rakes.

They slashed .338/.399/.444 with 15 extra-base hits (out of 67) while winning the 17u PG World Series – including an 8-0 win over CBA Marucci in the championship game – and .402.484/.550 with 22 extra-base hits (out of 76) in their championship at the PG/EvoShield Upper.

But this week in Jupiter is all about the California and Arizona kids showing – once again – they can toe the line against the top teams from other parts of the country. They have nothing to prove, of course, but any opportunity to make a statement can’t be wasted.

“We like to play against the guys that we don’t get to see all the time and get out and see different players,” BPA’s Sandler said. “We definitely like to out and play at other places and play against guys from other places; it’s good to go challenge yourself.”

He pointed out that his roster contains several prospects who decided to leave California for their college experiences. While there are players that have committed to Cal, Southern Cal, Cal State Fullerton and UC Santa Barbara, there are also commitments to Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Oregon, Utah, Seattle and Gonzaga.

“The best part of these events is being able to play teams from all over the place,” CBA’s Paino said. “The baseball climate in Florida is very different from the baseball climate in Southern California. We love attending the Georgia events (PG WWBA National Championships) because of the energy that a lot of these teams bring … and we love being a part of it.

“We love playing the Canes and playing the Elite Squad and playing the Scorpions and all of those teams from that side of the country because they bring an infectious energy that we’ve been able to kind of feed off of and use as an example for ourselves and our program.”

Like every manager guiding a talented travel ball team who is worth his salt, GBG’s Garciaparra uses this tournament as a learning experience. He marvels that the game has been around for more than 120 years and yet teams in different parts of the country continue to play the game differently. There’s no right way or wrong way, it’s just different.

“And there’s nothing wrong with being different,” he said. “I have some buddies with other clubs in other parts of the country and we talk about baseball and how they run their organizations and run their practices and how they develop their kids. You can pick something up from everybody.”

Sandler agreed with the “different styles” premise when it comes to an assessment of the way the game is played across the country. He compares it to the college game, where it often appears the game is played a little differently in the Pac-12 then it is in the SEC – or the ACC or the Big Ten or the Big 12. “But that’s what’s kind of cool, right, and you see it every year in Omaha (College World Series) with different teams playing different styles and battling it out against each other,” he said.

And it’s certain that the thousands of scouts, college recruiters, parents and fans that are in attendance at the Roger Dean Stadium Complex this weekend will experience that first-hand. And these men that are guiding these West Coast teams – the best from the West – are in agreement that it could very realistically be one of their teams that knocks the Canes from their perch.

“I think any team from Southern California that chooses not to shy away from the competition at the better events is going to be battle-tested,” Paino said. “All of these California teams heading to Jupiter are going to be battle-tested.”

Garciaparra concluded: “Obviously, there’s a great history of great baseball players coming out of California, so we don’t see why (we can’t win the title). These guys want to compete. They see some of the guys that have been there before them playing college baseball and some of them in the big leagues from California that have gone to this event, and they want to do that, too.”