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Tournaments | Story | 9/30/2017

Climbing to the Top Tier

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Before 2019 right-hander Michael Gurka was handed the ball to make the start for the Top Tier Americans in their PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship opener at Veterans Memorial Stadium-Perfect Game Field, he shared one facet of the Top Tier program’s philosophy.

“As an organization, our main motto is ‘Expect Greatness’ so we come into every Perfect Game tournament that has a lot of teams expecting to do well,” Gurka said. “Obviously, if you perform well you’re going to get a lot of exposure, but we also want to put on a show on the field that the fans will enjoy. We want to play hard-nosed baseball and try to win every game.”

And while the Americans came out on the short end of a 2-0 decision to the Dodgers Scout Team, the game was definitely a show for those baseball purists in attendance – and there had to be a lot of them – who really enjoy a classic pitchers’ duel.

Gurka and 2018 righty Garrett Wiggs combined on a six-inning one-hitter, striking out five with only one walk (1 of the 2 runs was earned), only to be outdone by a combined no-hit, eight-strikeout, four walk performance by Dodgers ST right-handers Shay Schanamanan and Brooks Zimmer. Two lineups that can feature as many as 10 D-I prospects produced but one hit between them.

And so it goes at the Kernels Foundation Championship. Top Tier has always brought competitive teams to the PG WWBA Kernels Championship through the years – squads that make a habit of advancing to the playoffs – but there’s always the possibility of running into a buzz-saw like the one the Americans met head-on Friday night.

A championship at the Kernels event has eluded Top Tier, and winning the title is the goal of every one of the 42 teams in attendance. The champion, after all, gets a paid invitation to the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., at the end of October.

“That’s a great thing,” Top Tier Americans head coach Griffin Phelps told PG Friday night. “We don’t have a bid to Jupiter so being able to come out of here as the champion and get that bid, that would be a cherry on top. We want to be the first Top Tier team that was able to do that.”

Phelps was speaking before Friday evening’s loss, but the Americans can win their next two pool-play games and with a little help can still earn a playoff berth. They’re a group that arrived in Eastern Iowa with a winning attitude and the desire to succeed.

“Just because it’s the fall and maybe they haven’t played together very much, I don’t lower my expectations,” Phelps said. “I’m going to set them high and I told the boys, ‘Hey, meet me halfway and I’ll get you the rest of the way.’

“Game days are for the players and you go out there and you play with pride and you play with passion and we’ll see what happens.”

This Top Tier Americans roster consists of 12 prospects from the class of 2018 along with seven 2019s, one 2020 and one 2021. The 2021 is catcher Ian Moller from Dubuque, Iowa, the No. 11-ranked national prospect in his class who participated in the 2nd annual PG Select Baseball Festival earlier this month.

The top 2018s on the roster include Louisville and Xavier commits Jake Rosing (t-500) and Jake Armentrout, respectively. The top 2019s include Illinois commit Grant Leader (No. 246), Missouri commit Jalen Green (No. 298) and Arkansas commit Nathan Rintz (top-500). 2018s Clay Thomas (Oakland) and William Jackson (St. Thomas) have also made their college commitments.

With the exception of Moller and a couple of Indiana prospects, the players are all from Illinois and mostly the Chicago suburbs; they all train out of the Top Tier facility in McCook. There are two core groups that play on separate Top Tier teams during the summer and then are brought together to perform on the same team during the fall season.

Only a couple of pairs of players attend the same high school, but because they train together there is a real sense of familiarity and camaraderie in the dugout. And the fact that they come from different high schools adds some fuel to the fire.

“That part brings about a lot of competitiveness,” Phelps said. “They like to be able to go against each other in the springtime – ‘Hey, I know you’re on my team two more months from now but I’m here to whip your tail’ – so I think it brings out the competitive spirit in the boys. And then when they come together they feel like they can really do something special; it pushes them.”

Gurka has been part of the Top Tier program since he was 12 years old (he’s 16 now) and has found the experience to be very beneficial. The coaches, he said, have been like brothers and fathers to him, and since he lives just a 10-minute drive from the facility he makes it in there almost every day.

“The kids on this team that are my age, we’ve been playing with kids older than us ever since we were young,” Gurka said. “We don’t get fazed by anyone that’s a different age than us, we just step up to the situation.”

Phelps, a former New Mexico high school player of the year and a member of the University of Arizona squad that advanced to the College World Series, explained that the Top Tier program goes after “the best of the best” regardless of the prospects’ age.

Once they’re on board the directors, coaches and instructors do all they can to help them achieve new, personal bests in all areas of their performance. There is a belief within the organization that good players feed off of other good players, so while not bring in as many as possible?

“I try to get them to take ownership of what they’re accomplishing,” Phelps said. “Don’t wait for me to serve you up dinner – take a plate and go fight for your own food. You’re not going to hear me hooting and hollering too much; I’m going to let them learn on their own and figure it out on their own.”

By dropping their opener Friday night, the Top Tier Americans made winning their pool championship an iffy scenario. They will need to win-out Saturday and hope someone can knock off the Dodgers Scout Team along the way. Win or lose, the experience promises to be an enjoyable one.

“I was here last year with our 18u team and I really enjoyed the experience,” Gurka said. “This was something that I marked on the calendar for fall ball that I was really looking forward to.”

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