SURPRISE, Ariz. – As the players from the first teams taking part in this week’s 10th annual Perfect Game 17u World Series began filtering into the Surprise Spring Training Complex Tuesday morning, it was no surprise at all to see Jon Paino’s CBA Marucci National team among the entrants.
After walking into the Royals’ side of the complex – Kansas City shares the state-of-the-art Cactus League Spring Training facility with the Texas Rangers – Paino, the longtime CBA director and 17u head coach, couldn’t help but feel at home.
CBA Marucci has been a regular at the PG 17u World Series since 2015, when it advanced to the final-four in its inaugural appearance. It has never won a 17u PGWS championship but is always in the hunt for one it seems, and on Tuesday Paino recalled many of the format changes and the unique challenges each new year brought. It has, however, remained one of his favorite events.
“Obviously now, expanding the field a little bit [to 35 teams] makes it a little more interesting with teams coming in from other places that we don’t normally see,” he told PG on Tuesday. “It’s always good to play new teams and new people and get the kids that much more exposure at an event like this. It’s on the schedule every year and we definitely look forward to it.”
Ryan Ward, a talented 2022 infielder/outfielder and recent performer at the PG National Showcase in St. Petersburg, Fla. who just recently de-committed from Arizona, is here as the No. 103-ranked overall prospect in his national class.
The son of the late big league outfielder Kevin Ward, Ryan has a real appreciation for the game and the opportunities he’s been given through his association with CBA and Perfect Game. And he’s certainly happy to be here this week.
“I feel like this is the best competition here on the West Coast,” Ward said when asked about being at the invitation-only 17u PGWS. “I’ve really been looking forward to competing with my teammates and having fun like we always do as a team.”
The whole “having fun” theme runs non-stop throughout the entire CBA organization. It’s a program that has proven time and again that fun fuels passion and passion leads to an overt sense of competitiveness that in turn leads to the players wanting to be on the biggest stages. Welcome to the PG 17u World Series.
“I feel like there’s a lot of good competition here and I think we’ve got a pretty good chance of winning this,” No. 207-ranked and uncommitted infielder Cutter Coffey told PG Tuesday. “It’s going to be fun.”
Marucci National seemed to be enjoying themselves in their tournament-opener Tuesday, a 4-1 win over Colorado-based Slammers Holzemer in which CBA led 4-0 after six with Slammers scoring its lone run in the top of the seventh.
The CBA Nats’ Ethan Hott (No. 419, Stanford) doubled and drove in two runs; Maddox Haley (t-500, San Diego State) tripled with an RBI; Coffey, Brady Reynolds (’23 No. 165, Stanford) and Victor Heredia Jr. (’22 t-500) all doubled as part of a six-hit attack. 2022 lefty Ben Jacobs (t-500, UCLA) threw the first 3 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing just one hit with four strikeouts and two walks.
This is a CBA Marucci National team that kicked-off the summer by going 3-0-1 at the PG 17u Ultimate Baseball Challenge-West in San Diego June 30-July 3. The CBA Nats then hopped on a plane and jetted to Atlanta where they competed at the blockbuster PG WWBA 17u National Championship in the north suburb of Marietta. And they competed extremely well, by the way, finishing 6-1-1 after a second-round playoff loss to fellow SoCal entrant BPA, which is also here this weekend.
CBA Marucci is no stranger to success playing at the WWBA 17u National Championship, having won the title in 2015 and sharing it in 2018. Paino said there is a different kind of energy that comes with playing in the South, something that is difficult to replicate here in the desert or in Southern California.
And, he said, there is also the adversity his players face that comes from numerous weather delays and all of the unknowns that accompany playing teams from other regions of the country.
“With this group, more specifically, I think in Georgia we became closer as a team,” Paino continued. “[They] became a lot more resilient as players learning to play on the road, learning to deal with some weather and some other things outside of what we deal with [here]. It helps contribute to preparing a kid as best you can for college and professional baseball.”
Eight CBA Marucci National players earned all-tournament recognition in Marietta, including the previously mentioned Coffey, Haley and Jacobs, and 2022 top-500s Andrew Carroll (Arizona), Austin Charles (UC Santa Barbara), Jack Smith and Andrew Walters (UCLA).
If anything, the CBA Marucci National players were able to use the weeklong stay in rain and lightning-plagued north Georgia as a learning experience. Maybe even more than any valuable lessons they learned, it was definitely a maturation process at a variety of levels, as well.
