Tournaments : : Story
Sunday, May 25, 2014

Elite Squad chasing 'elite' status

Matt Rodriguez        
FORT MYERS, Fla. – Elite Squad Baseball has become a household name for travel baseball organizations after five successful years since it’s founding in 2010 by Richie Palmer. The south Florida baseball program is showing they once again plan on being one of the more intimidating teams to play this summer. Between the big arm of Anthony Molina and the young bats of Alejandro Toral and Gregory Veliz, they are making their presence felt at this weekend’s WWBA East Memorial Day tournaments.

One of the more exciting teams to watch in the 16u WWBA East Memorial Day Classic is Palmer’s Elite Squad 16u Prime team, which includes players like University of Miami commits Mike Amditis and Veliz, left-handed pitcher and University of Central Florida commit Jesus Luzardo, and young promising slugger Alejandro Toral, who was last year’s WWBA Freshman World Championship MVP.

To say this team can play would be an extreme understatement. This team can mash. This team can pitch. This team can turn 5-4-3 double plays as smoothly as the pros. Did I mention this team can mash? They are hitting .321 avg. with 13 extra-base hits as a team through five games. Most impressive about their play is that this is the first time these guys have played together in a tournament. They seem to be bonding pretty well.

“I think the biggest thing for all of us here is we just want to get to know each other and what kind of team we are,” said Palmer. “We’ve preached it all week and we’ll preach it all summer: chemistry wins. We want to build chemistry this week and see where it takes us the rest of the summer.”

“We’re coming together as a family, grinding out at-bats, and our pitchers are shutting it down,” said Toral.

“We all knew each other from past experiences like playing against each other and I think that has helped with the bonding and we’ve gotten even closer,” added Luzardo.

If anyone knows how to build successful teams in a short time, it’s Palmer. In 2010, the organization’s first year, the 17u team finished the summer ranked No. 4 by Perfect Game, while the 15u finished ranked No. 2.

Palmer was hired as a head coach at just 23-years-old while his younger brother was enjoying much success in the amateur baseball circuit. He decided why not build a team, and eventually an organization, and help his brother get to the next level. That’s where the Elite Squad Baseball organization journey begins.

“There were a couple organizations that were out there in our area, but I just believed in something different. Not that they did anything wrong, but I wanted to do my own thing,” said Palmer. “I knew a lot of my brother’s friends growing up that played so I said ‘you know what? I’m gonna grab a team and just do it.’ Two years later we did an open tryout. Back then, we didn’t have a website or anything and we depended on word of mouth. About 80 kids showed up. We weren’t prepared for 80 kids. I expected about 20.”

The early success has drawn many of the best players from south Florida to the Pembroke Pines - based organization. One parent estimated over 400 kids and dozens of college coaches and major league scouts attended the most recent tryout. The University of Miami has taken a particular interest in the organization that plays ball in their backyard. Palmer’s brother is also a senior on the Hurricanes baseball team.

“If you’re a program down there and you’ve had the success and type of players that we’ve had, it’s probably in your best interest to go out there and watch those guys,” Palmer said. “A lot of these kids grew up with the tradition of Mark Light Field. A lot of kids grow up wanting to go to Miami so it’s an attractive thing for them to come play for us because they know they (Miami) are always gonna be sitting in the stands at our games.”

Elite Squad team rosters are peppered with players committed to the Coral Gables university. Class of 2016 graduates are already making their verbals to attend Miami.

“I grew up a ‘Canes fan all my life,” Veliz said about his commitment to Miami. “They have great coaches, a great history, and great players there. I loved it when I went.”

Key West native Veliz is now a three-year veteran of the Elite Squad organization. Perfect Game ranks him No. 5 in the country for the 2016 class as a right-handed pitcher.

“Playing with Elite Squad is a big honor,” Veliz said. “I love it and I want to come back every year. The best summers ever are coming out here and playing with great players and getting seen by colleges. It’s been great.”

That’s what Palmer loves about his job, as well; helping his players achieve their goals and commit to playing baseball at the next level, whether that is college or professional.

“The biggest thing we do and the biggest reason why people want to be a part of us is that we do a pretty good job of moving the kids to the next level,” said Palmer. “The wins are great, but at the end of the day we’re chasing commitments. If that means I gotta throw a certain kid on a day I didn’t plan on him throwing, we’ll move it around so that a college or pro scout can come see him. That’s what we base it off and that’s why we started it and we’ve been able to win because we have good players.”

The wins have been coming with ease for his Elite Squad 16u Prime team this weekend. They enter Monday with four wins and a tie, outscoring opponents 36-4. Toral, a 2017, is 5-for-12 (.417 avg.) with four extra-base hits, including a home run, and 7 RBI. Last October’s WWBA Freshman World Championship MVP is drawing tons of attention with his power potential and his youth.

“Playing with these older guys is perfect,” said Toral. “I like the competition. I like the speed of the game. They’re all great ballplayers.”

Southpaw Luzardo has thrown just three innings in the tournament, but they have been perfect innings, giving up no hits or walks while collecting 7 strikeouts. The team earned run average (ERA) currently sits at 0.97.

“As long as we have a good productive weekend, get to know each other as teammates, and form a bond, it’s a successful weekend,” Palmer said.

You can check off the to-do list and maybe soon put a check in the ‘win 16u WWBA East Memorial Day’ box as well. The Elite Squad 16u Prime team is heading into the final day of the tournament as polished and as motivated as any other team that remains.

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