PEORIA, Ariz. - Just like all of the other 15 elite teams that have gathered here for this week's 17u Perfect Game World Series, one of three teams that carries the word "elite" in its name feels like royalty just for having been invited to the inaugural event.
The South Florida Elite Squad, the only team representing the Sunshine State here this week, was considered a pre-tournament favorite, and it's no wonder considering its roster features no fewer than 10 NCAA Division I recruits and one 2012 Perfect Game All-American Classic presented by Rawlings selection.
"It's really an honor and a pleasure to come and compete with the best competition, the best teams and the best players in the nation," Elite Squad top 2013 outfield prospect William Abreu said Wednesday from the Peoria Sports Complex, the site of the 17u PG World Series. "It's really great to be able to compete and play on the same field with all these other players."
South Florida Elite, based in Miami, topped Baton Rouge, La.-based Marucci Elite - another pre-tournament favorite - 7-3 in its opener Tuesday night but then fell to the San Diego Show, 2-1, early Wednesday afternoon. It then topped the EvoShield Canes out of Fredericksburg, Va., 6-0, late Wednesday night in its third of seven pool-play games.
This is truly a national event featuring 16 of the very best 17u teams in the country. Dozens of college recruiters and pro scouts have already turned out under the hot Arizona sun in just the first two days.
Richie Palmer, SF Elite's head coach and main operator, called this event the "highlight of the summer" for his team after it lost in the round of 16 at the PG WWBA 17u National Championship at the East Cobb Complex in Marietta, Ga., earlier this month.
"I told them before we left to come here, 'Hey, unfortunately we lost in East Cobb but this is a tournament we definitely want to go out and win, and all of that will be forgotten if you can win a tournament like this,'" Palmer said Wednesday. "So it's pretty sweet to have the opportunity to go against the best competition in the country and against the best kids. That's what you play for."
The loss to the San Diego Show may have been unexpected, but there really isn't any such thing as an upset at the 17u PG World Series.
"Like we tell our kids, there isn't going to be one team that you can relax (against) and just go through the motions with," Palmer said.
The top player on the SF Elite Squad is arguably catcher Zack Collins (2013, American Heritage HS, Fla.), the aforementioned PG All-American. Collins is a 6-foot-2, 205-pound hitting machine who is also considered a top defensive catcher. He is ranked the nation's No. 13 overall prospect in the 2013 class and , like Abreu, has committed to the University of Miami.
"Flying from Florida to Arizona, I don't do that just for nothing," Collins said with a laugh Wednesday when asked what it meant to him to be here. "But no, this is going to be fun and there's good competition out here. Obviously, it's the top 16 teams so we're going to just try to be No. 1 and come out on top."
Each of the 16 teams will play seven pool games between Tuesday night and Friday night. The top-two finishers in each of the eight-team pools advance to Saturday's 8 a.m. semifinals at two of the Seattle Mariners' practice fields at the Peoria Sports Complex, and the 10:30 a.m. championship game will be played in the main stadium at the complex. The Mariners and San Diego Padres share the first-class Cactus League facility.
The two teams playing for the championship will have played nine games in just over four days.
"It's definitely a grind, but that's what baseball is," Abreu (2013, Mater Academy HS, Fla.) said. "Baseball is always going to be a grind and it's the teams that get through the grind that come out on top and are the ones that are going to win. We've been practicing a lot and getting ready for this event for awhile now, and we're going to keep grinding it out."
Collins and Abreu aren't alone among top-ranked prospects on the Elite Squad's rosters. First baseman Nick Longhi (2013, Venice HS, Fla.) is ranked No. 100 nationally and has committed to LSU; third baseman Danny Zardon (2013, American Heritage HS, Fla.) is ranked No. 169 and is another LSU commit; and right-hander Shaun Anderson (2013, American Heritage HS, Fla.) is ranked No. 155 and committed to Florida.
And yes, American Heritage finished as the nation's No. 1-ranked team in PG's final 2012 National High School Top 50 Rankings.
"We came in thinking we're one of the best teams out here and we came in to win this whole thing," Collins said. "It is an honor to be here and be included with the top 16 teams, but we're here to win it and come out on top."
The core of this group was on the SF Elite Squad team that won the 2011 PG WWBA 16u National Championship title after struggling as 15-year-olds in 2010.
"This is definitely the most talented team that I've coached. The thing about them is that their character is off the charts, too, and that's important," Palmer said. "They're a close-knit group, so even if we go out and we play bad, they battle for each other. Talent-wise, it's the most talented (group) that I've had, and the character is what really sets them apart; there are no individual egos."
After the games on Wednesday, only two teams - the powerhouse East Cobb Braves and surprising Team Northwest - stood 3-0. There was a general consensus among PG tournament officials that at least one three-loss team would advance to the final four Saturday morning.
Palmer doesn't want the SF Elite Squad to be a three-loss team, of course, and he does expect to be playing Saturday morning. He just likes the way this team is built.
"They're selfless and they don't care about their personal stats," Palmer said. "It's pretty special to coach kids at this age with as high of profiles as they have and with as many people as they have out here watching them, they'll give themselves up just to help the team win. And that's special; you don't get that a lot from kids.
"It's a very good group and I'll be sad when it's done and over, but hopefully we're playing until Saturday here and then down in Jupiter (at the 2012 PG WWBA World Championship), so I'll get a couple more months with these guys."