Tournaments : : Story
Sunday, October 09, 2011

Gates open early at Terry Park

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Immediately after Baseball U Black won its round-of-32 playoff game at the Perfect Game WWBA Underclass and about two hours before it lost its round-of-16 game, BU Black head coach John Wells talked to me for a few minutes about his young team.

“We bring them down here for the first time, so it’s tough for them to mesh because they’ve never really played together before,” Wells said early Sunday evening from the playing field at City of Palms Park’s main stadium. “It’s good to see them bond, not only on the field but in the hotel as well.”

Maybe that’s what this whole crazy tournament is all about. Young men,  almost all of whom will have the opportunity to play college baseball and a select few who will go on to make a lucrative living playing the game, getting to know one another while developing life-long friendships on playing fields mostly located in Lee County,  Fla.

Monday morning’s quarterfinal pairings are set after a free-for-all Sunday at the WWBA Underclass World Championship that saw the completion of pool-play games, dozens of consolation games, four round-of-36 play-in games, 16 round-of-32 playoff games and eight round-of-16 playoff contests.

The tournament’s final eight teams will be at Terry Park bright and early Monday for quarterfinal and semifinal games in the morning, followed by the championship game early in the afternoon. The front gates will open around 8 a.m. (EDT) as the best-of-the-best underclass teams in the land try to settle this rain-delayed deal once and for all.

The defending champion, sixth-seeded Marucci Elite, has advanced to the final eight, thanks to a 4-3 round-of-16 win over the 11th-seeded Dirtbags. I had the opportunity to speak to both Dirtbags head coach Andy Partin and Marucci Elite head coach Chad Raley earlier in the weekend.

“I expect to win it again,” Raley told me Friday. “We’ve got enough talent, and I’ve seen some of the other rosters and there are plenty of really talented teams here, but I think we’re very talented and we should do OK. It’s just a matter of the guys relaxing and playing to their capabilities.”

And there was this from Partin, who guided the Dirtbags to a share of the WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., in 2010.

“I don’t think anybody pegged us to win the thing in Jupiter last year … and we definitely have high expectations. We wouldn’t be down here if we didn’t think we could win it all. That’s the only reason we come down here in the first place.”

Only Raley’s Marucci Elite squad will still be playing Monday. That, of course, does nothing to diminish anything the Dirtbags accomplished this weekend. They will be heard from again, perhaps as early as two weeks from now when they make a return trip to Jupiter to defend their prestigious WWBA World Championship title.

The scores from the round-of-16 continue to trickle in. The big dogs are making their move, with most of the top seeds surviving to book early Monday dates.

Oh, lookie there! Coach Kevin Baldwin has his East Cobb Braves – a former winner of the event and last year’s runner-up – back in the Elite Eight. The top-seeded Braves beat No. 17-seed Florida Pokers White, 6-2, in the round-of-16. It was a harrowing Sunday for the Braves, who scrambled to beat FTB Mizuno Black – which had emerged from one of the four play-in games – 8-7 in the round of 32.

The Braves play the No. 8 seed South Charlotte Panthers (5-0) in the quarters and No. 4 Chet Lemon’s Juice (5-0) entertains No. 5 Palm Beach Country PAL (5-0) in one of the others.

There will be a couple of gate-crashers waiting at Terry Park’s front entrance, and they have the audacity to bring a pair of ties to this otherwise unblemished quarterfinal party. The No. 23-seed East Cobb Astros White (4-0-1) will play its hand against No. 2 FTB Mizuno Royal (5-0) and No. 19 Hitters Baseball (4-0-1) will try its luck against defending champion Marucci Elite (5-0).

The tournament ended a little sooner for Baseball U Black than Coach Wells would have liked, but when he spoke to me after his team’s playoff victory and, ultimately, before its eliminating loss, he knew he did the right thing by bringing this group of high school juniors and sophomores – kids primarily from New Jersey, Connecticut and Maryland – down here for a weekend of top-notch competition.

“It’s the best,” Wells said. “Every year, for college coaches, this tournament has now become more important. Six years ago when we first started coming here you maybe had 100 (college coaches). Now it’s 200, 300 college coaches. It’s come a long way, and it’s a good event for these kids, because they’re not finished. They’re going to go back home and work harder now that they’ve seen the players they’re going to have to play against, and they’ll get stronger and they’ll get better. It’s a good event.”

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