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Tournaments  | Story  | 10/20/2016

Canes a year older, wiser

Jeff Dahn     
Photo: Perfect Game

JUPITER, Fla. – At the conclusion of each of the last three Perfect Game fall tournament seasons, a team playing under the name of the Evoshield Canes was crowned the champion at the prestigious Perfect Game WWBA World Championship at the Roger Dean Stadium spring training complex.

In fact, teams from the Virginia-based Canes Baseball organization, all managed by Jeff Petty, have advanced to the semifinal-round at the elite event five times since 2010.

Last year’s championship team was a special group – “I think I could have slept in the dugout and we would have won; we were just so talented last year,” Petty told PG Thursday morning – but what really stood out about the 2015 Canes’ title run was who they beat in the championship game.

When that team made up primarily of high school seniors from the class of 2016 looked across the Roger Dean Stadium field and into the opposing dugout, they saw their younger brothers, a squad made of up almost entirely of 2017s that played under the name of Team Evoshield.

Big Brother put seven runs on the board in the fourth inning and posted two more in the fifth to dispatch Little Brother, 9-0 in five innings, in that championship game; the elder Canes were promptly fitted for their set of PG national championship rings in what has become an annual coronation.

But the youngsters suited up for Team Evoshield had made a loud statement about their own ability to compete at the highest level in the land, a statement still resonating a year later during Thursday’s opening day at this year’s PG WWBA World Championship.

“Last year with Team Evoshield, we had a lot of guys that played with the Evoshield Canes 16u team during the summer,” No. 2-ranked 2017 national prospect Jordan “Jo” Adell said late Thursday morning before he and his Evoshield Canes’ teammates played an exhibition game against the Minnesota Blizzard on the Cardinals Field 6 at Roger Dean (there were easily more than 200 scouts in attendance for that exhibition game).

“We came in here and we knew that our older team was expected to win this thing, but why not come down here with a lot of energy and show that we can compete; it’s not just them that can win this thing,” he said. “We played well, and it was an awesome experience playing our older team in the championship.”

There are eight players on this year’s Evoshield Canes’ roster that were on last year’s Team Evoshield roster: Adell (2017 No. 2, Louisville commit), Austine Jeremy Arocho (’17, No. 153, Maryland), Buddy Kennedy (’17 No. 134, North Carolina), Tanner Morris (’17 No. 90, Virginia), Shane Roberts (’17 No. 412, South Carolina), Tyler Solomon (‘17 No. 204, Vanderbilt), Jack Stamler (’17 t-500, South Carolina), Austin Weiermiller (’17 No. 247, Stanford) and Austin Becker (2018 No. 17, Vanderbilt).

2017 left-handed pitcher Andrew Abbott (No. 328, Virginia), was the only player on this roster that played for the championship Evoshield Canes team in 2015. Becker was one of only three 2018s on last year’s Team Evoshield roster and one of only two 2018s on this year’s Evoshield Canes roster – Jared Hart (No. 70, Vanderbilt) – is the other.

“The biggest thing we looked at last year was not over-looking games; focusing on being in the moment,” Becker said Thursday. “One of the biggest things I learned was not messing around and managing your time well and not looking past anyone.”

With one or two notable exceptions, this is largely the same roster of prospects that advanced to the semifinals at the 2015 PG WWBA Underclass World Championship in Fort Myers, Fla., before finishing as the runner-up at the 2015 PG WWBA World Championship here in Jupiter. It also advanced to the final-four at the 17u PG World Series in Mesa, Ariz., in late July.

 “This is just a great group of kids but we’re yet to win a major championship with this group of kids,” Petty said. “They’ve been knocking on the door with final-fours … and they’ve been right there so often but we’re yet to figure out a way to win it all.”

The run to the championship game at last year’s PG WWBA World was especially surprising, even to Petty, because Team Evoshield was randomly placed in a pool that required the champion to win a play-in game before it could advance to the playoffs. That extra game may have ended up costing the team dearly in the long-run.

“They had to overcome a lot of adversity last year … and I was not expecting them to be there by any means,” Petty said. “By the time they got to (the Canes), we had a lot of pitching left and they only had a lot of young guys, so they were just overmatched.”

It’s difficult to imagine a top 2017 MLB draft prospect like Adell ever feeling overmatched, and it’s true that when Petty made that statement he was speaking about a depleted 2015 Team Evoshield pitching staff. Adell, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound, right-handed swinging Perfect Game All-American centerfielder from Prospect, Ky. (a fitting name for his hometown, to be sure), is used to performing on Perfect Game’s biggest stages, and performing with aplomb.

