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Tournaments | Story | 10/5/2019

A twin tale of two teams

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Jackson Wentworth (Perfect Game)

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Even before the sun rose over the fields at the CenturyLink Sports Complex Saturday morning, the Iowa Sticks Scout and the Louisiana Knights had rested easy Friday night content in knowing that they were sitting in a couple of pretty comfortable spots.

Both teams – the former based in Waukee, Iowa, and the latter in Mandeville, La. – had won their first two pool-play games at the Perfect Game Underclass World Championship in one-sided fashion. They had positioned themselves nicely to not only win their pool championship but possibly grab a top-11 seed in the playoffs, which meant a ticket out of Saturday afternoon’s first-round.

What is it that’s said about best-laid plans?

As it turned out, the Sticks Scout needed a seventh inning rally to win their third pool-play game just to secure a spot in the playoffs and the Knights needed a rally in the bottom of the sixth to secure a tie in their third pool-play game only to improve their playoff seeding.

Pool games can often lack drama on day-three of a five-day PG national championship tournament,  but that wasn’t the case at CenturyLink Saturday afternoon. When things had finally settled, the Sticks Scout had earned the No. 20 seed in the 53-team playoffs and the Knights were slotted at No. 33.

The Louisiana Knights were looking oh-so-good in their attempt to earn a top-11 playoff seed after beating its first two pool-play opponents by a combined 20-0; the Iowa Sticks had vanquished their two opponents by a combined 15-1.

“We’ve just tried to keep our routine and keep doing the things that work for us,” Iowa Sticks Scout No. 225-ranked 2021 right-hander/infielder and Kansas State commit Jackson Wentworth told PG Saturday before they had officially sealed a spot in bracket-play. “We all work as a unit; we’re all like one big family. We all know what are strengths and weaknesses are and it works out really well.”

Everyone inside the Knights’ dugout felt pretty much the same way.

“Our pitchers have thrown good on the mound and we’ve been stringing hits together every game, so it’s been fun; everybody gets along and we’re just all friends,” Knights No. 69-ranked 2021 outfielder/infielder Josh Pearson told PG on Saturday before commenting on the advantage he feels this team enjoys because the players all live in close proximity with one another. “It helps us work better as a team together.”

Waukee is a fast-growing suburb of Des Moines in Central Iowa, and Sticks Baseball’s Director of High School Development is Evan Romanchuk, who also helps coach this Scout team. He was impressed as he watched his solid pitching staff shutdown opponents in the first two pool-play games.

It’s a staff that features Wentworth, No. 372-ranked 2021 righty and Creighton commit Easton Johnson and several others, including highly regarded 2022 left-hander Dillon Kuehl.

“It’s kind of nice to be able to run out guys like Easton Johnson and Jackson Wentworth, a  couple of D-I commits that run the ball high-80s; that always helps,” Romanchuk said Saturday afternoon. “They throw strikes and they do their job and they have a good mix, and that’s kind of been key for us.”

He then smiled before disclosing an Iowa Sticks’ inside joke:

“Sometimes we laugh because pitching is such a strong suit program-wide that we should be called the ‘Arms’ instead of the ‘Sticks’,” Romanchuk said. “Our guys do a really good job on the mound and we’ve got great pitching guys. Dan Jennings has been with us all fall so it’s nice to have a guy with eight years of big league experience working with the pitchers.”

And so it was when the Sticks Scout took their 2-0-0 record into their pool-play finale against the 2-0-1 Barrett Braves Underclass out of Cumming, Ga. They needed a win or a tie to clinch the pool championship; a Braves Underclass victory would eliminate them all together.

Things looked very good early on after the Scouts pushed three runs across in the bottom of the first but the Braves answered with a five-run third. It stayed 5-3 until the bottom of the sixth when the Sticks put their sticks to work in the nick of time, because a 2-hour time-limit meant the sixth inning would be the last.

Versatile 2021 utility man Caleb Corbin got it started with a one-out triple and, not to be outdone, 2021 middle-infielder Gabe Swanson smoked a triple of his own; Swanson later scored on a passed ball.

Gehrig Christensen – a top-500 2021 catcher and an Iowa commit – then hit a one-out single, Wentworth reached on an error and John Doty delivered a one-out, walk-off RBI single; the comeback was complete.

“It’s a real loose group,” Romanchuk said of this Sticks team. “They’re a little silly at times but when the game starts they lock it in; they’re competitors and they love to compete. But they definitely keep it light and it’s like, this isn’t death for them. They understand they need to go out there and compete but they also understand they’re going to have a little bit of fun.”

The Sticks Scout ultimately dropped their first-round playoff game to 7 Baseball PR out of Puerto Rico by a 6-3 count but were going to return to Iowa feeling like they had stood pretty tall here on the Florida Gulf Coast.

