Tournaments | Story | 7/24/2019

High praise for WWBA 17u West

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Kenji Suzuki (Perfect Game)

SURPRISE, Ariz. – It’s monsoon season in the Greater Phoenix Metropolitan Area, and an early morning thunderstorm on Wednesday dropped a lot of rain on the western side of the Valley of the Sun.

Early arrivals at the Surprise Stadium Complex – the MLB spring training home of the Rangers and the Royals – were greeted by standing water and unplayable fields for the scheduled 8 a.m. start times; play didn’t get underway on the Royals’ side of the complex until 12:30 p.m.

Was it an inconvenience? Well, maybe a little bit or maybe even a lot. But when the players and coaches from Washington-based GBG NW Marucci gathered at a water-logged Royals Field 3, there was still nothing but good words and unbridled enthusiasm surrounding the inaugural Perfect Game WWBA 17u West National Championship.

The PG World Wood Bat Association had finally brought its national championship series to the western part of the country and folks couldn’t have been any more pleased.

“I’ve got to be honest I think it’s something that people have been yearning (for) on the West Coast,” GBG NW Marucci head  coach Justin Gabriel told PG just before his team was set to take the field for its first-round playoff game. “Everybody loves going to the South and competing in the WWBAs down there but logistically sometimes it’s hard with the scheduling.

“You bring one out to the West Coast and I think people set that on their schedule in stone … and they look forward to that event and they’ll keep coming here every year,” he added. “It’s good teams getting after it again; that’s all we’re looking for.”

Forty teams from 13 states – including Arkansas, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire and New York from “out east” – comprised the WWBA 17u West field for the inaugural event, and Gabriel is of the opinion that number will only grow in the coming years.

It may never surpass the hundreds of teams that compete at the PG WWBA 17u National Championship that has been held in the Atlanta area for the last two decades, but it’s a start.

“Normally (the WWBA National Championships) are down in Georgia – I’ve done that in the past – and it’s great down in Georgia, as well,” GBG NW nationally No. 477-ranked 2020 middle-infielder Kenji Suzuki told PG on Wednesday.

“Obviously, being in this part of the country … it’s definitely refreshing to have it here on the West Coast; that’s something that’s really attractive. Me and family saw that and we were talking about that and we were like, yeah, we need to come down here for sure.”

There was a slight glitch in the scheduling this year in that Thursday’s championship day at the WWBA 17u West National Championship is also opening day at the celebrated 17u PG World Series, which runs Thursday through Monday in Scottsdale, way over in the East Valley.

AZ T-Rex, CBA Marucci National, NorCal Baseball Prime and the Royals Scout Team were all playing in Wednesday’s quarterfinal-round  of the WWBA 17u West playoffs and would face a conflict if they advanced into Thursday’s semifinal-round.

Despite that, Gabriel likes the 17u West National’s place on the calendar.

“I don’t mind it at all,” he said. “I think it’s good from the recruiting aspect for the kids in (the tournament). That’s a big reason for why (PG does) these things and  it gives those schools a chance to stay down here longer; they might as well just stick around for the PG World Series.

“I think we’ve got some Pac-12 schools coming to watch us today, on a Wednesday after a rain (delay). It’s great exposure.”

Suzuki and his GBG NW teammate Jordan Donahue will also be at the 17u PG World Series on Thursday, playing for Washington-based Baseball Northwest.

Donahue, a nationally No. 253-ranked middle-infielder and an Oregon State commit, seemed to be enjoying everything involved with the PG WWBA 17u West National Championship when PG caught up with him on Wednesday.

“I like getting out here and just getting at-bats during the summer; it’s just trying new things with your swing,” he said. “With all the good teams here, it’s a great experience just playing games and having fun, you know what I mean?”

He also liked the idea of only having to travel to Arizona instead of points farther east:

“It’s definitely a lot shorter flight for me, I’ll tell you that,” said the kid who calls Mililani, Hawaii, home. “But either way, just getting on the field to play is the best thing possible for us young kids.”

Gabriel told PG that this particular GBG NW Marucci roster was assembled somewhat on the fly due to players who were unable to make the trip at the last-minute; that often happens as the summer comes to a close.

That said, GBG NW finished pool-play at 4-1-1 and earned the No. 9 seed in the 10-team playoffs. It was one of four teams that had to play a first-round game and the GBGer’s came up just short in that one, losing to Next Level Prep in a 10-8 shootout.

“We were thin out here, and these guys played hard all week and came together as a family, as a group,” Gabriel said. “They just play the game hard and they play it right, and my hat’s off to them.”

Donahue has been with GBG NW and Gabriel for three years now, and they’ve formed a tight bond. In fact, Gabriel seems to have a knack for being able to relate with his players and the respect they share is mutual.

“I didn’t know who he was at the time and I showed up the first day and he became my favorite summer-ball coach just because of the way he is,” Donahue said. “He’s very positive – he always bringing you up – and I think that’s why so many people want to play for him.”

Added Suzuki: “(Gabriel is) a super great guy; (GBG is) a super great club. It’s awesome that (GBG) opened up in the Northwest; it’s an awesome experience.”

Another big drawing card for all of the PG WWBA West National Championships, regardless of age-group – the 15u event is running simultaneously with the  17u event this week – is the venue at which they were played.

The Surprise Stadium complex is a big-league facility in every respect, a fact that really came home to roost when observers watched the professionally trained grounds crew work the fields into playing shape on Wednesday morning. The kids see these surroundings and they begin to dream.

“It’s easy to tell them that we’re going to be where the professionals have played and came up, and the star factor of it all is big,” Gabriel said. “They love playing here, they love seeing themselves maybe one day being on one of these fields (as a pro); that’s part of the deal. They want to see themselves out there and they want to get used to it as quick as they can.”

Dozens of players who are wrapping up their experiences at the PG WWBA 17u West National Championship can now turn their focus toward the 17u PG World Series with very little time to catch their collective breath. And that’s OK, because it’s what summers were made for.

“This is perfect,” Suzuki said of the timing. “I have a few more events after this … but, again, me and my family saw these on the schedule and we said we can’t miss this. Two great tournaments and then we saw the lineup of the teams (at both events) and we were like, this is awesome. … I think this is a really good lead-up to the (17u PGWS).”

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