Tournaments | Story | 9/17/2020

California dreamin' at WWBA Kernels

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Finnegan Wall (PFA Matadors)

MARION, Iowa – This has been a trying summer for Edgar Garcia, Amador Delgado and hundreds of other California travel ball coaches just like them who have been trying to salvage something from what has basically been a lost 2020 season out West.

First came the COVID-19 pandemic, which struck in March and refuses to release its iron grip on the entire country. More recently, there have been the devastating and deadly wildfires that ambushed the West Coast, further disrupting lives and livelihoods.

But Garcia, who is with the Pasadena-based PFA organization, and Delgado, who is with the San Jose-based CCB program, are pushing ahead trying to provide their teen-aged players with some sense of long-lost normalcy even if it requires a nearly 2,000-mile trip to the middle of the country.

The PFA Matadors, coached by Garcia, and the CCB Prime, under the direction of Delgado, will be among the 56 teams competing at this weekend’s 18th annual PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship. The event, which rewards the champion with a paid invitation to the PG WWBA World Championship in Fort Myers, Fla., Oct. 8-12, will be contested at the Prospect Meadows Sports Complex and other area fields.

The PG WWBA Kernels Championship has long been a showcase event for the top travel ball programs from across the Midwest, particularly for teams from Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and Wisconsin.

It’s no different this year with upper-echelon programs like the Cangelosi Sparks, GRB Rays, Hitters, Canes and many others ready to get after it starting on Friday; Cangelosi Sparks teams have won the last three Kernels championships.

But due to the current realities everyone just about everywhere is confronting, teams from other states, including California, have reached out and hopped on board in 2020.

The main reason the Matadors are making this trip from their homes in Southern California to Eastern Iowa is a simple one. They want to earn that paid invitation to the PG WWBA World Championship and a trip to Florida’s Gulf  Coast.

PG tournament officials encouraged Garcia to enter the Matadors in one of the eight PG WWBA World Qualifiers where the champion of the event earns an automatic berth. Three of the eight Qualifiers were held last weekend and of the four being staged this weekend, the Kernels Foundation Championship was the most appealing.

“I just decided, ‘Let’s do it’. I talked to the team and they were excited, they were pumped,” Garcia told PG during a recent telephone conversation. “Yes, the whole coronavirus is always in mind and it’s a scary situation but at the same time the boys got excited and they’re looking forward to getting out of their own eggshell, if you will.”

Garcia makes his home in Sierra Madre, which sits in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains about 10 miles east of Pasadena. The devastating Bobcat Fire is raging in the San Gabriel range and when Garcia spoke with PG on Tuesday things were getting tense.

He was looking at the very real possibility of having to evacuate his family from their home. Garcia’s plans were to leave for Iowa on Thursday and on Tuesday he was still going full-steam ahead with those plans.

Things have been shut down in California ever since the COVID-19 outbreak in March and travel has been restricted; the trip to Iowa this week will the first time the Matadors have gotten on a plane this year.

Garcia, who oversees 10 teams as the PFA San Gabriel Valley Director of Youth/High School program, has taken teams over to Arizona to participate in PG events whenever possible. He initially planned to stay in Arizona through the months of June and July but the PG WWBA West National Championship was cancelled in July so that plan went by the wayside.

The CCB Prime’s Delgado lives in San Jose where wildfires are raging just to the east of the city. He has not had to deal with the threat of evacuation but these are trying times in Northern California, to be sure.

“It’s pretty bad over here but actually today was the first good day where the air was better,” Delgado told PG over the phone on Tuesday. “It’s still unhealthy but it’s not as bad as it’s been the past week.”

The CCB 17u Prime won the championship at the PG West Underclass MLK Championship in the Phoenix area in January with many of these same players on the roster. Delgado and the higher-ups within the CCB program realized they had something special with this group and were looking to build on that before the coronavirus pandemic brought everything to a screeching halt.

The No. 1 goal was to get an invitation to the PG WWBA World Championship – Jupiter – but with the Arizona tournaments canceled in July, the route to the WWBA World was filled with obstacles.

“We had all these PG tournaments lined up where we wanted to play but because of the COVID everything changed,” Delgado said. “With us being from the West Coast, it was tough. … So that’s the thing; we haven’t played all summer. My team, since they played their last high school games back in March, we only have 10 games under our belt.

“We heard that the complex in Iowa is really nice,” he continued, referring to Prospect Meadows. “So after talking it over with the coaches we decided to go to Iowa. Texas (WWBA South Qualifier) is a little closer but we’ve been to Texas; we just wanted to try something different.”

Both Cali teams – one from the Los Angeles area and one from the Bay Area – will bring talented rosters to Eastern Iowa, although there will be some high-profile pieces missing. The Matadors, for instance, will be without 2021 righthander Eric Silva, a UCLA commit ranked No. 79 nationally, and most likely 2021 third baseman Eldridge Armstrong (San Diego State, No 99).

