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Monday, September 07, 2009

East Cobb Braves are 18U national champs

Jim Ecker        
See also: 18U Travel Teams: Top 64 + Honorable Mention

Kevin Baldwin admits he was “shell-shocked” when the East Cobb Braves gave up nine runs in the fourth inning and trailed the Florida Bombers, 9-0, in the finals of the WWBA 18U National Championships at the Braves’ own complex in Marietta, Ga., last month.

“Our goal was just to get back in the game so we didn’t get run-ruled,” he said. “I just wanted the kids to keep fighting.”

They did better than that.

The Braves came all the way back and stunned the Bombers, 11-10, to capture the 18U title that day. That’s one of the reasons the East Cobb Braves, technically a 17U club, have been named the top 18U team in the country this year by Perfect Game USA.

Their remarkable comeback took place on Monday, July 6.

“It was one of the most unbelievable things I’ve seen on a baseball field,” said Baldwin, “and I’ve been coaching for 15 years and played all my life.”

The WWBA 17U National Championship tournament began the next day in Marietta on Tuesday, July 7. The Braves, drained by their improbable comeback and fifth victory in two days, were understandably flat for the 17U tourney and compiled a 2-3 record in pool play and failed to make the playoffs, but nobody was too upset about that. They had the championship trophy from the 18U tournament in their tired hands and a big smile on their weary faces.

The Braves finished the season with a sparkling 67-8 record and sent five players to the Aflac All-American Classic in San Diego, the most Aflac All-Americans in team history. It was a talent-laden club whose players have committed to Auburn, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Tulane, Florida, Florida State and other top schools, making college coaches happy all over the south and southeast.

At last count, 19 of the 25 players on this year’s roster have committed to NCAA Division I programs. Baldwin thinks this year's team compared favorably with the 17U club he had in 2007 that produced 11 draft picks and 6 of the top 88 picks overall. “It’s hard to tell where it’s going to end up,” he said.

The East Cobb program has been blessed with outstanding players for many years. They’ve had 28 draft picks in the last five years, including seven in the first round. Brandon Phillips, an East Cobb product, is currently playing for the Cincinnati Reds.

The future also looks bright for many of the players who performed for the 17U Braves this year. Stetson Allie, Zach Alvord, Chavez Clarke, Trey Griffin and Karsten Whitson played in the Aflac Classic on Aug. 16, giving the Braves 5 of 40 spots in the game. Allie, armed with a 100 mph fastball, struck out 32 batters in 15 innings this season for the Braves and allowed only two hits. Alvord hit 14 homers, tying Eric Arce for the most on the team. Clarke and Brandon Roberts were the table-setters and stole 74 of 78 bases. Griffin starred as an outfielder and pitcher, while Whitson was one of the mainstays on the mound.

The Aflac All-Americans were not the only stars, however, not by a long shot. Arce was named the MVP of the WWBA tournament and led the Braves during the regular season in batting average, home runs and RBIs. Kyle Burchfield emerged as the ace of the staff, according to Baldwin, with a 10-0 record and three saves. Patrick Merkling and Hudson Randall both finished with 8-0 records, enjoying perfect years. Blake Crohan, one of the catchers, finished in the top-3 in most offensive categories and was the “emotional leader” of the team, according to his coach.

Baldwin has coached in the East Cobb program for 15 years, including the past seven years with the 17U Braves. He said it’s a pleasure to lead a team with so much talent. “It’s a lot of fun, obviously,” he remarked.

Fourteen of the players on this year’s club were from Georgia, but the Braves also had players from Florida, Ohio, Alabama, Michigan and Massachusetts. “The common denominator,” said Baldwin, “is that every kid is focused on what they can do to further their careers.

“I don’t go out recruiting,” he said. “That’s something I don’t like to do.”

Instead, top athletes come to him. Baldwin said players, family members and coaches contact the East Cobb coaches to nominate guys for the program. Baldwin said the East Cobb coaches do a background check on the players, then watch them play or invite them to tryouts. The teams are selected from there.

Baldwin, who played college baseball at Western Carolina and Kennesaw State, is a full-time member of the staff. “It’s a 365-day-a-year job,” he said.

The reward this year was a national title.
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