The Iowa Sticks program, to Romanchuk’s way of thinking, has really picked-up some momentum over the last couple of years, getting its first jump-start when it brought a team to this event three years ago.

“I think that our program is starting to be considered nationally which is a testament to the hard work all the players and the coaches have put into this,” he said. “They work together nine months of the year so they build that bond and that relationship and I think that really helps. …

“We kind of pride ourselves that when we got to these tournaments we take our guys and put our guys in position to showcase themselves.”

Added Johnson: “There’s a great thing going on in Des Moines, Iowa, and it will be going on for a long time.”

The story was very much the same for the Louisiana Knights, who are coached/managed by long-time friend of PG Chad Raley. He told PG on Saturday that the real reason this group was able to charge to its pool championship was because they really came together as a team during their first two days at Under World.

The Knights' program has four different teams that compete at this age group during the fall, and this team includes players from each of those teams. They know one another, of course, because the teams scrimmage against each other on a regular basis.

“When we come into all of these tournaments we want to have a great showing and get as deep as possible,” Raley said on Saturday. “I thought this team had the pieces to make a deep run … and they’re playing that way right now.”

“I think our group of guys can compete with anybody in the country,” top-500 2021 catcher/corner-infielder Baylor Cobb said. “(More high-profile prospects’) rankings might be higher than ours or they might get better (scouting) reports than ours, but I think when we get on the field nobody can necessarily dominate us.”

But this was the first time they had played as a unit, so to finish pool-play at 2-0-1 with a 22-2 run differential is a real feather in their cap.

And because of that run differential, the Knights would have captured their pool championship even if they had lost to the New Jersey-based Richmond County Mid-Atlantic Select in their finale, as long as they weren’t blown out. As it was, they were able to salvage a tie which carried them to the pool championship; it wasn’t easy.

In fact, the Mid-Atlantic Select scored twice in the bottom of the second and still held that 2-0 lead going into the top of the seventh. But the Knights’ Blake McCarthy started to stir the pot with a one-out single, Thomas Amador and Ben Robichaux followed with a singles of their own to load the bases and Addison Ainsworth singled to drive in McCarthy and Amador with the runs that tied the thing up.

Before the Knights left their home base in Louisiana, Raley and his staff told them that the most important thing they needed to do was find a way to get comfortable with each other. It was important that the players didn’t look lost or feel out of place in the dugout, and he wanted team veterans like Josh Pearson, Baylor Cobb and Chandler Welch to help make them feel at home.

“There are several kids that are kind of the leaders of this team, and I put it on their shoulders that it’s their responsibility to turn these guys into a team and to get everybody to mesh and jell and come together, and they’ve been doing the job,” Raley said. “… It’s been fun to set back and watch those guys kind of work as one unit.”

Pearson is a 2021 outfielder/infielder who is ranked No. 69 nationally and has committed to LSU and Cobb is a 2021 top-500 catcher/corner-infielder who has committed to Tulane; 2021 middle-infielder/right-hander Cameron Weiss is a Louisiana recruit.

And the Knights, like the Sticks, won their pool championship because of solid pitching performances from the likes of 2021 right-handers Chandler Welch, Tristan Gasset and Weiss, and ’21 lefties Aaron Sheldon and Beau Priester.

Raley is certainly no stranger to Perfect Game’s biggest stages. He formerly ran the Baton Rouge-based Marucci Elite program and was in the dugout when Marucci Elite won the PG WWBA World Championship title in Jupiter, Fla., in 2011. He has been with the Louisiana Knights for the last three years.

Marucci Elite was a little more national in its roster composition, where this Knights team is almost all Louisiana and Texas boys.

“I like the organization, I like the kids, and since I’ve come on board I’ve really enjoyed it; the whole organization feels like a big family,” Raley said. “I feel like I’ve got a lot of support with this group, because we’ve got dads that have played the game and they’re helping out … and all of this is our way to give back to the kids and stay in the game of baseball.”

The Knights’ and the Sticks’ WWBA Underclass World Championship experiences continued to mirror one another when the Knights lost their first-round playoff game by a count of 1-0 to Ohio Elite 2021.

The losses stink, of course, but everyone involved with these two top-end programs – one in Iowa, the other in Louisiana – seem very comfortable with where they’re at.

“It’s always good to come down here and play great competition with all the top talent in the world, I guess,” the Sticks’ Johnson said. “It’s just pretty special.”

“They treat me like family, they treat me like I’m one of the best in the country and I appreciate that more than anything,” Cobb said of his relationship with the Knights’ program. “They put me with a group of guys that I can compete with and grind-out wins with.”

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