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Tournaments | Story | 6/30/2019

Make way for Mayo and Elite Squad

Cory Van Dyke     
Photo: Coby Mayo (Perfect Game)

MARIETTA, Ga. – Coby Mayo fondly recalls the earliest stages of his baseball year. He was playing in a tee ball league where each player was given three chances to hit the ball from the coach pitching before it was placed on the tee.

While the vast majority of players eventually had to hit off the tee, it never got to that point for Mayo. From that early age and on, everyone could see something special in Mayo when he stepped on a baseball field. That’s still the case today as the star-studded third baseman is the No. 21 overall player in the class of 2020.

“Still now, I don’t really listen to what people say,” Mayo said. “I just try to zone in and do my thing.”

It’s that workmanship approach that is on full display this week at the 2019 WWBA 17u National Championship where Mayo is attempting to help guide Elite Squad 17u National to a title.

“Besides his size and physical ability, he’s one of the harder working kids we have in our program,” Elite Squad head coach Richie Palmer said. “I think that and his leadership is probably the biggest thing that he brings outside of his physical abilities. The tone and his presence and the way he goes about his business, there’s a seriousness and a maturity about him that you don’t really see for 16, 17 year olds. It’s pretty impressive to watch, and that’s why I think he’s going to play this game for a long time. He’s got the mindset already of what it takes to be successful in this game.”

No matter what field he plays at, Mayo brings a horde of professional scouts along with him, as was the case in Saturday’s 5-1 win over the API Cavaliers at East Cobb Complex. While he’s currently committed to play his college ball at the University of Florida, a strong showing at the 17u WWBA could be the first step towards hearing his name called high in the 2020 MLB Draft.

“The environment out here is great,” Mayo said. “I love coming to Georgia. All the scouts here, you have the big field. There’s nothing else you can really ask for. It’s the tournament you look forward to all summer. It’s what you prepare yourself for. You workout, you hit in the cage at night just for this tournament.”

As Palmer mentioned, Mayo already has the physical tools of someone who could have a long career in this game. He stands at 6-foot-4, 205-pounds, which allows him to generate huge pop from his bat while carrying solid arm strength from the hot corner. 

It’s why Mayo loves watching the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado. He also has a special connection with Anthony Rizzo who attended the same high school as Mayo at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. 

At the recent Perfect Game National Showcase at Chase Field, Mayo impressed the large gathering and shot up the rankings. Now, he’s patiently awaiting one certain phone call to see if his next appearance at an MLB Stadium will be at Petco Park for the 2019 PG All-American Classic.

“It’s definitely nerve-wracking waiting for that call,” Mayo said. “I’ve been waiting for that the last few weeks coming up. If I get the chance to play there I’m blessed. Nothing else I can ask for. That honestly would be the best experience of my life. Something I can hold with me for the rest of my life.

Joy can be found in the waiting, especially when participating in the biggest tournament of the summer. Palmer sees all of Mayo’s accolades - the two MVP’s in the first two PG tournaments of the summer for Elite Squad and the potential All-American selection - and hopes it rubs off on the rest of his squad.

“I hope that other guys see that and see not only his natural abilities, but the reason why he’s won those MVP’s or why he’s getting these accolades and awards is because of the way he is, the way he goes about his business,” Palmer said.

“That’s what I hope these other guys if they see Coby gets announced for the All-American game. I hope they see him and are like, ‘Man, that guy works his tail off. Not only is he talented, but he works his tail off. I have to start acting like him a little bit more.’”

Another player who puts in a yeoman's work for Elite Squad is catcher Alan Espinal. However, Espinal’s journey has taken a dangerous and poignant path that has shaped his perspective.

Espinal lived in the Canovanas, a small town near San Juan, when Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico.

“The first thing I can say is that it was scary,” Espinal said. “I’ve never been in a hurricane like that. It was just ferocious.”

The overall destruction forced Espinal and his family to move to Florida. It’s been a tough adjustment at times, as Espinal’s father works most months of the year in Puerto Rico with the restoration that’s still happening.

