Tournaments : : Story
Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Elite Squad, Slugger eye 2013

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

The Miami-based South Florida Elite Squad Baseball organization is coming off a remarkable two-year stretch of success that saw a core group of outstanding class of 2013 prospects win a pair of Perfect Game national championships.

With the 2012 travel ball season now fading to black, Elite Squad director of operations and head coach Richie Palmer is a man at a crossroads. He doesn’t want to let go of that special group of athletes that brought the national spotlight to his four year old organization, but he also can’t wait to leap into the 2013 season and see just what the future holds.

That group that won the two national championships and finished third at the 2012 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., in late October, will be starting either collegiate or, in some cases, professional careers after they graduate from high school in 2013.

Its leader was catcher Zack Collins, a 2012 Perfect Game All-American ranked No. 12 nationally in his class who has signed with Miami; outfielder and left-hander William Abreu, No. 64 and another Miami recruit, and third baseman Danny Zardon, No. 114 and an LSU commit. Palmer took 11 2013s to Jupiter that had committed to NCAA Division I schools.

“It’s bittersweet because I’m sad that I won’t coach that 2013 class anymore but I’m equally excited to coach the new guys,” Palmer said in a telephone conversation with Perfect Game earlier this week. “We brought a lot of 2014s to the World Wood Bat Jupiter tournament because I wanted them to get a taste of how this group competed; I think they did that.”

Palmer is already looking forward to the 2013 season for a couple of reasons. He will build his next premier team around top 2014 prospects and PG WWBA World Championship veterans like first baseman Brian Gonzalez (a Miami commit), left-hander Michael Mediavilla (Miami) and catcher Spencer Levine (Florida International).

He’s also excited about a new partnership South Florida Elite Squad Baseball has forged with famed bat and equipment manufacturer Louisville Slugger and its parent company Hillerich & Bradsby Co. According to a press release on the SF Elite Squad website, the partnership will officially begin with the 2013 summer season and will provide the Elite Squad players with a wide assortment of Louisville Slugger equipment. In turn, Elite Squad Baseball will work to promote Louisville Slugger’s global brand.

“We’re fired up,” Palmer said of the partnership. “The way Louisville Slugger has treated us and what they’re providing for our organization, it’s unbelievable. And it’s all about the kids – to be able to get Louisville Slugger products that they can use. Not only are they the best (products) in the game … but for these kids, they kind of get that ‘college feel’ that they’re being sponsored by a big company.

“I can’t say enough good things about the people at Louisville Slugger,” he continued. “Louisville Slugger has become a part of our Elite family and I think that we’ve become a part of the Slugger family as well.”

In a venture that is similar to what they do with their marketing on the collegiate level, Slugger has started what it calls the “Louisville Slugger Prime Baseball Club” in which it works with the nation’s top travel team organizations.

Kyle Schlegel, Vice President of Marketing for the Hillerich & Bradsby Co., told Perfect Game in a telephone interview that the South Florida Elite Squad was one of the first travel ball organizations his company reached out to. Louisville Slugger representatives and Palmer first talked about a partnership during the 17u Perfect Game World Series in the Phoenix area in late July.

“The first thing that appealed to us (about South Florida Elite Squad) was the quality of players that they have. They’ve got every bit the talent that any organization in the country does,” Schlegel said. “One of the other things was Richie himself. We want to align with people that we feel could be part of the Louisville Slugger family. They’re out for the best interest of the kid and they’re focused on helping these kids get better at baseball and also preparing them for life.

“We’re focused on, ‘Let’s help these boys become men,’ and baseball is a part of that.”

With the future looking so bright, it might be easy to assume that Palmer would be eager to close the door on the 2012 season. That assumption would be totally off-base.

This was the same group of talented 2013s that won the 2011 PG WWBA 16u National Championship in Marietta, Ga., the organization’s first Perfect Game national title. They returned to Marietta in July intent on defending that championship – albeit at the 2012 PG WWBA 17u National Championship – and looked poised to do just that after winning their pool with a 6-0-1 record. The dream ended with a second-round playoff loss to the East Cobb Astros 16u.

