It was a re-booted Canes Baseball squad that strolled into the wet and windy Roger Dean Complex in Jupiter, Fla., the afternoon of Oct. 25, sporting EvoShield logos on their caps and Olympic-size targets on their backs.
EvoShield Canes co-director and head coach Jeff Petty and his staff had assembled and impressive collection of top national prospects for the 15th annual PG WWBA World Championship, custom-built around a core of Canes players and spiced with the addition of some exceptional talent from across the country.
The goal was for this team to bring home a championship from the WWBA World Championship, the most prestigious tournament and scouting event in all of amateur baseball.
“Let’s face it. This is basically Omaha for us. This means everything for us and our program,” Petty said at the time, comparing the WWBA World Championship to the NCAA Division I College World Series. “The kids know that they’re competing against the best players in the world at their age group and they want to have a shot to be on top.”
The Canes got their shot but fell just short, settling for a third-place with the South Florida Elite Squad, behind champion East Cobb Baseball and runner-up Chet Lemon’s Juice. But there was really nothing about the EvoShield Canes’ 2012 season that smelled of failure or really even hinted at coming up short.
“You try to juggle what your priorities are, and we’re very passionate about winning,” Petty said in a telephone conversation with Perfect Game the morning of Dec. 4. “But our main priority is making sure the kids get into (college); that’s number-one with us.”
If that’s the measure of success, EvoShield Canes Baseball has few peers.
Petty told PG there are 63 top prospects in the class of 2013 that signed national letters of intent in November after putting on a Canes Baseball uniform at least once in their careers. Quite a few of those 63 played primarily for other organizations in seasons past, but were with the Canes for at least one event.
EvoShield Canes Baseball started the 2012 summer season with three 17u teams, including the primary team, known simply as the EvoShield Canes. That squad included highly ranked and college-committed 2013s like left-hander/first baseman A.J. Puk from Cedar Rapids, Iowa (a Florida commit); right-handers Canaan Cropper from Salisbury, Md. (South Carolina); Connor Jones from Chesapeake, Va. (Virginia) and Alec Bettinger from Woodbridge, Va. (Virginia); and shortstop Jordan Gore from Conway, S.C. (South Carolina).
The other two 17u teams – EvoShield Canes North and EvoShield Canes South – each had 20-man rosters built with uncommitted players, according to Petty. He said that by the end of the 2012 fall season, all of those players had made commitments. He also said that his North and South squads were “very talented” and were known to rise up and beat the “committed” Canes team from time-to-time.
“That side of it was very refreshing and very rewarding, knowing that we’re helping all our kids get into school and we’re not just putting kids in uniform for the sake of putting them in uniform,” Petty said.
And there is no denying that the team he brought to Jupiter was built to win the championship. The 24-man roster consisted of 20 elite prospects from the class of 2013 and four more from the 2014 class. Twenty-three of them had already committed to D-I schools when the tournament began and 16 were ranked in the top-300 nationally in their respective classes.
The 2013s included Puk (ranked No. 20 at the time), Jones (No. 43), Cropper (No. 154), shortstop Connor Heady (No. 61), catcher Tyler Alamo (No. 71), and outfielders Jerret DeHart (No. 110) and Ryan Kirby (No. 124), to name but a few. The 2014s included 13th-ranked first baseman Justin Bellinger from Weston, Mass., No. 22 third baseman Charlie Cody from Chesapeake, Va., and No. 42 right-hander Derek Casey from Mechanicsville, Va.
Bellinger has committed to Vanderbilt, and Cody and Casey to their home-state school Virginia.
The Canes’ pitching at the WWBA World was exceptional. They earned the No. 1 seed by outscoring their four pool-play opponents by a combined 29-0, beat the Diamond Devils, 9-3, in the first round of the playoffs and then blanked the highly touted Cardinals Scout Team/FTB Chandler, 3-0, in the quarterfinals. They met their match in the semifinals, losing to Chet Lemon’s Juice and tournament Most Valuable Pitcher Tyler Danish, 3-1.
Petty used nine pitchers in seven games at the event, and they combined to throw 45 innings, giving up only four earned runs (0.62 ERA) on 26 hits while striking out 56 and walking 14. The righty Jones led the way, pitching 10 innings of no-run, no-walk, five-hit ball while striking out nine.
