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Tournaments  | Story  | 10/21/2016

'Just happy to be back'

Jeff Dahn     
Photo: Perfect Game

JUPITER, Fla. – The bright, late October sunshine Florida’s Atlantic Coast is famous for soaked the playing fields at the Roger Dean Stadium Complex Friday morning, setting an amazing table for the start of day-two at this year’s Perfect Game WWBA World Championship.

Dazzling weather at Roger Dean, custom-made for the game of baseball, can put everything in comfortable perspective at a place that has witnessed plenty of victories and defeats – both monumental and trivial – over 15 previous years of play at the PG WWBA World.

Everyone in attendance Friday morning – players and coaches, parents and families, pro scouts and college recruiters – could appreciate the sunshine and the cooling ocean breezes, but mostly they could appreciate the elite level of play out on the fields.

“This is definitely a special experience,” Baseball U 2017 outfielder Giacomo Brancato said Friday morning while standing outside one of the batting cages on the Cardinals’ side of the complex. “It’s a great atmosphere here and I’m just happy to be back playing baseball again. It’s great to be out here with this group of guys and I think we have a really good team.”

This is a solid Baseball U squad that Brancato is here with this weekend. Sixteen prospects from the classes of 2017 and 2018 have committed to NCAA Division I colleges, including 2017’s Benjamin Casparius (No. 136-ranked nationally, North Carolina), Eric Heatter (No.442, Rutgers) and Davis Payne (No. 497, Richmond).

Brancato, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound outfielder from Fairfield, Conn., is a top-1,000 prospect who has committed to his hometown school of Fairfield University, a D-I that is a member of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

He and his teammates are here in sunny Jupiter this weekend looking to win some ballgames, although Brancato has already challenged and defeated an opponent that is much more formidable than even the three-time PG WWBA World defending champion Evoshield Canes or any of the MLB Scout Teams they might face during the course of the four-day event.

In November of 2014, Brancato – thinking at first he simply had a nasty sore throat – was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, and it wasn’t long before he began a grueling series of chemotherapy treatments. A standout baseball and basketball player at Fairfield Warde High School, Brancato was forced to put his athletic careers on hold while he battled cancer with a never-quit attitude, the same one that drove him so often when he was on the baseball field or the basketball court.

“At the start, when I was first diagnosed, obviously I was pretty disappointed; I was upset and it sucked,” said Brancato, who was 16 years old at the time of the diagnosis. “But I always thought I’d be back playing as soon as possible and I always (felt confident) I would overcome it.”

It wasn’t nearly as easy as that statement might read. Although Brancato showed marked improvement during the early stages of his chemo therapy, he suffered a setback in June 2015 when he developed sores in his mouth. It was later determined, according to a report in the Fairfield Citizen newspaper, that the sores were a bad reaction to the chemotherapy and later tests proved the cancer was in remission.

The young man wasn’t out of the woods, however, and was kept away from athletics for all of the 2015 calendar year. His Perfect Game profile shows that after taking part in three PG events in 2014, he was completely absent during 2015 before returning for three events this summer and fall.

According to Baseball U director/manager John Wells, Brancato didn’t attend the spring 2016 tryout to become a member of the Baseball U Prospects team that would compete at the 17u PG WWBA National Championship in Georgia.

He later attended an event Baseball U hosted at Monmouth (N.J.) University but even then was still fighting his way back and wasn’t yet up to competing at a high level of competition. Gradually, as spring turned into summer, both his game and his outlook began to improve.

“He started getting better,” Wells recalled. “He was driving the ball, getting stronger, hitting some home runs, triples – getting his legs back underneath him and sprinting. Before you knew it, when I saw him at that time, I said, ‘OK, you’re ready,’ so we brought him down to the (PG WWBA) Northeast Qualifier. …

“He did fine, he’s been getting better and stronger, and where he is now I can only imagine where he’s going to be next year in high school and then starting into college,” Wells said. “I think he’s going to be a heck of a ballplayer (at Fairfield) and I think he would have been in the SEC or the ACC if he had not had that setback in 2015.”

With all the challenges Brancato has had to face and ultimately conquer in the last two-plus years, Wells said it would have been very easy for the young man to just pack it in, declare that he’s done with sports and get on with his life. But that wouldn’t have been much of a life, at least not Brancato’s way of thinking, so he worked and worked and worked to get back out on the field and the court.

He isn’t quite ready to say he’s operating at 100 percent of his physical capabilities – “About 95 percent, I’d say,” – but feels like with each passing day he’s getting stronger; feeling just a little bit better. Wells can only smile when he thinks about the resiliency – the guts, to be more descriptive – his centerfielder has shown.

“(Giacomo) is exactly what we want our players to be like,” the long-time director/manager said. “I always say I want players that I would want my daughter to marry or date: Respectful, hard-nosed players that aren’t going to blame themselves but go ahead and take it upon themselves to take the blame when needed. … He’s a great kid and he’s exactly what we want all our baseball players to be.”

Wells likes the team he brought here this weekend, although he admits there probably isn’t a first-round MLB Draft pick on the roster. Baseball U can boast seven alumni who have been picked in the first round just since 2012, including Alex Kirilloff and Justin Dunn in the 2016.

And while there might not be a first-rounder in this group, Wells believes there are six or seven guys on the roster that will be drafted, if not in June then in three or four years following productive college careers. Wells has established five distinct Baseball U organizations in New Jersey (two), New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut and all five are represented on this roster.

This is basically the same team that finished 8-1-1 after a third-round playoff loss to the Florida Burn Platinum at the 17u PG WWBA National Championship in Georgia in July, and was 3-0-0 at the PG WWBA Northeast Qualifier played in New Jersey in September before that event was cancelled because of heavy rain and unplayable fields. Young prospects, like Brancato, enter the Baseball U program unproven and leave it battle-tested.

 “We’ll take on all-level ballplayers, and hopefully we can take that borderline Division I kid and make him a true Division I kid; we believe in the development end,” he said. “We want good kids, we want kids that want to be here a half-hour early and stay a half-hour later; that to me is more important than anything. God knows there are plenty of players I could have had in the past but they just didn’t fit into our organization.”

Brancato’s Baseball U teammates – along with his teammates on his Fairfield Warde High School baseball and basketball teams – have been very supportive, which is something he certainly appreciates. But the 18-year-old doesn’t actively seek out the sympathy vote.

“He’s kept it kind of quiet, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some kids on this team that don’t even know what he’s been through,” Wells said. “He doesn’t want to bring attention upon himself … and he’s not going to look back; he’s always looking ahead.”

Choosing his hometown school of Fairfield University to continue his academic and athletic careers was pretty much a no-brainer for Brancato. The community had shown him such tremendous support throughout his treatment and subsequent recovery that he couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

When Brancato spoke with PG Friday morning, he was definitely only looking forward to the late morning and early afternoon when Baseball U when Baseball U would begin play at the PG WWBA World Championship. He was already captivated and intrigued by what he saw as the scene unfolded on the 13 fields that occupy the Roger Dean Stadium Complex.

“It’s pretty crazy; it’s pretty hectic when you see the long lines of all the college scouts and the pro scouts,” Brancato said. “It can be a little overwhelming but we just have to go out and play our game as a team.”

A healthy, cancer-free Brancato can then look forward to his senior baseball and baseball seasons at Warde HS and prepare for what looks to be a very bright future at Fairfield U. It’s not likely he’ll face another opponent quite as nasty as the one he has already whipped.