“Even though it was a different year, we had the mentality of wanting to defend that title,” Palmer said. “Unfortunately, we lost in the playoffs and it hit hard; these kids really care. Because they’ve played with us for so long – the core group – they play with a lot of pride.”

The highlight of the South Florida Elite Squad’s summer arrived 10 days later when they won the inaugural 17u Perfect Game World Series. The elite event was held at two MLB Cactus League spring training complexes in the west Phoenix suburbs and included only 16 of the top 17u travel ball teams in the country. The Squad went 6-0-1 in their seven pool-play games, blanked Team Northwest, 8-0, in the semifinals and out-lasted the East Cobb Braves, 7-5, in the championship game.

Collins was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player after going 7-for-20 (.350) with four doubles, a triple, 10 RBI, three runs scored and eight walks (.552 OBP) in nine games while facing many of the top arms in the country. He was the only Elite Squad player named to the coveted nine-man Louisville Slugger MLB Prime Nine honor team at the conclusion of the tournament.

SF Elite Squad right-hander Shaun Anderson, a Florida recruit, was named Most Valuable Pitcher. He went 2-0 while working 12 2/3 of nine-hit ball, allowing one earned run (0.55 ERA) and striking out 15. Eleven other Elite Squad prospects joined Collins and Anderson on the 17u PG World Series All-Tournament Team.

“Anytime you can go out and win any Perfect Game event, let alone the first year of the (17u) World Series with the caliber of the teams there, it’s special,” Palmer said. “It’s hard because we set a certain expectation level of competing; it’s a balance of getting kids into school or showcasing them while also trying to win at the same time. We did well in every tournament we attended but to win the (17u) PG World Series in its inaugural year really made our summer.”

Palmer was thrilled with the way his team responded under the hot desert sun so soon after experiencing such bitter disappointment in the north Georgia heat and humidity.

“For these kids to bounce back in their very next tournament really showed a lot of character,” he said. “The competition in Arizona was second to none – every game you were facing a top level (pitcher). In some pool-play games (at other tournaments) you may face a weaker team and be able to slide by not playing your best, but in Arizona every arm you faced was pretty good.”

There was still one more hill to climb for the Squad, and it was really more of a mountain. They traveled to Jupiter for the PG WWBA World Championship fully expecting to add a third PG national title to their resume. They rolled to a 3-0 record in weather-shortened pool-play action and then outscored their first three playoff opponents by a combined 21-0.

That led to a semifinal matchup with East Cobb Baseball, which resulted in a 1-0 loss to the eventual tournament champion. The Elite Squad had outscored its four playoff foes 22-1 but had to settle for a share of third place with the powerful EvoShield Canes (Chet Lemon’s Juice finished second).

Elite Squad middle-infielder Stephen Kerr, a Florida Atlantic recruit, was named to the Louisville Slugger MLB Prime Nine honor squad. Five other players, including Abreu, Gonzalez, Zardon and Anderson, joined Kerr on the WWBA World Championship All-Tournament Team.

 “I told them, ‘You guys don’t realize it now but what you guys have done in a matter of two years, it’s not suppose to happen. It’s not supposed to be easy … that you have that much success,’” Palmer said. “I tried to get them to realize that this was something very special they had accomplished. We always preached that if you take care of your teammates the baseball gods will reward you. They really took hold of that and they were the most unselfish group and the hungriest group that I’ve been a part of.”

More successes are sure to come the organization’s way. Its new partnership with Louisville Slugger is certainly an excellent way to start a new season in 2013.

“Obviously, Louisville Slugger is respected organization at all levels of baseball and to be able to say Elite Squad is partnered with Louisville Slugger, it absolutely brings another level to our organization,” Palmer said. “We’re relatively new … and to have a company like this approach us and say hey, we’d love to get involved with you guys, it just made my year because I know how much it’s going to benefit the kids.”
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