South Florida Elite Squad looks for repeat at Florida Qualifier

Tournaments : : Story
Jeff Dahn        
Published: Monday, September 13, 2010

Not even serious injuries resulting from an automobile accident could keep Richie Palmer away from the 2009 Perfect Game WWBA Florida Qualifier. Now in fine health, Palmer can't wait to take South Florida Elite Squad back to Fort Myers, Fla., to see if it can once again work a little magic over the course of the four-day event.

The 2010 PG WWBA Florida Qualifier is set for Friday through Monday, Sept. 17-20, and will be played at various locations in Fort Myers including the Boston Red Sox Player Development 5-Plex and historic Terry Park. The tournament champion earns an automatic paid berth to the PG WWBA World Championship at the Roger Dean Complex in Jupiter, Fla., Oct. 21-25.

Sixty-four teams - up from 40 last year - are expected in the field, and will be divided into 16 four-team pools. Pool-play will take place Friday and Saturday, Sept. 17-18. The pool champions will advance to the round of 16 on Sunday, Sept. 19, and the semifinals and championship will be played Monday, Sept. 20.

The field includes some nationally ranked heavyweights, including All-American Prospects (Miami), Chet Lemon's Juice (Mount Dora, Fla.), FTB Mizuno (Cherlusta, Fla.), Florida Bombers (Miami), Orlando Scorpions (Altamonte Springs, Fla.), Palm Beach Select (Jupiter, Fla.) and SWFL Baseball (Fort Myers, Fla.).

And you can't forget about South Florida Elite Squad, based in Pembroke Pines, Fla.

South Florida Elite Squad Select won the 2009 Florida Qualifier championship by beating Florida Stars Grey in the championship game. And Richie Palmer, the director of the expanded program that is only in its second full year of operation, almost wasn't able to make it to Fort Myers to watch it all unfold.

Palmer was going about his business preparing his team for last September's PG WWBA Florida Qualifier when his personal situation changed dramatically. Two weeks before the tournament, Palmer was involved in a serious car accident and ended up in an intensive care unit for three days and in a hospital for a week with assorted broken bones and other injuries. During his hospital stay, he became determined that the accident and subsequent injuries wouldn't keep him away from Fort Myers.

"I knew that I wasn't going to miss it," Palmer said "Just because I knew the team I had and the accomplishments they had, I told myself I wasn't going to miss that tournament.

"I had a feeling we were going to win it. Don't ask me why - I never have those feelings - and then we ended up winning it. It was the right ending to a summer for those kids, because those were the same kids I had for four years. They started the program."

South Florida Elite Squad will send three teams to this weekend's Florida Qualifier - Upperclass Black, Upperclass White and Upperclass Red. Palmer called it a "toss-up" between his Black and White squads as to which would be the better team on any given day.

"It all depends on who's on the mound for them," he said. "If they played a series it would be tough to really decide. If they played a three-game series it would depend on who those three guys were that they threw against each other."

This year's South Florida Elite Squad is led by right-handed pitcher Nick Travieso (Pembroke Pines, Fla., 2012) who is Perfect Game's 14th-ranked national Top Prospect in the class of 2012 (No. 5 in Florida). Right-hander Hayden Hurst (Jacksonville, Fla., 2012) is ranked 17th nationally by Perfect Game and has spent time this summer pitching for South Florida Elite and Jacksonville Heat. Hurst is ranked 16th nationally by Perfect Game, sixth in the state of Florida.

Catcher/infielder Michael Klement (Cooper City, Fla., 2012) is ranked 63rd nationally by Perfect Game (14th in Florida) and infielder Estebaun Puerta (Cooper City, Fla., 2012) has been ranked at points in his young career.

South Florida Elite Squad enjoyed a successful summer. It's 16U Black team finished second at PG BCS Finals at Fort Myers in late July, and shortstop Brandon Lopez (Miramar, Fla., 2012) was named the tournament MVP after batting .521 (12-for-23) with 11 RBIs and nine runs scored.

Because of last year's title, the Florida Qualifier has become a highlight of the late summer for South Florida Elite Squad. Palmer said that even if South Florida Elite Squad already had an automatic invitation to Jupiter, he would continue to send teams to the Florida Qualifier.

"Just because it's a great event with good competition, and for the exposure purposes," he said.

Despite the heady competition that lies in wait, Palmer thinks one of his teams should have a shot at the Florida Qualifier championship again this year.

"The fall is a little bit different because we don't practice as much out of respect for their high school (fall sports) coaches, so I'm hoping they can gel quickly," Palmer said. "To win any Perfect Game event, you not only have to be good but have a little bit of luck on your side, as well. Hopefully we have both of those things working on our side."

And the carrot at the end of the stick is there for all to see - the paid berth to the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, the biggest and best tournament for high school-age players in the nation with more than 80 elite teams. Being able to play at Jupiter last year proved to be a thrill for everyone associated with South Florida Elite Sqaud.

"At every game we were surrounded by golf carts filled with college coaches, crosscheckers, scouts, fans - I don't think it's something any of these kids will experience unless they go to that event," Palmer said. "(Perfect Game events at) East Cobb and Fort Myers are very highly scouted, don't get me wrong, but when you go to Jupiter and you see golf carts lined up from home plate all the way down the foul line, it's a pretty impressive sight."

Palmer wants to expose his players to that kind of scrutiny, especially from college coaches. He said a couple of players committed to colleges after last year's Florida Qualifier and a couple more followed suit after the World Championship.

"Obviously, the best part about it is more and more kids are going to school from our organization," he said. "The fact that we're able to play a part in that, that's what it's about. That's why we decided to expand. If we can help more kids get into school, why not?

"I really do enjoy going to the Perfect Game events (for that reason). It's the highlight of our summer. I know every team in our organization, whether it be 15-and-under to 18-and-under looks forward to going to East Cobb, Fort Myers and, obviously, Jupiter."

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