Tournaments | Story | 7/5/2019

Team Elite wins 14u WWBA

Jack Nelson        
Photo: Team Elite 14u National (Perfect Game)

HOOVER, Ala. – Team Elite left no doubt on Friday. The only team to leave Hoover undefeated put an exclamation point on their week with a 12-1 win over Canes National to claim the 2019 WWBA 14u National Championship.

It seemed the Canes and Team Elite were on a collision course all along. While we got the matchup we expected, the outcome of the game was entirely unexpected.

The Canes led 1-0 through two innings, but that would soon change as Team Elite used a 12 run third inning to effectively put the game out of reach. Team Elite benefitted from many walks and hit batters, scoring 12 runs on just four hits in the inning. Still, highlights were Ryan Strachan with a two RBI single and Drew Kennedy knocking in two more on a base knock of his own.

Tyler Williams pitched all five innings for Team Elite, holding the Canes potent offensive attack to just two runs on six scattered hits. Williams worked quickly and changed speeds effectively, allowed his defense to make plays behind him. He pitched out of trouble in multiple innings, never allowing the Canes back in the game.

Overall, Team Elite finished the tournament 9-0-1. But what is most impressive is they seemed to be playing their best baseball at the very end. In the first semifinal on Friday, they blitzed the East Coast Sox, 8-0. In their quarterfinal on Thursday, they defeated the top ranked 14u team in the country, Banditos Scout, by a score of 6-4. Every team shows up expecting to win, but the pure dominance showed today left everyone in attendance fully understanding who the best team was.

It’s one thing to win. It’s another to mercy rule two of the top teams in the nation.

“We definitely didn’t think it was going to go the way it did,” said Willits. “But we expected to win, and came out and played hard. When you do that, good things seem to follow.”

On the final day of this weeklong tournament, most teams are thin on pitching and players are banged up after a long week on the boiling turf. It is often the team that makes the least mistakes and stays mentally engaged that will take home the trophy. Team Elite coach Mike Gearhardt said that was the key today.

“Both those clubs are very good (EC Sox and Canes),” said Gearhardt. “They made it this far for a reason. But we were able to capitalize on mistakes, and we’re just playing really well right now. I expected close games today, but sometimes you get the breaks and good things happen.”

Team Elite was slated seventh when the bracket play seeds were announced. That low seed lit a fire under this squad, and they played like a team that had something to prove. They competed like a group that wanted to send a message to the rest of the country.

“I thought we were kind of the underdog, having come in as the seven seed,” said MVPitcher Bransen Powell. “And we came just showed out all tournament.”

Powell earned the most valuable pitcher honor after throwing nine shutout innings this week. He used a low 80s fastball and hammer curveball to strike out 10, allow just one hit, and most impressively, walk no one.

“My curveball was on,” said Powell. “I could bounce it in the dirt as an out pitch, but I could also throw it for a strike. I was able to pick the corners with my fastball and throw up in the zone when I needed to.”

Coach Gearhardt was beaming pride at how much Powell has developed this year, and for him to perform on such a big stage made it all the more meaningful.

“Bransen actually hasn’t pitched much over the years,” said Gearhardt. “But he’s just gotten better and better. Now, he’s starting to get some notice by colleges and scouts are asking about him. He didn’t have any walks, and that is where it all starts. If you control the strike zone, you are going to be successful and that is what he did.”

Jaxon Willits earned MVP honors after hitting .462 with three doubles and three triples. He added 14 RBIs, eight walks, and scored 14 runs. 116 teams came to Hoover this week, yet the Oklahoma commit proved he was the top position player. Despite many high points, Willits will always remember one at-bat in particular.

“I had a big hit in that quarterfinal game against the Banditos,” said Willits. “They were supposed to be the No. 1 team in the country. To beat them was really cool. That’s a moment I’ll always remember.”

Willits does it all for Team Elite. He can switch hit, and plays just about everywhere on the field, including on the mound. Gearhardt says he is as dedicated to the game as anyone. He’s just a grinder, a baseball player in every sense of the word. This week, all the practice paid off.

Jaxon Willits is an excellent hitter,” Gearhardt said. “He works on his swing every day and it shows. His reward is coming out to these top tournaments against high level pitching and being successful. I’m so proud.”

While Team Elite finished undefeated, they did tie Allstars Academy Elite in their sixth pool play game. It wasn’t a bad game, but it also wasn’t the kind of game you wanted to have with the playoffs looming. That lackluster performance didn’t sit well with Gearhardt, who quickly addressed his concerns and righted the ship.

“I thought we got pretty comfortable after four or five games here,” said Gearhardt. “So we had a little meeting after pool play ended just to get refocused on who we are and what we’re here for. And they certainly responded.”

“I always talk to them about the grind,” he continued. “Baseball is about staying as even keeled as you can. No mountains or valleys. One strikeout doesn’t matter. Two strikeouts don’t matter. It’s all about what happens next.“

Team Elite is one of the blue bloods of travel baseball. They seem to be amongst the finalists everywhere they go. But the nature of summer baseball is that every year it is a new team that is playing. Yes, it is the same organization, but a new crop of kids gets their chance to cement their legacy, that gets to add their names to Team Elite lore. For coach Gearhardt and his players, this is their first title. And it may not be their last.

“This is my first national championship,” said Gearhardt. “I’ve been close before. This is right up there across the board. Our 16u team won the WWBA last year, and we have some BCS titles. But that was in the past. Every year we look to start new and prove ourselves again and again. So this championship is certainly right up there for us.”

Powell expressed his joy in simpler terms.

“It’s one of the best moments of my life,” he said.

2019 14u WWBA National Championship runner-up: Canes National 14u

2019 14u WWBA National Championship MVP: Jaxon Willits

2019 14u WWBA National Championship MV-Pitcher: Bransen Powell

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