“When you can go down to Jupiter and not allow a run in pool-play, you’ve really got to pat your kids on the back,” Petty said. “Our pitchers stepped up, we made some great defensive plays and we played really good baseball at the right time. We just ran into Danish in the semifinal and he just pitched his tail off, and you just kind of have to tip your cap to him.”
If there was a downer during the 2012 season it came carrying a powerful punch at the inaugural 17u Perfect Game World Series, played the last week of July in the western Phoenix suburbs. The Canes were not only one of 16 elite 17u teams from across the country invited to the event, but with a roster that featured 23 D-I commitments, they were one of the decided favorites.
As it happened, the Canes lost their first two games at the tournament, finished pool-play 3-4 and were left out of the two-game playoffs’ final four. Despite the struggles, Petty viewed it as a positive experience and said he hopes the Canes continue to be invited to the exclusive event.
“We just thoroughly enjoyed that because it was a 16-team tournament and it was some of the best teams in the country,” he said. “It makes your kids elevate their game and that was definitely our goal.”
The most high-profile member of the Canes’ 2013s was Puk, a 2012 Perfect Game All-American. Puk was named to the all-tournament teams at every major tournament he attended with the Canes, including the PG WWBA World Championship, the 17u PG World Series (also named to the Louisville Slugger MLB Prime Nine honor squad), and the WWBA 2013 Grads or 17u National Championship.
He and the other 2013s are now preparing to move on to the next levels of their baseball careers. The immediate future of the EvoShield Canes’ “primary” team in the summer and fall of 2013 lies with the prospects in the 2014 and 2015 classes, and it’s a talent collection as good as any in the country.
“I really think it’s going to be the best team we’ve ever put on the field,” Petty said without hesitation. “We can run, we’ve got power in the middle of our lineup … and we’re going to be able to pitch. It’s the recipe for being able to win baseball games.”
It starts with that solid core of 2014s that gained valuable experience this past summer playing in many of Perfect Game’s most elite tournaments. And that group’s ring-leader is Bellinger, the highly ranked prospect from Weston, Mass.
Bellinger is a 6-foot-6, 234-pound left-handed swinging slugger who is ranked the country’s No. 13 overall prospect in his class – a 4.0 student who has committed to prestigious Vanderbilt University from the powerhouse Southeastern Conference.
Petty feels blessed he has been given the opportunity to coach one of the top 2014s in the country, a kid considered one of the best left-handed hitting prospects in a class that’s loaded with them.
“(Bellinger is) very regimented with what he does and he takes his business extremely serious,” Petty said. “Physically he has all the tools, and what an outstanding kid. I can’t express how awesome it is to be around that kid. He wants to win so badly and he demands that out of his teammates, and his teammates respect him. He’s just a great leader and he’s just very competitive.”
Bellinger joined Casey, Cody, and Jack Owens – an East Carolina recruit from Burke, Va. – as the only 2014s on the Canes’ roster in Jupiter. Those four were also on the EvoShield Canes’ team that went 9-1 with six shutouts and lost in the quarterfinal round of the WWBA 16u National Championship.
And, those same four guys played for the EvoShield Canes team that finished 6-1 at the WWBA 17u National Championship in Marietta. They were also on the EvoShield Canes Baseball squad that finished 3-2 at the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship in early October.
The EvoShield Canes Delmarva squad recorded a runner-up finish at the WWBA 15u National Championship. That team finished 10-2 at the event, led by 2014s Jeff Harding, Jr., a South Carolina commit from Cambridge, Md.; Robbie Metz, a George Washington recruit from Poolesville, Md.; and Hunter Taylor, another future Gamecock from Onley, Va.
Highly regarded 2015 prospect Jacob Bukauskas, a North Carolina recruit from Ashburn, Va., joined Harding, Jr., Metz and Taylor on the WWBA 16u National Championship team, giving those young prospects a combined 19-3 record in grueling tournament play at the WWBA 16u and 15u events.
The only PG championship a Canes team secured in 2012 came from its 14u team and it was a co-championship at that. The Canes 14u were forced to settle for sharing the title with the Dallas Patriots Stout at the 14u PG BCS Finals after torrential rain in downtown Fort Myers, Fla., forced the cancellation of the championship game at City of Palms Park with the Canes leading 2-0 in the fourth inning.
Canes right-hander Garrett Stallings (2016, Chesapeake, Va.) earned the Most Valuable Pitcher award at the event. Stallings pitched 6 1/3 innings and was the winning pitcher in both of his appearances, and allowed three hits and struck out seven while allowing no earned runs and no walks.