Tournaments : : Story
Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Florida Express on fast track

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- First and foremost, Primary 2014 right-handed pitcher and utility man Kyle Kemp and 2015 outfielder and left-hander Donovan Petrey are teammates; don't ever forget it. They're teammates at Port Charlotte (Fla.) High School in the spring and this summer they are teammates with the first-year Florida Express 17u squad.

The spring and early summer of 2014 will most likely be the last time the two friends are teammates on a baseball diamond, however. The state of Florida offers so many NCAA Division I options for the state's top prospects -- including several of the most elite collegiate programs in the country -- it can be very difficult to keep high school and travel ball compatriots together at the next level.

"I'm a lifetime Gators fan," said Kemp, a University of Florida commit from Port Charlotte. "There were a bunch of schools that offered at the same time and Florida was my number-one choice to begin with. That's where I've always wanted to go and I've dreamed of being a Gator since I was 3-years-old; that's pretty much it."

"It's been my dream school my whole life, so that played a big part in it," Petrey, a Florida State from Arcadia, Fla., said of his decision to become a Seminole. "I went up there for a camp and I had a really good camp ... and it was my dream school, is what it pretty much comes down to. I always wanted to go there and I took the opportunity (that was presented)."

Depending on how the dice roll in the 2014 MLB First-Year Player Draft, Kemp will be making his way toward Gainesville a year from now. Depending on how things play out in the 2015 MLB amateur draft, Petrey will be getting ready to settle into Tallahassee nearly a year later.

But on Tuesday morning at the 17u PG BCS Finals national championship tournament, Kemp and Petrey were teammates now and for the foreseeable future, and thinking only of capturing a championship for the Fort Myers-based Florida Express.

"We have a lot of fun together; we're all really good friends and we play good together and we just seem to have a lot of fun," Petrey said Tuesday morning from the former Boston Red Sox Player Development 5-Plex.

"We're very resilient and we don't give up," Kemp said Tuesday, also from the 5-Plex. "It's a great group of guys who all want to play baseball the right way, and we come out and play as a team and try to win every game we have -- whether it's pool-play, consolation game, playoff game or a championship game -- we all play at the same level."

Kemp, Petrey and right-hander Jordan Baker (2014, Sebring, Fla.) are the top prospects playing for Florida Express founder and head coach Dan Smith on this Express 17u team.

Kemp, a 6-foot-3, 200-pounder, is Perfect Game's 110th-ranked national prospect in the high school class of 2014; Petrey, a 5-foot-11, 160-pounder, is ranked 153rd nationally in the class of 2015; Baker, an impressive 6-3, 210, is ranked 189th nationally in his class. Both Kemp was Baker were at the Perfect Game National Showcase in Minneapolis in mid-June.

This is the Florida Express's inaugural season, and Smith originally wanted to launch with just one 17u and one 15u team but wound up forming an 18u team, as well. The 18u team advanced to the semifinal round of the 18u PG BCS Finals here a couple of weeks ago and this 17u team finished 2-2 at last week's 17u PG WWBA National Championship up in the Atlanta area.

Kemp, Petrey, right-hander Richard Moesker (2014, Miami) and right-hander Lane Bullock (2014, Naples, Fla.) were all named to the 17u PG WWBA National Championship All-Tournament Team.

"We only played four games because of the rain but those four games were really fun," Petrey said. "We played really good up there -- we pitched good, but we didn't really hit all that good -- but it seems like it's coming around this tournament."

Added Kemp: "We ran into a 95-plus arm and none of these guys have really seen a 95-plus arm before. We went out there and competed and we went out there and no-hit (one of the best teams) in the nation. There aren't as many teams here as up in Georgia ... but this is a good tournament and there are a lot of good teams here. We really want to come out win this thing."

The Express are thrilled to be here this weekend, playing on Southwest Florida's beautifully maintained MLB spring training fields while vying for a PG national championship.

"We just started up and were lucky enough to get into all these event with Perfect Game, and we've shown pretty well," Smith said in a separate telephone interview Tuesday evening. "The (17u PG WWBA National) was a tremendous experience; we actually kind of ran into a buzz-saw when we played Team Elite out of Georgia and they threw that Dillon Cease kid, and we no-hit them and lost, 3-1."

In fact, Express pitchers threw a pair of no-hitters in their first two games at the 17 PG WWBA. Right-handers Richard Moesker (2014, Miami) and Kyle Arjona (2015, Cape Coral) combined on a seven-inning, complete-game no-hitter, and allowed no earned runs and no walks with six strikeouts in a 5-2 win over the East Coast Prospects.

Baker and Kemp came back with another seven-inning no-no in the team's second game -- that 3-1 loss to Team Elite-Prime -- allowing just one earned run while striking out seven and walking four. Kemp worked the final five of those no-hit innings with four strikeouts and one walk.

"I expect a lot more of myself," Kemp said. "Velocity-wise it hasn't really (improved) but I've grown as pitcher with off-speed stuff -- throwing different stuff on different counts, being able to throw three or four pitches for strikes and becoming a complete pitcher and not just a kid that throws hard."

Smith has an impressive background in the game.  He played all or parts of nine seasons (2003-09) in the minor leagues with the Atlanta Braves organization and reached as high as the Triple-A level. He previously worked with another Southwest Florida travel ball organization before deciding to go out on his own this summer.

"I just started making calls and talking to some of the local high school coaches and we got some good insight on guys that really didn't have anywhere to play," Smith said. "We didn't have a workout for the 17-and-unders -- we do for the younger teams -- but basically just kind of hand-picked the 17s."

With the Express based in Fort Myers, most of these players come from Southwest Florida and were very familiar with one another before coming teammates. Four of the roster spots are filled with players from Port Charlotte High School -- including Kemp and Petrey -- and others attend schools like Riverdale in Lehigh Acres and Mariner HS and Cape Coral HS in Cape Coral.

The Express won two of its first three games at the 17u PG BCS Finals, including 3-0 wins over the New Jersey Jays and Orlando Scorpions 17u North in their first two games. Kemp was a combined 2-for-5 with a double, home run and three RBI in those two wins. They lost to the Excel Blue Wave, 8-7, in their third game Tuesday morning despite Kemp throwing two shutout innings of one-hit ball with five strikeouts and one walk.

"We're starting to swing the bat a little bit better than we had been doing and our defense has been really good; we had four inning-ending double-plays (Monday)," Petrey said. "There was a group of us that played together last summer and then a couple extras that came with us this summer, but we've really jelled together as a team and had a lot of fun."

The Florida Express are a team that capable of running the table in the second set of three pool-play games and make a strong run into the playoffs -- they were playing their second-set opener late Tuesday night. Even though this is a first-year group, with longtime teammates like Kemp and Petrey, they should never be counted out.

"We've been playing against each other and we've been real competitive against each other in high school," Kemp said of his Express teammates. "We've brought our competitiveness together for once and we've decided to start playing as a team and we're actually going out there and competing with good teams."

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