“It’s a lot of fun mixed in with some of the adversities of the game (like) having a game get rained-out and having to adjust mid-tournament,” Ward said. “That’s a big part of the game and you have to learn how to deal with those things, and I think that we did and we kept playing...
“We did everything we could, we battled our hearts out and we had another fun trip as a team; I think that’s what it’s about, honestly.”
Paino brought a roster here this week that is largely intact from the WWBA 17u NC. It did lose 2022 outfielder Justin Crawford (No. 73-ranked, uncommitted), ’22 pitcher Xavier Cardenas III (No. 152, San Diego State) and ’22 outfielder/third baseman Payton Brennan (No. 345, UCLA) to the USA Baseball PDP in Cary, N.C., but everyone else is present and accounted for.
Some adjustments were necessary so Paino added local Phoenix-area outfielder Ethan Hott (No. 419, Stanford) and right-hander/third baseman Kole Klecker (t-1000, TCU) to fill a couple of spots. Taken as a whole, it’s a collection of talent that won’t take a seat at the end of the dugout to any other team here this week, all boasting rosters that are as equally as impressive as that of CBA National.
“It does make you play your hardest and not take anybody lightly during the games,” Coffey said of the stellar competition they’ll face. “By wearing ‘CBA’ we’ve got a name for ourselves already and we just have to go out and prove it. I feel like we do that most of the time; we go out and play hard [and the winning] it’s kind of contagious. Once we start winning I feel like we can keep on going; I love playing with these guys.”
This event marks the end of the PG summer travel ball season for the teams here this week, although a full fall season awaits in September and October for quite a few of them. Coming into a season-ending tournament like this one, Paino is kind of the mind that he’s said all that’s need to be said by this point – his message has been heard and his players have responded in kind.
After all, he admitted, one of his great strengths is knowing the right time just to shut up. It all goes back to allowing the players to have as much fun as possible while performing in what can be a demanding, stressful and often pressure-packed environment.
“We don’t want to restrict them at all. We want them to play free; we want them to play without the fear of failure,” Paino said. “As long as they prepare themselves the best they can, hustle all the time and play the game the way it’s supposed to be played, there is no failure for us. We want them to play free and understand that and I think this group really has taken that and ran with it.”
It’s an approach that resonates with his players: “Coach Paino, he’s a good leader,” Ward said. “He knows how to fire up a team when it needs to be fired up and he also knows how to put the brakes on when they need to be put on; he lets us have own space and I really appreciate that. He just encourages us to play hard, honestly; play hard and have fun are his two things.
“There’s three things you can control: having fun, your attitude and your hustle. I think our team conveys those three things on the field while we play.”
When asked about this CBA Marucci National’s collective personality, Paino smiled and even chuckled a bit before finally saying – not surprisingly – they just like to have fun. Providing experiences that allow these talented teen-aged baseball players to enjoy themselves as much as possible has long been a cornerstone of the CBA program and it certainly applies to this group.
“Being on the road now for a long time this summer they’ve grown super close together,” Paino said. “I think they all play for one another; they look forward to each other’s success and they celebrate each other’s success whenever it happens.”
As of Wednesday morning, four days of what promised to be some pretty intense action remained at the PG 17u World Series. There were teams that took their lumps during day one but, mathematically anyway, there’s time to rebound.
Paino knows it’s important to keep his players in some sort of routine and that won’t be nearly as challenging here as it was with all the weather-woes in Georgia. Keeping focused and at the ready at all times won’t be an issue for the CBA Marucci National; it’s all about perspective.
As an example, Ryan Ward believes it’s vitally important for he and his teammates to remember that this is just a kids’ game they’re playing. If that notion gets lost in the shuffle, the outside pressures and expectations will, in his words, “eat you up and spit you out.” Now, that doesn’t sound like much fun.
And remember, fun fuels this group. It’s a team that has become tighter and more close-knit with each passing tournament and the players all feel like it’s just a great time to be wearing the letters “CBA” across the front of their game jerseys.
“This group is as energized as ever,” Ward said. “I’ve played on some special teams in my very, very young career, and it’s a good vibe, it’s a good energy, a lot of good players; our depth is probably second to none. After this, I’m looking forward to the [PG 17u Fall Championship], Jupiter [WWBA World Championship] and whatever else is yet to come.”
Certainly no surprise there.