2021 righties Finnegan Wall (UC Irvine, No. 361), Gavin Meyer (Cal State Fullerton, No. 493) and Beto Beltran (Long Beach State, t-500) will be on hand, however. Catcher Nick Bacura (Santa Clara, t-500), outfielder Braeden Ross (Cal State Northridge, t-1000), corner-infielder Chase Call (UC Irvine, Follow) and outfielder Michael Woodward (Long Beach State, Follow) are also on board.

“This group is very talented; I really like the lineup,” Garcia said. “The pitching staff is pretty good when everybody’s intact and it’s just a matter of hitting the ball, playing defense and throwing strikes. As simple as it sounds, it can be so darn difficult at times.”

Delgado will be without several of his top players who took advantage of opportunities to play at the WWBA World Championship with various national scout teams, decisions Delgado is perfectly comfortable with.

CCB will still be bringing a talented squad here, though. 2021s catcher Aaron Parker (UC Santa Barbara, No. 498), infielder Zander Darby (UC Santa Barbara, t-500), outfielder Logan Johnstone (Gonzaga, t-500), third baseman Patrick Keighran (San Francisco, t-500) and righthander/corner-infielder Mick Kelley (Yale, t-1000) are among the top rostered players.

“The reason I like CCB is we’re not the type of organization that will pick up players from other organizations; these guys have been with us since they were freshmen,” Delgado said. “… We’ve got a handful of players that are not committed yet and like I said, this is our first PG event for the whole summer. So that’s what we’re really excited about.”

The fact that this is the first PG tournament his team will play in during this summer/fall season is disappointing to Delgado and his players, of course. With the pandemic and the wildfires, the CCB Prime haven’t even been able to practice in a month. Delgado has reached out to PG tournament officials in Iowa just to see if there might be a high school field available nearby where the team can practice.

“This would have been our last summer with this group but our summer was taken away,” he said. “So we’re just basically looking for top competition. We’ve just got to get games under our belts and that’s what we’re going for.”

More than 400 ranked prospects will be in action here this weekend including Iowa Select Evans 2021 catcher Ian Moller (LSU, No. 2 nationally), MidSouth Prospects 2021s righthander Drew Christo (Nebraska, No. 40), GRB Rays National righty Vincent Trapani (Arkansas, No. 69, Chi Town Cream shortstop Noah Smith (Louisville, No. 70) and Hitters 2021’s shortstop Noah Miller (Alabama, No. 72) from the class of 2021.

Top 2022s include Hitters 2022 Navy shortstop Gavin Kilen in (Louisville, No. 9), Cangelosi Sparks 2021 Black lefthander Noah Schultz (Vanderbilt, No. 13), Canes Midwest Scout Team 21’s & 22’s shortstop Tucker Biven (Louisville, No. 57), Hitters 2022 Navy outfielder Michael Lippe (Louisville, No, 73 and Chi Town Cream third baseman Joe Brown (Cal, No, 94).

The California boys are looking forward to bringing their West Coast style of play to the Midwest but they know the boys from these states that sit in the middle of the country can play a little bit, too.

“We always like to be challenged; the boys love to get challenged,” Garcia said. “If you want to be the best you’ve got to play against the best, correct? So we do definitely want to see the challenges that we’re going to face. I know there’s some good baseball out there and we’re definitely looking forward to it.”

Garcia, whose son Ryan is a PG alumnus and was a second-round pick of the Rangers in the 2019 MLB Draft out of UCLA, noted that just about anything can happen after the first pitch is thrown in a baseball game.

There are an endless number of scenarios waiting to play themselves out, after all. Under-performing teams will suddenly over-perform and elite teams will make uncharacteristic mistakes and ultimately fall by the wayside.

He talks with his players about staying focused on the job at hand and said, “I always tell the boys don’t worry about the team we’re playing because at the end of the day we’re playing the ball.” Oh, and there’s one other thing:

“I tell the boys you can’t play baseball for a scholarship,” Garcia said. “Play because you love it, play for the love, the passion, play to have fun and just for the experience alone. So we can’t be playing for Jupiter (WWBA World) even if we happen to win and we do get a berth for that. We’re going (to the Kernels) for the experience and the change of atmosphere; we love to play against different teams.”

Delgado feels the same way. He definitely has a soft spot in his heart for this group of players who haven’t had the opportunity to perform at a Perfect Game tournament since they won the Underclass West MLK Championship in January.

He’s also completely aware that if the CCB Prime don’t win the Kernels Foundation Championship title, this weekend will be the team’s last hurrah after playing together for three years.

“Hopefully it works out and we do well,” he said. “Our main focus is trying to get a bid for the World in October because that’s the most prestigious tournament right there. If you’re doing travel ball at a young age and you get to 18-and-under, that’s where you want to be.”

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