“It’s hard for me, but it’s even harder for my mom,” Espinal said. “This hasn’t happened in their lives. They’ve always been together. I take it for motivation. I just want my dad here and my family to be happy. They’ve been working for me my whole life, so now I work hard for them. Someday I can pay their house and make them live as comfortable as possible.”

The baseball field allows an escape for Espinal, who’s rated as the No 20 catcher in the class of 2020. For Palmer, it’s incredible to see the adaptation that Espinal has undergone in such a short time.

“I can’t even imagine what he’s gone through, what the whole island went through or his family or anything like that,” Palmer said. “He’s a tough kid, there’s no doubt. He’s a very focused kid. He’s a good student. He’s a great baseball player. He’s just an all-around great kid. For him to deal with that and play the way that he does, he’s pretty impressive.”

That spectacular play has been exhibited at a high level so far in the 17u WWBA. In the opening 8-0 win over Showcase Riley 17u, Espinal uncorked a grand slam to break open the game. Last night, the catcher showcased his 1.88 pop time and quick twitch behind the plate, firing out two runners on the basepaths with a bullet arm.

“People have started asking questions,” Palmer said. “‘Who is this kid?’ He’s pretty impressive. He’s the one that’s going to open the most eyes.”

Despite Espinal’s high achievements, he’s currently uncommitted, but he noted that Vanderbilt, UCF, and Alabama have been in contact with him. If Mayo is the head of the team, then Espinal is the heart of Elite Squad. The Puerto Rican mentality on the field is in his DNA.

“We play ball there hard,” Espinal said. “We play with a lot of emotion. We play hard every day. It’s good getting over here and being an impact on the team and giving that emotion, giving that all the power to make the team successful. It’s been amazing.”

From a young age, Espinal always wrote motivational words on the inside of the bill of his cap. For this tournament he has written Filip 4:13 (Philippians 4:13) along with the brief message “Pon a Dios primero y nunco serás el ultimo” (Put God first and you will never be last). It’s that message that has stuck with Espinal throughout his wild journey. 

And now, he’s using baseball to make his dreams into a reality.

“I want to make a name for my family,” Espinal said. “That’s my motivation and what keeps me going.”

With a 2-0 start in pool play and a roster chock full of talent, Elite Squad 17u National has already proven to be a major contender at the 17u WWBA. Ben Vespi, a UCF commit, pitched four scoreless innings in the opener, recording six strikeouts with a fastball that topped 89 mph. Matthew Fernandez, a Florida International pledge, allowed just one run over his four innings on Saturday with five strikeouts. 

The pitching has already been stellar and there’s plenty more arms left in the tank. It’s a scary sight for opponents when the bats haven’t started clicking for Elite Squad yet with Mayo and guys like Dorian Gonzalez and Lucas Nido who are some of the fiercest threats in the lineup.

“There’s no doubt we want to go out there and play well and win,” Palmer said. “Obviously you have to take it day by day and one game at a time. You can’t look ahead too much because there are a lot of good teams here, but there’s no doubt. We circle this tournament at the beginning of the year and say, ‘Hey, this is the one we want to have all our bullets in the gun for.’”

The vast majority of Elite Squad’s roster is located in a 15-20 mile radius in the surrounding Miami area. The players battle each other in the high school season, creating an interesting dynamic once they team up for the summer.

“We practice and try to get together with the guys and do things together for the chemistry,” Palmer said. “We hope that because they know each other and played against each other all year round, when they get on the field it makes them that much tougher for an opponent to meet.”

There’s still a lot of baseball to be played this week, but Palmer has already seen the signs of a team that plays with passion. The entire dugout is focused and into the game, coming out to greet the player who moved a runner over or the runner who took the extra base and eventually scored. It’s all part of building the camaraderie that will be key if Elite Squad 17u National is going to make a deep run at the 17u WWBA.

“It’s really tough to build in summer ball rosters of kids that really love each other and want to win for each other,” Palmer said. “If we can go out there and play that style of baseball… if they become selfless and do the things for their teammates. I’ll be satisfied no matter where we end up if they craft that concept of playing for each other and playing the right way of baseball.”

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