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Tournaments | Story | 7/8/2019

Gatorball 17u gets on the gas

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Dylan Mock (Perfect Game)

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Two games into the what will ultimately be a six-game pool-play schedule as part of the Perfect Game 17u BCS National Championship experience, the boys from the Gainesville, Fla.-area have shown anyone paying attention that they can certainly hit and they can certainly score.

And oh, by the way, they can pitch it a little bit too, but that’s based on a pretty small sample-size. Is this what everyone should expect every time these guys step out on a field and start doing things the Gatorball way? Stay tuned.

Gainesville-based Gatorball 17u was more than impressive while vanquishing its first two opponents at this PG national championship tournament by a combined score of 28-1 over a total of eight innings. It topped Caguas, PR-based SBO 17u, 15-1, in its opener Sunday and then Fresno, Texas-based BPT Hurricanes 13-0 Monday morning.

These Gators collected 14 hits and five walks in the win over SBO 17u and 10 hits and two walks while besting the Hurricanes.

Jovan Gill, a Stetson commit and the No. 154-ranked national prospect in the class of 2020, is playing in his first tournament with this Gatorball team. He’s played on a lot of big stages with and against some of the top programs in the country during his PG career and he knows good when he sees good.

“I feel like this team has a lot better hitters than a lot of other teams,” Gill told PG Monday morning, speaking from the jetBlue Park Player Development Complex. “We’re very patient; we see the pitches first before swinging wild. In the first inning (on Sunday) we started the game with an out and then got three straight walks. These guys are very patient and you don’t get that with a lot of these ‘big’ teams.”

Nine of those 24 hits went for extra bases, with 2020 No. 250-ranked and Florida commit Tyler Shelnut banging out a pair of triples, and Gill and 2020 top-500 Dylan Mock each hitting a pair of doubles; Jonathan Santiago, Sterlin Thompson and Scout Updike each stroked a double.

Mock drove in six runs with his four hits – he also singled twice and scored four runs – Gill had three RBI and Shelnut two; Alberson Mogollon contributed four singles, drove in six runs and scored four, just for extra good measure.

The Gatorball pitchers needed to work only eight innings in the two run-rule wins and did everything they were asked to do. 2020 right-hander Coyle Giebeig threw a four-inning no-hitter at BPT Monday morning, striking out three and walking two.

“We’ve got a good lineup this week,” Gatorball Baseball founder/owner/head coach Stephen Barton told PG on Monday. “Our hitters are very competitive at the plate, our pitchers throw strikes and our defense can make the routine plays, so I think we have a chance to compete against any team (here).”

This program didn’t come by its name by coincidence. Barton played baseball at Florida for former coach Pat McMahon from 2003-06 and was a part of the 2005 Gators’ team that won an SEC championship and finished as runner-up at the College World Series. The Gatorball Baseball staff also includes former Florida Gators Johnny Wiggs, David Banes and Tommy Boss.

The Gatorball Baseball Academy was established right after’s Barton’s Florida career ended in 2006, starting out mostly as a training facility for local players in the Gainesville area. From there, it blossomed into a full program with travel teams – there are now a dozen teams in the 9u-18u range – and numerous camps, but the program’s calling card is player development, according to Barton.

“(Barton) gives us a little bit of freedom as far as getting ready the way that you, personally, need to get ready,” Shelnut told PG on Monday. “He individualizes what needs to get done for each player, whether that’s being recruited or just getting better. He focuses a lot on the little things … and he really does a good job of preparing us for college and the college experience.”

Gill has played with several top-tier organizations throughout his PG career, including the Giants Scout Team-FTB at some of the bigger events like the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla.; he was with that group last week for the PG WBBA 17u National Championship up in the Atlanta area

Fort Myers is Gill’s hometown, so when he returned here from Atlanta without any baseball on his schedule, he texted 2020 top-500 infielder, fellow Stetson commit and Gatorball 17u team member Sterlin Thompson, and asked if Gatorball 17u was going be playing in the BCS tournament this week.

“I said, hey, do you mind if I tag along and play?” Gill recalled. “He called his coach (Barton) and his coach said we’d love to have him, so now I’m here playing.”

Some matches are made in heaven. After walking and scoring a run in one plate appearance in Gatorball’s opener Sunday, he drilled a pair of doubles, drove in three runs and scored two in the big win on Monday.

Gill is enjoying playing for Barton and the other Gatorball coaches, saying they have a well-planned out approach to each game and are great at providing valuable feedback in what feels like a college program atmosphere.

“Obviously, we’re still high school kids so he has to take that into consideration,” Gill said. “Florida is a really good school and going there is a big deal in the baseball world – if you go there and then you come and coach, it’s pretty big.

“The way he runs it with the whole set-up and the warm-up and everything I feel like that’s more college-wise but when it comes to just playing he lets us be kids and lets us play.”

Barton believes that anyone who has played the game at the collegiate or professional level should have accumulated the necessary knowledge required to run a successful amateur baseball program. He and the other members of the staff simply try to take what they’ve learned from their careers – and lives outside of baseball – and pass it on to these high-schoolers.

Teaching young people how to “play the game the right way” can sometimes come across as dated and maybe even a little bit tired at times, but most of the people in this industry are sincere in that sentiment, Barton included. It is simply an insistence that the players have a strong work ethic and they come to practice every day with the mindset to make themselves better.

All that is asked of every player on this Gatorball 17u roster is that they give the game everything they have during the hours they’re asked to do so, and if that happens, the coaches tell them, their talent will take them to where they want to go.

Once the players reach the 16u, 17u or 18u level, Barton starts to take them on long road trips so they can see what it’s like to ride a bus for miles to play a game, staying together in hotel rooms, getting back on the bus to drive to the field and then do it all over again the next day.

“That’s a big trip for us every summer that we’ve done for the past eight years,” Barton said. “I think that gives them a good experience to figure out, hey, what is college baseball really like, what is professional baseball really like, and do I really want to do this?

“Being on the road for 15, 16 days, not being with mom or dad or girlfriends, these guys will figure out really quick if this is really meant for them.”

Barton calls this Gatorball 17u team a “special group” and many of them have been with him since they were seventh-graders. Players have been picked up along the way, of course, but most have been in the program long enough to know how the system works.

Many of the country’s top organizations have teams playing here this week, programs with familiar names like 5 Star, Canes, Dallas Patriots, East Cobb, Elite Squad, Florida Burn, SWFL, Team Elite, Top Tier and US Elite. The guys on this Gatorball 17u roster embrace the challenge those names represent

“This is one of the biggest tournaments we play in,” Shelnut said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of good competition around here, and that’s what you come to do – you come to get better, you come to play better competition. You don’t want to play people below you; you want to play people better than you; that’s how you get better.

“In order to be the best you’ve got to beat the best and that’s what we’ve come here to do,” he concluded “I love being on a baseball field no matter where it is or what tournament it is.”

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