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Tournaments | Story | 10/11/2019

Team Indiana earns wins, respect

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Luke Hayden (Perfect Game)

JUPITER, Fla. – Victories at the Perfect Game WWBA World Championship are always hard-earned and never to be taken for granted. The same can be said for earning the respect of your peers which can often prove to be even more hard-earned than those elusive wins.

After winning its first two pool-play games here Thursday and Friday by a combined tally of 12-1, Westfield-based Team Indiana is both sitting pretty and sitting proud with one more pool game left to play Saturday afternoon at the prestigious 92-team PG national championship event.

“Our ultimate goal is to win the pool and win the tournament,” Team Indiana top 2021 catcher Austin Bode told PG while a brief rain shower fell on the Roger Dean Complex late Friday morning. “Being a team from Indiana, we just don’t seem to get a lot of love up there.”

The love is coming, and not in measured doses. The players populating the Team Indiana roster measure-up favorably against anyone here this week and their performance two days into the WWBA World’s five-day run is raising the eyebrows of the people seated in the hundreds of golf carts that are on the scene and raising expectations within the TI dugout.

After losing an exhibition game Thursday morning, the guys from the Hoosier State – every rostered player is from an Indiana city or town – got down to it and beat Puerto Rico-based RA12 Select, 4-1 in its pool-play opener. They followed that up Friday morning with an impressive 8-0, five-inning victory over the Texas Rangers Scout Team.

None of the other three teams in Pool B won both of their first two games, and hence the “sitting pretty, sitting proud” statement.

“We’ve had good outings on the mound, we’ve played pretty good defense, we’ve had timely hitting,” Team Indiana head coach Scott French told PG on Friday. “Today we were able to take advantage of some free bases … and I thought we did a really good job of hitting pitches in the strike zone and also being patient enough to use the free bases.”

What Team Indiana was really able to take advantage of was a lights-out start from highly regarded 2021 right-hander Luke Hayden. He not only pitched well, but with two-out in the bottom of the first Hayden unleashed a 95 mph fastball that the unsuspecting Rangers Scout Team batter was able to take for a ball.

Hayden’s four-seamer averaged 90 mph over his four innings of work, but 95 is 95, and now it’s on his PG Player Profile Page for all of posterity and for all (re: scouts) to see.

“I knew that was a really good team and they could all hit,” Hayden said of the Rangers’ Scout Team batting order shortly after wrapping up a taped postgame television interview. “I knew we needed to win this game to move on so I just wanted to do what I’ve been doing all summer and trust the defense behind me. I went out there and felt great and then I hit 95 (mph), and it just felt great, too.”

He ended up giving up just two hits and striking out four in his four innings of work, and then gave way to No. 475-ranked 2021 righty and Purdue commit Carter Doorn, who struck-out all three batters he faced.

It is also worth noting that Hayden added a slider that sat at 82 mph and curve that sat 73 mph into the mix, which made his performance all the more impressive. Count French as among those appreciative of Hayden’s 95 mph fastball effort but not necessarily surprised.

“That’s a personal best for him,” the coach said. “He’s a guy that attacks the zone and when you see him attack hitters … he can be really effective; he’s had a really good year.”

Team Indiana had six hits and its hitters were walked four times which proved to be enough baserunners to post the run-rule win. Bryce Eblin, a 2020 No. 467-ranked shortstop and an Alabama commit, singled twice, drove in two runs and scored two others to lead the offense, while 2020 top-1,000 outfielder and Illinois State recruit Jonathan Sabotnik doubled, drove in a run and scored one.

“Coming in today, we knew we had to be aggressive, look dead-red fastball and score some runs in the first inning,” Eblin said, and Team Indiana did just that with three in the first before adding four in the second. “We need to keep showing out and becoming closer as a team and win a lot of games.”

Before moving forward with this report, it is important to point out that Team Indiana has two prospects named Tyler Nelson on its roster. One is a top-500 2020 shortstop/right-hander from Crown Point, Ind., who has committed to the Hoosiers and the other is a top-500 2020 outfielder/right-hander from Valparaiso, Ind., who has committed to Indiana State.

In the 4-1 win over RA12, top-500 2020 righty and Ball State commit Ty Johnson allowed one earned run on three hits with six strikeouts in three innings, Tyler Nelson (the Indiana commit) added three ho-hit, five-strikeout innings and top-500 2020 righty gave up one hit in a scoreless seventh, striking out three and walking one.

Twenty-two of the 24 prospects on the official roster have committed to NCAA D-I schools and with only a few exceptions they’ve decided to stay relatively close to home.

No. 395-ranked 2020 third baseman Kip Fougerousse, the  Crown Point, Ind., Tyler Nelson, right-handers Casper Clark and Costa Sirounis, and the ’21 righty Hayden have all committed to Indiana.

Other college choices include Purdue, Louisville, Kentucky Notre Dame, Alabama, Cincinnati, Ball State, Illinois State and Indiana State, just a nice cross-section of Ohio Valley and Midwest schools. It is an older roster with only four or five juniors sprinkled among the  more experienced seniors, including Bode and Hayden.

“We have really good chemistry and we all know our roles,” Hayden said. “We’re an older team … and we have a great personality. Once they step on the field it can be (all-business) but off the field they’re fun to hang out with; they’re awesome.”

Among the other top prospects on the roster is Bode, a 2021 catcher and Louisville commit who came in ranked No. 87 in his class.

Bode felt like the team was a little sluggish in its 4-0 exhibition game loss to the Chicago Scouts Association on Thursday, but once pool-play rolled around, the TI players hit the gas. There are daily adjustments that need to be made once a young player takes everything in.

“It’s a little overwhelming when you get here because you don’t see (all this) very often,” he said, referring to the proliferation of the golf carts and scouting personnel behind the wheels. “But you get used to it and it starts to become so-called white noise and you just try to kind of ignore it and show the best that you can.”

As for Hayden, it’s not like the 6-foot-1, 200-pound hard-throwing righty was an unknown commodity before he arrived here this week.

He is ranked No. 106 nationally in the 2021 class, after all, and he was an all-tournament selection at the PG WWBA 16u National Championship pitching for the Indiana Bulls 16u Black in July, an event he which his fastball topped-out at 93 mph.

Still, a guy will take a little help any time he can find it along this precarious path, and in his case he got that help from the Jupiter environment.

“All of those golf carts behind (home plate) really got my adrenaline going and got me feeling really good; I like it,” Hayden said. “I think it helps me stay locked-in because they’re all pro scouts and you’ve got to be on.”

If Team Indiana can be on top of its game one more time at 3 p.m. on Saturday when they face the Upstate Mavericks Scout Team, the pool championship with be secured and Sunday’s playoffs will await. And if that happens, it will be just one more hard-earned victory on the way to even more hard-earned respect.

“It’s a great experience to come down and play the competition down here and just compete,” French said. “And when you have success, it feels great.”

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