FORT MYERS, Fla. – Last Monday afternoon, at the Terry Park Sports Complex near downtown Fort Myers, the Los Angeles-based GBG Navy 2021 were crowned the champion at this year’s 22nd annual Perfect Game WWBA World Championship.
The Navy 2021 were not only worthy champions, especially considering their 9-1, six-inning run-rule victory over the previously unbeaten Power Baseball 2021 in the championship game. But they were also a very deserving champion based on the especially challenging COVID-related obstacles players from California were forced to overcome throughout the 2020 spring, summer and fall seasons.
There was a lot to take-in on Championship Monday, with the title game being preceded by a pair of semifinal games, also played at Terry Park. The games were great and the talent on the field was off the charts. But one thing that may have gone unnoticed was that neither team playing for the championship on this steamy afternoon in Southwest Florida had a single PG All-American on its roster.
And a big reason for that was what transpired over a roughly six-hour time period on Sunday morning at the Lee County Player Development Complex, which sits about 3 miles south of Terry Park.
Three teams that were all considered favorites to win the whole kit and kaboodle when the tournament kicked-off the previous Thursday were all beaten in their first round playoff games at the same complex that morning.
There were 16 PG All-Americans rostered with those three teams – the Team Elite/Atlanta Braves Scout Team, the Canes National/Mets Scout Team and the ECB/Padres Scout Team – and they saw their PG careers come to an end much sooner than anticipated.
“Any time you walk into an event like this you know everybody’s going to be here to play and everyone’s going to be talented,” Team Elite/ABST right-hander Drew Christo told PG after his team had dropped its playoff opener, a game he started. “You come out onto the field and you try your best and try to have the best game you can because the talent is going to be there.”
It was warm and sunny at the 5-Plex on the morning of October 11 and the excitement associated with playoff baseball at an event more commonly known as “Jupiter” hung heavy the four-field quad in the middle of the 5-Plex. That excitement was even more enhanced for the PG All-Americans as they not only got ready to play some pretty doggone important games, they also spotted familiar face after familiar face while they moved from field to field.
They may have, in fact, felt a little like they were walking back into Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark in downtown Oklahoma City, the host site for this year’s PG All-American Classic. The uniforms may have been different from what they wore in OKC, but the smiles and fist-bumps were just the same as everyone remembered.
“At the All-American game I met a lot of new people from a lot of different places and today when I walked in I saw a lot of them and I said ‘Hi’ to them and asked them what’s up and how they’re doing,” Canes National/MSCT outfielder Malakhi Knight told PG. “It was just good to see them and check in with them again.”
Christo, a Nebraska commit out of Elkhorn, Neb., who is ranked No. 54 nationally in the 2021 class, was one of five PGAA’s on the Team Elite/ABST roster. The others rostered were shortstop Brady House (No. 4, Tennessee) from Winder, Ga., righthander Christian Little (No. 10, Vanderbilt) from St. Louis, Mo., left-hander Carter Holton (No. 17, Vanderbilt) and shortstop Rob Gordon (No. 50, Vanderbilt).
“Even though we lost it’s been the greatest experience of my life,” Gordon said of having the chance to participate. “These are my boys right here and it’s sad that we lost but we’ve still got the love. …
“It’s been crazy,” he added, speaking of his entire PG experience. “I grew up not being (well) known but I worked hard and I got into the position that I’m in right now; it’s a good accomplishment to be here.”
Knight, an Oregon State commit from Marysville, Wash., who is ranked No. 22 nationally, was one of six PGAAs to populate the Canes National/MST roster over the team’s four days of play.
He was joined by Rochester Hills, Mich., shortstop Alex Mooney (No. 15, Duke), Lebanon, Tenn., outfielder Camden Hayslip (No. 24, Alabama), San Clemente, Calif., shortstop Cody Schrier (No. 25, UCLA), Louisville, Ky., outfielder Daylen Lile (No. 41, Louisville) and Hialeah Gardens, Fla., catcher Rene Lastres (No. 63, Florida).
With five other All-Americans sharing the same dugout, the Canes prospects didn’t have to look far to find a PGAA brother-in-arms but it was still enjoyable for them when they crossed paths with their peers from the other two teams on Sunday.
“It’s cool because you walk in here and you see guys that you’ve played with,” said Mooney, who was the MVP at the All-American Classic in OKC. “You see guys from … all those teams and you’re seeing your good friends because you’ve played with each other and you have a lot of chemistry. So it’s really just walking into a park and seeing all your friends and it’s pretty cool.”
