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Tournaments | Story | 7/11/2020

Lessons learned at WWBA 14u North

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Dylan Dobratz (Perfect Game)

MARION, Iowa – Day 2 at the Perfect Game WWBA 14u North Championship offered a little bit of everything as the 17 teams in attendance from Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin jockeyed to put themselves in position to claim one of the tournament’s seven playoffs spots.

Heck, the teams not only had to battle one another on the field Saturday, but they had to wait out a brief but strong thunderstorm that forced the staff at the Prospect Meadows Sports Complex to clear the facility for 45 minutes while the high-winded storm rolled through. Welcome to baseball among the Iowa cornfields in the middle of July.

With that said, these are talented 14U teams that began play here on Friday at an event that will conclude with bracket-play in its entirety on Monday (Monday is championship day at the PG 17U Midwest Elite Championship, as well, which is also being contested at Prospect Meadows this weekend).

One of the more intriguing pool-play matchups was contested Saturday afternoon when the Yorkville, Ill.-based Northern Illinois Reds-Harris met-up with the Wausau, Wis.-based JBA Clutch 14U Navy. Both teams came into the game unbeaten with legitimate shots at eventually winning the pool championship.

But, of course, at the 14U level, there is much more involved than winning a pool championship. It’s about the young competitors experiencing as much as they can and then learning from those experiences.

“Anytime you can come to a nice facility like this and play high-level competition, it’s always a good opportunity to learn baseball and just play at this younger age … and see what else is out there throughout the country,” JBA Clutch 14Navy head coach/program director Jeremy Jirschele told PG Friday afternoon.

Northern Illinois Reds head coach Tom Harris has his team here this weekend for exactly the same reason.

“The kids were definitely looking forward to coming here,” he told PG. “Perfect Game has done a fantastic job with the venue here and (the players)  were really looking forward to knowing that we were going to get some good competition. We kind of put them in these environments on purpose to prepare them for high school (baseball).”

When Harris originally made out the schedule for this Northern Illinois Reds-Harris team, the PG WWBA 14U North Championship was going to be its final event of the 2020 summer season. Then the global coronavirus pandemic took root and rendered any sports schedule drawn up before March 1 totally irrelevant.

“Everything else was going to lead up to this, which was kind of on purpose,” he said. “We had had other teams that had been here and had good things to say. Obviously, following the sport you learn about these types of facilities and venues so this was going to be kind of like the grand finale of things. It’s now turned out to be the middle of our season being that we’re stretching into August.”

Jirschele described this JBA Clutch 14u Navy team as the program’s “original” team that has been together since they were 7 years old. Now the program has teams in age-groups ranging from 8U to 16U and the plans are for continued growth in the years to come.

“I think it’s fun for those guys to see what else is out there and get out of Wisconsin a little bit,” Jirschele said. “And also, to play with wood bats, too, and see what that feels like, as well. I think that’s good for them because it really kind of locks down having good mechanics … because with wood you’ve got to have a good swing; otherwise you know about it.”

And so the stage was set for these two teams-their home cities are only about a 4 hour north-south drive from one another-to start playing some ball and they did what they had to do early on.

The Clutch 14U Navy opened on Friday with a 3-0 win over the Iowa Sticks Scout, thanks to a combined one-hitter from 2023 righthanders Bryce Popp and Tanner Nienhaus; Dylan Dobratz, a 2023 outfielder, doubled and drove in three runs.

JBA played its second pool-play game Saturday morning and slipped past the STL Scorpions out of Missouri, 4-3, with Dobratz going 2 for 2 with a double and two RBI. Keagen Jirschele and Flynn Huffman also singled, doubled and combined to score four runs, and Gavin Obremski singled and drove in a run. Those were the first four batters in the lineup and they combined for seven of the Clutch 14U Navy’s eight hits and all four RBI.

The NI Reds opened with a nail-biting 8-7 win over P2P Millers North 14u on Friday. They trailed 7-1 heading into the bottom of the sixth but pushed across two in that frame to make it 7-3, then scored five in the bottom of the seventh for the walk-off win; Vincent Farbo stole home to account for the winning run.

Hayden Bowman singled three times and had two RBI to lead the Reds’ 14-hit attack. Bryce Solek had a pair of singles and an RBI; Nate Harris doubled and drove in two and Kameron Yearsley delivered a two-run single.

The NI Reds-Harris did not have to play an early game Saturday – their final two pool-play games are Sunday – so those outcomes set-up the much-anticipated match-up between the Reds and the Clutch; it didn’t disappoint.

JBA held a 2-1 lead after five but Northern Illinois pushed three across in the top of the sixth to  take a 4-2 lead, and that’s where it stood going into the bottom of the seventh; it didn’t stay that way for long.

Emmitt Konieczny led things off with a single, and after Brock Massey walked, Tanner Nienhaus laid down a sac bunt back to the pitcher that moved the runners to second and third. A pop-out followed before Flynn Huffman was able to connect on a two-out, 0-2 fastball that he drove into right field for a double, scoring both Konieczny and Massey and knotting the game at 4.

Up to the plate stepped Gavin Obremski, who drove the first pitch he saw into centerfield fora  walk-off RBI single and a 5-4 JBA Clutch 14U Navy victory.

Dobratz continued his onslaught with yet another double (his third in three games) and drove in two more runs (seven total) and Huffman had the two-run double to lead JBA; Yearsley was 3 for 3 with a double and three RBI for NI.

During pregame comments, the Reds’ Harris showed a deep understanding of what it took to coach a 14U ballclub, and how important it was to deal with these young players when they experience this game’s ups and downs.

“They’re teenagers in the end, and so each of them are a little different and each of them have their own personality,” Harris said. “You’ve got be cognizant of that and work towards that and find out what pushes them and how to help each other get better. …

“In the end, we’re just  trying to prepare them for high school ball. We’re trying to put them into environments and situations that prepare for that.”

JBA’s Jirschele was no less understanding of his role as a 14U baseball coach:

“It’s one of those (deals) where you’re always teaching. You’re always teaching them the game, life lessons, all that stuff,” Jirschele said. “You’re always respecting your opponents and everything but you never go into a game thinking, ‘Oh, I hope we can win.’ You have to have that expectation of, ‘Hey, we’re going to give it our best shot and see what happens.’

“That’s why we’re down here, to play some high-level competition against teams from all over,” he concluded. “It’s a lot of fun to be able to compete and see where you (stand) amongst those teams.”

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