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Tournaments | Story | 7/8/2019

Elite Squad brings the energy

Jack Nelson     
Photo: Alex Ulloa (Perfect Game)

EMERSON, Ga. – LakePoint Sports Complex was buzzing in anticipation of the huge pool play matchup between Elite Squad National and the East Coast Royals. The undefeated Elite Squad came into the game averaging nearly 12 runs per game, but the Royals were set to send lefty Blaise Grove to the hill. It was strength verse strength, but in the end, Elite Squad walked away with a 4-2 victory.

While the Royals drew first blood with a run in the opening frame, Elite Squad came right back to score four in the top of the second inning. They took advantage of three walks from Grove, and were helped by a big RBI single from Marcus Franco.

Elite Squad knew they had a challenge on their hands with Grove. The South Carolina commit is the No. 17 overall player and the No. 2 left handed pitcher in Perfect Game’s high school class of 2022. The 6-foot-6, 225-pound specimen can bring it his 91 mph fastball.

But Elite Squad had a game plan and stuck to their approach, knocking Grove out of the game after just 1-plus innings.

“We wanted to get ahead early and make him throw strikes,” said second basemen Jonah Diaz. “We got loud in the dugout and he started struggling. We wanted to get him out of the game early and we did that.”

“When you’re facing a good arm, the key is to grind it out and take it to him,” said shortstop Alex Ulloa. “If you keep the energy up, that’s the key to winning games like these.”

Scoring would be quiet the rest of the way, as Cole Reynolds came on in relief and stymied the Elite Squad bats the rest of the way. Working mostly in the upper 80s, Reynolds tossed four shutout frames to give the Royals a chance.

While all the talk before the game was on Grove, Elite Squad’s Matthew Burns proved to be the most dominant arm on Monday. The righty topped at 90 mph, but his fastball played even harder when paired with a devastating change up that kept the Royals off balance. Burns threw five innings of one run ball, striking out three and allowing just three hits. He generated soft contact throughout, allowing his talented infield to pick it up and throw across.

At the heart of that impressive infield is Alex Ulloa. The Miami commit is the No. 16 overall player in the high school class of 2021. The future Hurricane is sure to make an impact at Mark Light Field.

“I’m from Miami, so I wanted to represent my hometown,” said Ulloa. “When I went to campus I loved everything about it. I loved the baseball program, the coaches, the field. I just loved it all.”

He’s an excellent defender with a hit tool to go with it, but what truly sets him apart is the leadership role he takes on the team. In the field, he’s always encouraging his pitcher. In the dugout, he’s the biggest cheerleader for the bats. Coaches always talk about the shortstop being the general out on the diamond. That is Alex Ulloa.

“I think the more emotion I can bring the better we can play,” said Ulloa. “It helps my pitcher. It boosts his confidence, and that helps everyone else out.”

Ulloa is joined in the infield by Jonah Diaz, Jorge De Goti, and Bryan Loriga. De Goti and Diaz are both committed to the University of Florida, and Loriga has pledged to Florida International. In total, Elite Squad has three players committed to Miami, three committed to Florida, and three committed to FIU. That makes for a pretty interesting dynamic, as the current teammates will soon be battling for Florida college baseball supremacy.

“There’s definitely some chirping between guys,” coach Jorge Miranda said smiling. “But it’s minimal. Once you cross the lines, it’s all about Elite Squad. Above all, they want to represent themselves, the organization, and their family at the highest degree.”

“Just because we’re all committed different places doesn’t mean we’re out there for ourselves,” Diaz added. “We come together as a team and so far have played pretty well. It’s really fun to come out here with these guys.”

Miranda said that all the highly touted players have created a culture of constant improvement. Iron sharpens iron, and these kids are the very best young players in Florida. As they continue to play with each other in top tournaments, they all make jumps in their abilities.

“It’s not the talent that’s out there,” said Miranda. “It’s the energy. It’s the resiliency. It’s their work ethic. Even though a lot of these kids are committed, they are still pushing each other to be the best they can possibly be.”

Matthew Burns is a great example,” he continued. “He’s playing with us for the first time, and the kids have already pushed him to be a better pitcher. But they also push each other to be better friends and better teammates.”

Monday was an important step for Elite Squad. Earlier in the day, they defeated the Georgia Bombers 16u Carter, 12-0, and then drove over to Lakepoint to dispatch the East Coast Royals. Monday’s work puts them at 5-0 in pool play, and now they need to win just one of their final two games to advance to bracket play. Miranda had a pretty good idea the pool was going to be decided by the outcome of the game against the Royals, and the victories mean he can now line up his pitching and potentially rest some guys for the playoffs.

“Our goal is always to win the pool. If you don’t win the pool, you don’t move on,” said Miranda. “We knew that on paper they (East Coast Royals) were one of the better teams in the pool, so we managed our pitching staff accordingly. With Blaise and the Elon commit (Cole Reynolds) pitching for them, we knew we needed to have really good approaches at the plate.”

Outlasting a top arm is always a major win, but to do it in your second game of the day makes the victory even sweeter. The temperature hovered in the mid 90s all afternoon, and on the turf fields of Lakepoint it can feel even more oppressive. Miranda was proud of the way his guys stayed focused.

“It was kind that classic double header day down here,” said Miranda. “It’s a tough one, and we preach to the kids to just grind it out. Play hard. Play with energy. That’s what is going to get you through on a day like today. We did that. We told them to get some rest, and we’ll get back at it tomorrow.”

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