Tournaments | Story | 10/9/2019

Preparations and expectations

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Mac Guscette (Perfect Game)

Handicapping Top Jupiter Teams | Jupiter Pool Preview

JUPITER, Fla. – It has already arrived with all of its full-throated thunder, that place on the calendar that those among us can call “Jupiter Week” or, for simplicity’s sake, just “Jupiter.”

It’s upon us a week earlier this year than in past years, but everyone can rest assured that all 92 teams from across the country, Puerto Rico and Canada that make up the field at the 21st annual Perfect Game WWBA World Championship have already arrived in Palm Beach County and the surrounding area on Florida’s Atlantic Coast.

They’re here to take part in the world’s most heavily scouted event for high school-aged prospects – more than 700 MLB scouts and front office personnel and college recruiters will be tooling around the Roger Dean Complex seated on their jittery golf carts – and they’re here to compete for PG’s most highly prized national championship.

The WWBA World is an invitation-only event – several teams received paid invitations after winning Jupiter qualifying tournaments – so each and every one of them are here feeling totally prepared and carrying the high expectation that they will be playing for this championship next Monday morning at RDC Chevrolet Stadium.

“Jupiter is Jupiter. It’s a special thing and there’s nothing quite like it at our level,” Canes Baseball President & CEO and Canes National head coach Jeff Petty told PG during a telephone conversation earlier this week. “It’s just the atmosphere and the competition and all of that; it’s a special place.”

Petty knows of what he speaks. The Virginia-based Canes Baseball organization sent teams down here that won three consecutive Jupiter championships from 2013-15 and added a fourth when its underclass team, the Canes Prospects, won it in 2017.

The Florida Burn program, based in Sarasota, sent its Florida Burn Platinum team here last year and left with the title, beating the Canes National in the championship game. That championship came five years after a different Florida Burn team lost to the EvoShield Canes in the championship game.

Mark Guthrie, a veteran of 15 seasons pitching in the major leagues, is the founder and general manager of the Burn organization and serves more or less as co-head coach of the Jupiter team along with Craig Faulkner.

The success the Burn teams enjoy doesn’t come by accident. It’s a by-product of careful planning and preparation mixed in with an ample dose of very high expectations from within the program itself.

“The entire organization and the players know how important the Jupiter tournament is, and we’ve been having pretty good turnouts in the falls because the kids know that we usually don’t take guest players on with our teams,” Guthrie said, also during a recent telephone conversation. “Every kid in the organization is eligible to make (the roster) and we take the kids … we feel can help us win.”

Working out of headquarters in Burlington, N.C., Andy Partin established Dirtbags Baseball in 2002 and is the Owner & CEO of the organization while also serving as the head coach for the Dirtbags’ team that is here this week.

The Dirtbags have also found ways to collect a whole lot of victories on the fields at the Roger Dean Complex, having shared the championship with Chet Lemon’s Juice in 2010 and winning one outright in 2016.

“It’s something that we gear-up towards all year,” Partin told PG during yet another phone chat last weekend. “And because we’ve done well in the past, everyone in the program knows that and so they feel like, we want to do the same things.

"But it’s not something we talk to the kids about. We don’t talk about last year’s team – we don’t do any of that – because every team is a different team.”

What men like Petty, Guthrie and Partin seem to have a very good handle on is preparing their teams in the very best way possible for what lies ahead over the next five days while also managing the expectations that come from both inside and outside their respective programs.

The Canes National are coming off one of the most successful summers ever enjoyed by a 17u team at PG events, having won both the PG WWBA 17u National Championship in Georgia and the 17u PG World Series in Arizona, both in July.

“We had never won the (17u) World Wood Bat and the (17u PG) World Series in the same summer; we had never done that before,” Petty said. “That was a big deal for us and our kids to really take it seriously because they want to win and they battle to the last out.”

Petty has established the type of program that young prospects want to be part of because every team – regardless of age-group – wants to win PG tournament championships. He emphasizes a team environment and not a showcase environment, and he wants to make sure every kid who wants to be a part of this deal understands that.

As an example, Petty mentioned a 2020 shortstop/right-hander by the name of Colby Halter, a No. 103-ranked national prospect who has committed to Florida. He joined the program this summer and Petty said he thinks that Halter knew exactly what he was getting into.

“He came in this year and he was a new guy, but I think Colby knew what he was getting into,” Petty said. “He was coming over to try to win. We want to win. The expectation is that we’re going to do whatever it takes to win baseball games at these events and have (the players) put the team before themselves.”

Guthrie recalled that in year’s past the Burn program has had some really good players who would try to take the early fall off and then come back and play at the PG WWBA World Championship when it was later in October. Regardless of what type of player they were they almost never performed up to their usual level.

“We try to keep close tabs on which each guy is doing and how ready he might be so we can put the best lineup on the field when we get there,” Guthrie said. “It may not be our highest ranked guy – there may be a guy that has blossomed late in the summer or early in the fall – but we tell all our kids that we’re going there to win and we’re going to put the best team on the field.”

