Tournaments | Story | 7/11/2019

Canes American takes its shot

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Myles McDermott (Perfect Game)

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Virginia-based Canes Baseball has been sending out into the world Perfect Game national championship-caliber teams for more than a half-decade now and that trend shows no sign of slowing,

As an example, the Canes National 17u just won the PG 17u WWBA National Championship in the Atlanta area last week, the third time since 2014 a Canes team was crowned champion there.

Everyone seems to know about those top Canes Baseball squads, the ones that won three straight PG WWBA World Championships in Jupiter, Fla., from 2013-15 and added another in 2017.

What might not be so widely known is that the organization doesn’t just have that one shining star at the top of its food chain. It also fields what seems like dozens of other squads that can march to a championship at any given event.

Take, for example, the Canes American 17u. This is a team that is here this week looking to take home the title at the PG 17u BCS National Championship just one week after the Canes National cashed in their WWBA chips up in Atlanta.

The American 17u's were at the 17u WWBA too, and played very well there, finishing 6-1-0 in pool-play. The one loss was a to a very good Gamers 17 Blue team that won the pool championship with a 7-0-0 mark and advanced all the way to the quarterfinal-round of the playoffs.

“Coming into this tournament after not making the playoffs at the World Wood Bat in Atlanta, it got a little fire going inside them, more than what they’ve already had,” American 17u head coach Tom Willoughby said about his players Thursday morning, speaking from the Lee County Player Development 5-Plex.

“This is a great group … and the personalities on this team are incredible,” he continued. “I’ve never seen a team come together as quickly as this one; this group just clicks together.”

The Canes American 17u’s went 4-1-0 in their first five pool-play games here this week and were waiting out a long weather delay in game six as this was written late Thursday afternoon.

Willoughby praised the job that Canes Baseball General Manager Dan Gitzen did in putting this team together. He didn’t know hardly any of the young men he was going to be coaching until they gathered for a practice in late spring, and claimed he was glad the players had their names on the backs of their practice shirts. He might not have been able to put names with faces but he immediately liked what he saw.

“It’s just a talented group, top-to-bottom,” Willoughby said. “Go through the lineup and anybody can beat you and all the arms can really throw it and get outs; that’s what we need.”

Fans of consistency throughout a lineup, as far as PG class of 2020 prospect rankings are concerned, anyway, should all be onboard with the 10 guys Willoughby sent up to hit against the South Florida Select 17u pitchers on Thursday. Here they are, with their national ranking and college commitment:

  1. Nathan Furman, top-500, Seton Hall
  2. Cooper Porter, top-500, N.C. State
  3. Jake Gelof, top-500, William & Mary
  4. Hunter Stokely, top-500, North Carolina
  5. Lincoln Ransom, top-500, Old Dominion
  6. Brandon Eike, top-500, uncommitted
  7. JT Benson, top-500, Louisville
  8. Logan Beard, top-500, Louisville
  9. Michael Groves, top-500, UNC-Asheville
  10. Jalen Buster, top-1000, Radford

The starting pitcher was 2020 uncommitted right-hander Myles McDermott from Braintree, Mass., who actually comes in at No. 267 in the  national rankings.

(As a bit of side note, the JT Benson-Logan Beard pairing is an interesting one. Both Louisville commits, Benson is from Crestwood, Ky., and attends South Oldham High School; Beard is from Prospect, Ky., and attends North Oldham High School. Twin sons from different mothers?) But we regress …

“This is probably one of my favorite teams I’ve ever been on,” Porter told PG on Thursday. “The first day we met each other it felt like we had already known each other for 10 years. Everybody just kind of became best friends; it was not awkward at all.

“Everybody’s pretty much committed to a top school but we really don’t look at it like that,” he added. “We just love to play ball together and it’s really fun and I just love being on this team; everybody has a really good time.”

McDermott wasn’t able to join the Canes American 17u until just last week at the 17u WWBA because his high school season back in Maryland ran so late. He was able to attend the PG National Showcase in Phoenix in mid-June, which served as a great way to kick-off his summer. He got his first go-around with the American 17u in Atlanta and was ready to do his part here at the 17u BCS.

“Everyone wants to be a part of a big national team but what a lot of people don’t understand is that (the coaches at Canes Baseball) love you and they want to get you to the next level,” he told PG on Thursday before his scheduled start was cut to 2 1/3 innings due to rain.

“They really care about you and that’s why I’m a part of it. …These kids they come out here every day and they work and that’s what I want to be a part of.”

While the Canes American 17u just missed qualifying for the playoffs at the 17u WWBA, the Canes National 17u were busying themselves winning the whole darn thing. It should really come as no surprised that the American 17u and the National 17u teams exist in perfect harmony, seemingly working in concert to push one another to new heights.

“The relationship is great,” Willoughby said. “We actually travel together, we practice together, we stay at the same hotels; when we’re in the same tournaments we try to get our schedules close together.”

The teams have been known to meet from time-to-time during bracket-play at both PG and non-PG events, and neither has established what could be called a decisive upper-hand. Some of the players are interchangeable, too, and that adds to the feeling of mutual respect.

For instance, the Canes American 17u are not playing at the PG WWBA 17u Elite Championship in Hoover, Ala., July 18-21 but the Canes National 17u are. It’s very likely that several American players will join the National roster for that event.

The bottom line is, outsiders might look at the Canes hierarchy and see a “big brother-little brother” scenario but that’s why they’re outsiders. Sure, the National roster includes more prospects whoe have committed to D-I Power 5 programs and the American might include a few more mid-major commitments but within the organization everybody is on a level playing field.

“These guys probably do have more of a bite, maybe something to prove,” Willoughby said of the American 17u’s. “That might drive this group a little bit, the ‘I’ve got to go out and prove myself a little bit more’ mentality but it’s not a second-tier team by any means.”

There is certainly nothing resembling a “sibling rivalry” between the two teams. While the National 17u’s were grinding their way to the WWBA National Championship title, they didn’t have any bigger cheerleaders than the guys on the American 17u roster.

“It’s a lot of fun because I think everybody on this team has a special relationship with them,” Porter said. “Yeah, we’re two different teams but we all know each other, we’re all basically like brothers; we ride the same bus, we stay at the same hotels.

“We don’t really separate from each other, we all hang out as one and do stuff together,” he added. “It was really cool watching my friends win it all; it was really good.”

Willoughby said the thing the Canes American coaches most wanted to see when the team practiced together for the first time was the level of energy the players would bring, and he loved what he saw right from the beginning. These players showed grit and determination from the get-go and didn’t let of it the entire summer.

Then he made an interesting observation:

“The PO’s, they drive the energy bus; they do little things in the dugout that get the rest of the guys going,” Willoughby said, referring to the guys who are pitcher-only.  “They don’t have anything to do that day, so they drive the bus.”

McDermott is among the pitcher-only players to whom Willoughby referred – PO so far at this event, anyway. 2020 righties Ethan Chenault (t-500, UNC-Wilmington) and Chris Clark (t-500), and 2020 lefties Jagger Haynes (t-500, North Carolina) and Justin Honeycutt are others who only pitched during the first five games.

One pool-play loss at the 17u WWBA cost the Canes American 17u a coveted berth in the playoffs. They’ve lost here, too, but the BCS National Championship format is a different animal and they might even be able to slip into the Championship Bracket of the playoffs even with a second loss in game-six.

Regardless of the outcome, this is a team from the Canes Baseball program, one where the players love putting on the uniform and never stop putting in the work required to take home PG national championships.

“Our team really wants to win this one before we go home because this is our last tournament before the fall,” Porter said. “I think a lot of people are hungry for this one, myself included.”

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