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Tournaments | Story | 7/2/2019

Looking Elite in Hoover

Jack Nelson     
Photo: Jaxon Willits (Perfect Game)

HOOVER, Ala. – Just about every travel baseball organization prides themselves on getting their players exposure to top competition and college scouts. But few do it as well as Team Elite. Speeding out to a 5-0-1 start in the WWBA 14u National Championship, it’s business as usual for Team Elite 14u National as they look to add to the program’s illustrious history and bring back some hardware from another Perfect Game event.

The 14u group that has assembled in Hoover has a distinct national flair. Players have traveled from Connecticut, Michigan, and Oklahoma to chase glory on the sand and turf of the Met. Despite the fact that most these boys do not live near each other or have the ability to practice regularly, they posses the chemistry and fight of a group that has been together for years. A lot of the credit for this is based on the atmosphere created by coach Mike Gearhardt.

“We go by the three C’s. Confidence, composure, and compete,” said Gearhardt. “That is this team. We are a lot of high-end players, but no big time stars. We play as a team and work together. We try to take care of everything that we can control. So that means we try not to worry about the umpires or what the other team is doing.”

“Today was a good example,” said Gearhardt. “We had some things go wrong, but at least we were able to fight back and tie up the game. I thought that showed what we’re all about.”

Having gone through their first five games outscoring their opponents 55-3, Team Elite had yet to have a close game so far. They got quite a scare Tuesday, as Allstars Academy Elite sent lefty Michael Kennedy to the mound. The New York native was tough, showing a mid-80s fastball with perhaps the top curveball in the entire tournament. And through three innings, the scoreboard read all zeros.

That changed in the fourth, as Jaxon Willits and Ryan Strachan reached via walks. Justin Smith took advantage of the rare scoring chance, curling a RBI single down the third base line. Remington Garrett stepped up next, driving a ball into the right center gap to bring two more across.

“Everything else leaves my mind when I go up there,” said Garrett. “All I’m thinking about is getting that fastball. I got it, and put a good swing on it.”

Things got hairy in the bottom of the sixth, as the Allstars plated three runs to take the lead, 4-3. Despite the lopsided nature of Team Elite’s previous pool play games, they did not panic when they entered the seventh inning trailing by one. The stage was set for Justin Smith to do what he has done all tournament: produce.

“I just wanted to get on base and give us a chance,” said Justin Smith. “I knew I needed to get on any way possible. That’s what I did.”

Smith walked, stole second, and then advanced to third and eventually scored on back-to-back wild pitches. The game would end in a 4-4 tie in accordance with the time limit imposed on the pool play round.

And while it wasn’t a victory, coach Gearhadt was happy with the resilience his team showed, and he was grateful his kids were exposed to a close ball game as bracket play looms.

“I was looking forward to facing that lefty (Kennedy),” said Gearhardt. “Those are the kinds of arms we’re going to see later on, so it was good to get some experience with that today. I was proud of the way we were able to work him and get the next guy in the game. I was pleased of the effort today. It was good to have that kind of game before the playoffs.”

Gearhardt saw today as an important lesson going forward in the tournament. On Thursday and perhaps Friday, Team Elite will be going up against top arms from the Banditos, Canes, and Georgia Jackets. Sometimes its going to be the smallest detail that makes the difference between winning a national championship and coming up just a bit short. Each at-bat is precious against elite pitching. Tuesday morning was an excellent opportunity to tune up their offensive approach.

“We expect them to work the count,” said Gearhardt. “When they get to two strikes, they are expected to compete hard up there and build that pitch count up. I thought we did a pretty good job of what today, but we’re still learning.”

A funny quirk about the Team Elite program is that each player has an uncommon baseball number. Justin Smith wears number 94, and Remington Garrett is 67. Jaxon Willits is 79. No, it’s not to mimic spring training. The answer is actually quite simple.

“We have so many teams, and we interchange guys because of injuries or absences,” said Gearhardt. “Eventually, we got tired of swapping jerseys with everyone, so we just assign a player a number, 1 to 99. That eliminates the duplication.”

Players like Smith, who traveled from Detroit, are especially grateful for the opportunity to play for a prestigious organization and the ability to showcase his talents on such a big stage. He’s met new teammates from every corner of the country, and some of these kids, such as Jaxon Willits (Oklahoma), are already committed to a college. At such a young age, this group is primed for major accomplishments down the road.

“All of us have developed a really good bond,” said Smith. “And the coaches really care about us and our future. Coming to Hoover this week has been great. I’ve really enjoyed playing with and against the best competition.”

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