He was named to the Top Prospect List at the 2015 PG Junior National Showcase and was all-tournament at three PG WWBA events that summer, including the 16u National Championship, 16u PG World Series and the Underclass World Championship.

This past summer, he was on the TPL at the PG National Showcase and also stood out at the non-PG East Coast Professional Showcase and Area Code Games before playing in the PG All-American Classic in San Diego in mid-August. But there’s something about Jupiter and the PG WWBA World Championship that really gets Adell’s adrenaline flowing.

“This is the greatest fall tournament that there is for (amateur) baseball, at least from my perspective,” he said. “What it does, it really shows who can come together as one and play like a team -- it’s not an individual sport, it’s a team sport. You’ve got nine guys on the field and to come down here and win it all really shows who has the best team at the end.”

The members of this team know one another very well, and that familiarity leads to a confidence in one another, which in turn enables them to play the game free and easy without feeling any real or imagined pressure. “Guys are going to come in here and do their part and not try to be superman,” Adell said. “I tell the guys, ‘Don’t try to do too much; just play your game and everything will work out in the end.’”

Petty has been part of the Canes’ coaching staff for eight Perfect Game national championship teams – seven as the head coach – and associate head coach Tom Willoughby has been alongside the entire time.

Assistant coaches Gregg Conner and Tim Lowery have been on board for all of the Jupiter successes since 2010 – Connor was the head coach of the Evoshield Canes 16u team that won the 2013 16u PG WWBA National Championship – and pitching coach Jason Mills has been on staff for the last four years.

“We love our coaching staff and we’re a tight-knit group,” Petty said. “We can all look to each other and we feel super comfortable with one another.”

The Canes’ players are able to exhibit their special talents while wearing a cloak of humility because the coaching staff makes them feel special but not entitled – and not just the top-level prospects like Adell and Becker.

By the time these young players have completed their two, three or four years in the program, they have learned – by way of both a gentle and heavy hand – what is required of them to succeed at the next level, be that in the college or the professional ranks.

“The coaching staff here at (the Canes organization), they know what they’re talking about and they know a lot about the game,” Adell said. “I’ve gotten a lot better … because they’re not just about reps, they’re about teaching and developing the player and getting better; it’s been awesome for me.”

Becker is on pace to become the Jo Adell of his class and he already shares the same feelings about the Canes’ organization and its coaches as the PG All-American:

“What they do for kids is incredible and being a part of the Evoshield Canes is very special to me and everybody else out here playing on this team,” he said. “All of these guys out here are hungry to win and they’re also very team-oriented. It’s not just about a single person out here; everybody’s trying to win and get a (PG national championship) ring on their finger.”

In addition to the guys that were part of the history-making Evoshield Canes’ teams from a year ago, there are others that are both highly ranked and highly touted, among them a pair of standout 2017 right-handers.

No. 70 UCLA commit Hagen Danner from California and No. 75 Florida recruit Samuel Carlson from Minnesota should help tremendously with what has long been the Canes’ calling card: jaw-dropping depth on the mound.

The Canes opened pool-play Thursday afternoon with a 7-0 victory over PG Iowa Select, a game in which Becker and 2017 right-hander Trey Dillard (No. 93, uncommitted) combined on a six-hit, five-strikeout shutout. They scored their seven runs on the strength of four hits – one a two-run single from Arocho in the second inning and another a two-run double from Adell in the fifth – while also taking advantage of nine bases on balls.

“We have good speed, we have power, we have guys on the mound that have power and we have pitchability guys that can throw strikes,” Petty said. “But with that said, we know that at any given moment we can lose here. … We are so very aware that is possible, and even that’s something we don’t want to think about, we are very aware that can happen because the teams here are very good.”

The three teams Petty has guided to three consecutive PG WWBA World Championship titles had rosters loaded with professional and NCAA Division-I talent, and the same can be said about this one. But Petty is nothing if not a realist and he knows those teams have had a lot of breaks go their way over the years, and while acknowledging that those teams played well, he was quick to add, “The baseball gods have been good to us” and “this is just a friendly home for us.”

And now, with a roster that sports at least nine prospects that played in last year’s championship game, he just might be feeling more at home this year than ever before. “With the guys returning that have played in this event before, that’s huge,” Petty said. “This is different. There have been games here where we’ve played in front of thousands of people and half of them are scouts. If you’re not used to that it can get to you, so having those guys that have been there and seen it, that definitely helps.”