The California kid, Schrier, was in total agreement with his Canes teammate from Michigan, Mooney:
“They’re all good friends of mine so it’s cool seeing them outside of that game and catching up with them and seeing how they’re doing,” Schrier said. “It’s super special coming out here to Florida because you know everybody’s going to be here. You chat with them over texts or call them and see what they’re up to but it’s cool seeing them in person and seeing what’s up.”
Kennesaw, Ga., catcher Harry Ford (No. 21, Georgia Tech), Mableton, Ga., shortstop Michael Braswell (No. 42, South Carolina) and Tyrone, Ga., outfielder Thaddeus Ector (No. 48, South Carolina) were three of five PGAAs rostered with the ECB/PST. New Jersey right-hander Shane Panzini (No. 23, Virginia) was on the ECB roster but pitched for the Team Georgia National/.9ers Baseball Club and catcher Joe Mack (No. 13, Clemson) didn’t participate.
Being not only local guys but also longtime East Cobb devotees, Braswell, Ector and Ford were in seventh-heaven while prospering in the Jupiter environment. Ector has been part of the ECB program since he was 12 years old and advanced up through the ranks with each passing year.
“We’ve just got a bunch of good guys; We just enjoy playing with each other,” Ector said. “We play more for each other than we play for ourselves, which I think the East Cobb program teaches. We’ve got a good coaching staff … and East Cobb is a really good organization; I couldn’t be happier to play with them on this last ride.”
Ford totally enjoyed the PG All-American Classic experience and the new friendships he made and the old friendships he reinforced while in Oklahoma City. But playing in “Fort Jupiter” was different, and that’s different in a good way.
“It’s even a little better feeling over here,” he said. “You’re with your brothers and everything and you’re really playing like this game means something. The All-American game, you’re just there to have fun with everyone so this one is a way different intensity.”
While the PGAAs that were in attendance at the 5-Plex last Sunday morning were among the most recognizable from the 2021 class, it shouldn’t be forgotten that there are scores of younger players on these rosters who are working to be in the same position in a year or two.
The ECB/Padres ST featured top 2022s in Dylan Lesko (No. 2), catcher Termarr Johnson (No. 4) and middle-infielder Nazier Mule (No. 12), and Kaden Martin (No. 25), among others. Top 2022s for the Canes National included left-hander Jackson Ferris (No. 15, Ole Miss), righty Ian Ritchie Jr. (No. 16, UCLA) and outfielder Ryan Clifford (No. 26). Outfielder Nolan Schubart (No. 6, Michigan) and infielder Hayden Murphy (No. 37, Auburn) were among the top 2022s for Team Elite.
The 2020 PGAAs would have been more than willing to provide their younger teammates with some guidance if they felt like they needed any.
“I feel like a lot of them already know the direction (they’re heading),” Schrier said. “If they’re playing up on this team as a younger kid they’re obviously pretty good but you try to help them the best that you can if they need help.”
Added Knight: “We have some of the best younger kids on our team and they already know what to expect and what to go through. They know how to handle themselves.”
Seven of the top-nine seeded teams suffered losses in Sunday’s first round of the playoffs, including the No. 1 East Coast Sox Founders Club and the No. 4 FTB/SF Giants Scout Team. Scores of highly regarded and highly ranked 2021s saw their PG careers come to an end on that day, which left plenty of time for reflections among this year’s All-Americans.
“It’s been a blessing; it’s been a blessing,” ECB’s Ector said, repeating himself for added emphasis. “I’ve been able to attend every major event that an amateur baseball player would want to attend … and then I’m able to be here for my third year.”
“That’s one of the best things about (PG) is making those relationships that are going to last into college and for some guys into pro ball,” Team Elite’s Christo added. “So it’s really cool to meet up with those guys again and see how they’re doing.”
And finally, this from the Canes’ Mooney, a player from the North who accomplished great things during this challenging summer of 2020, including the performance that earned him MVP recognition at the PG All-American Classic.
“Perfect Game has been huge for me,” Mooney, the Duke commit, said. “Getting out in front of the college coaches and pro scouts when I need to and playing in these big tournaments to get me used to that (level) of competition. I feel like I’ve played in more Perfect Game tournaments down south than I have played games in Michigan so it’s been huge for me.
“The relationships that you make with people at Perfect Game tournaments just on your team and the (teams you're) playing against like that, it’s awesome,” he concluded. “There’s nothing to compare it to.”