He and Faulkner and other members of the program’s coaching staffs talk to their younger groups quite a bit about end-goals, and the Florida Burn’s end-goal is exactly what Guthrie stated above: putting the best product on the field by the time those young players reach their high school years, particularly their senior seasons.

And Guthrie also wants to make sure his players understand the realities that accompany the Jupiter experience, if the players even need to be reminded of the harsh realities the game of baseball can present at every turn.

“Every year that you go there there’s a chance that you could go 0-4 and go home,” he said. “What we’ve found is that you’re trying to keep out older guys playing throughout the fall and getting consistent reps throughout the fall and with the teams we’ve been able to do that with more, those teams have fared a lot better than even more talented teams.”

Partin explained that the Dirtbags program doesn’t really do anything different to prepare for Jupiter; it’s always just tried to find the best competition to go head-to-head with in the weeks leading up the PG WWBA World.

But the Dirtbags did decide to take a little different route this fall when they shortened their window as far as the weekends of intense competition go. Partin condensed the fall season into six straight weekends of play, meaning they’ve played in five straight tournaments leading up to this one; Jupiter will be the sixth and then they’re done.

“Typically we had been trying to stretch it out (over) eight-10 weeks trying to get the guys in better shape but now we’re just going to try to condense it down to six weeks,” he said. “That’s something that we’re doing different this year; we’ll see how it works out.”

It’s pretty much agreed upon that only real way to prepare for what lies ahead at Jupiter is to play the best competition possible leading up to the event. Partin praised Perfect Game for providing his players and those from other programs the opportunities to do just that by playing in national championship-caliber tournaments throughout September.

”We’ve played in two Perfect Game tournaments so far this fall and we’ve had some success,” Partin added. “I don’t think that has anything to do with the shorter window of time, we just have a bunch of really good players. … But if you’ve never been to Jupiter – and I tell this to everybody – there’s really nothing to compare it to.”

When PG Vice President of Player Personnel David Rawnsley handicapped this year’s Jupiter field on Tuesday, he listed the Canes National as one of five pre-tournament favorites and both the Burn and the Dirtbags as having the potential to make a deep run into the playoffs.

That may not exactly be going out on a limb, but it does say something for the respect these three programs have garnered.

Petty really likes the group he has here this week, which won’t come as necessarily good news to the other 91 teams present. He calls his players a very unselfish group that is going in with a team-first mentality, and it’s a mindset that paid huge dividends during the summer of 2019.

“We did it in Atlanta; we did it in Phoenix in 100-degree-whatever heat. This group of guys, they’ve done it time and time again all year,” Petty said. “But we know how hard it is down there and we take everyone seriously at every moment. We don’t take anyone lightly down there. …

“That’s what you try to do all year so when you get there you can adapt to the competition level, and the competition level down there is really good,” he added. “There’s no such thing as an easy game down there.”

The WWBA World Championship is being held a week earlier this year than the previous 20 years but it doesn’t seem as if that’s going to have much of an effect on the teams involved.

In fact, Petty said, all of the previous years he and his staff were trying to keep arms hot until the end of October and this year that’s not necessary. From that aspect, he said, it’s actually pretty good.

Partin and his Dirtbags are also going in with the expectation of winning the WWBA World Championship title for the third time this decade. That, of course, is much easier said than done.

“I think it’s changed a little bit more over the years now that I’ve been doing this, but I think more and more teams are going down now trying to win the tournament where before it was more like, hey, this a great event for exposure,” he said.

Partin also talked about trying to block-out a lot of the background noise that accompanies an event like Jupiter, noise that is generated by the proliferation of social media. He knows there are more and more people paying attention to what Perfect Game does and, he said, “That’s a great job by Perfect Game.”

“I don’t really think it’s a distraction, I think it’s just part of it,” he added. “You really just have to embrace it and that’s the excitement of it.”

With each new year, Guthrie continues to enjoy the Jupiter experience more and more and he noted that it’s especially fun when the players are into it, which his 2019 group certainly is. Many of the players on this Florida Burn team have been in the program for four or five years but he is quick to remind them that every team in the field is good and “you can go there and get rolled and come home” in a New York minute.

The Florida Burn are coming in as the Jupiter defending champion, a badge of honor the program wears with pride. Several players – PG All-American Mac Guscette, Tommy White and Jacob Faulkner among them – were on the 2018 Florida Burn 2019 Platinum team that won the title a year ago.

“Hopefully it helps our guys realize that it’s possible,” Guthrie said. “It can sometimes seem impossible because there’s so many great teams that don’t get close. We do have some prominent roles last year playing again this year, and that will help a lot. … It’s a pretty cool thing and a great experience for everybody whether they play the entire time or whether they’re a young guy going for the experience.

“It’s a great event, you’re playing the best of the best,” he concluded. “I’m sure all the kids are excited to do it and as coaches we are as well.”

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