EMERSON, Ga. – Next Level Upperclass has been turning heads all week with their dominating performances in pool play, but they did it a different way during the WWBA 18u National Championship playoffs at Perfect Game Park South at LakePoint on Thursday.
The Tallahassee, Fla.-based club used late game heroics twice on Thursday in back-to-back games, including a walk-off win in the second game, a quarterfinal matchup with the Louisiana United.
Down 2-0 in the first game for just about the entire game to the East Cobb Yankees, Next Level capitalized on a few mistakes and miscues until University of Florida commit Blake Reese was able to line a Mitch Stallings fastball back up the middle to drive in two runs and give them a 3-2 headed into the seventh. The one run lead would be enough for Reeves Martin to hold onto and earn a complete game victory on the bump.
“Their guy was doing his thing and it’s tough when you’re the pitcher and you’re down 2-0,” said Next Level Upperclass head coach Zac Cole. “You just gotta try to put zeros up and then all of the sudden we were able to put up a couple of runs. He [Martin] did a fantastic job and I’m proud of him. As an organization, we’re proud of him and what he was able to do today for us.”
“It was a pitcher’s game and luckily I think our guy was just as good as their guy,” Reese said. “He kept us in the game the entire time and sooner or later we were gonna have to pick him up cause he was pitching his tail off.”
Martin gave up just four hits and one earned run over the seven-inning performance while collecting four strikeouts. The uncommitted class of 2015 right-hander sat 83-87 mph (miles per hour) with his fastball the entire game.
“I didn’t have all my best stuff,” said Reeves. “My defense made some amazing plays out there. The defense was absolutely fantastic behind me. I threw a lot of first-pitch strikes and that helped me to get ahead of some batters and work my stuff and get some groundouts and pop-ups. I wasn’t too dominant, but I got through the whole game.”
It was indeed a pitcher’s dual. Despite the loss, it’s hard to ignore the dominant performance of southpaw Duke University commit Mitch Stallings. The lefty gave up just two hits and a walk, while collecting an impressive 12 strikeouts. He sent down the first 11 batters he faced before surrendering his first base hit in the fourth with two outs.
“He was throwing great all game,” Reese said. “He kept us off-balance, throwing in and out and changing eye levels.”
Martin and Next Level Upperclass certainly had a lot to overcome with the dominance Stallings was showing over the Next Level offense for close to the entire game. Martin had to be nearly perfect to keep pace, and he just about was.
“He’s the kind of guy defenses love to play behind because he’s always got a tempo, he’s always got a rhythm,” said Reese. “You’re never gonna have long innings. He’s always gonna keep you in the game and pound the strike zone and he’s got good off-speed. He’s a small guy, but he’s got an electric arm.”
The second game was just like déjà vu two hours after the first game ended. Next Level Upperclass once again overcame a 2-0 deficit to win 3-2 and advance to the semifinals Friday morning. This time, it was pinch-hitter Tyler Morris who came through with a line drive single to center field to score the game-winning run from third and walk off winners behind a complete game from left-hander Rhett Aplin.
“One through nine in the lineup you could flip around and be just as good,” said Reese.
“We just play as a team and we feed off each other,” Reeves added. “We’re always right there. Every guy is rooting for the next guy.”
Cole would agree with that, and despite a outscoring its opponents 76-21 with nine straight wins, while posting a team batting average of .317 (69-for-218) and a combined earned run average (ERA) of 1.63 through 56 innings on the mound, he believe it’s the team dynamic that makes them better.
“I think the strength of this team is that these guys have played together for the last couple of years and the unity that we have as a group I think is our biggest strength,” said Cole. “We feel like we have a complete team. We came into this tournament thinking we had as good a team as anybody here. We felt like if we played the best that we could play that we’d be in this situation. We wanna have a good group of guys and I feel like we have that.”
According to the Next Level Baseball organization’s website, Next Level Baseball was created ten years ago by Doug Reynolds and Ryan Robinson (two Milwaukee Brewers scouts) and Titus Sports Academy CEO Adam Faurot.
“NLB is formatted to offer collegiate and professional experience to youth baseball players to help propel them to the NEXT LEVEL.”
“We feel like we can compete with anybody in the country and that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Cole. “We’re gonna just keep building this thing and we want to find elite players and give them a chance to play. I think we have relationships with some of these kids and we’ve started to have some success. These tournaments here are what’s gonna build us and allow us to keep attracting kids who want to play for us."
“I think when people see and get around the people that we have in our organization they wanna be around what we’re doing,” continued Cole. “We just try to keep doing the right things, doing the little things, and make sure people who play for us have a great experience.”
Reese surely feels that way about being a part of the up-and-coming organization located around the bend in north Florida. He’s a three-year veteran of Next Level Baseball.
“I can tell you I wouldn’t want to play anywhere else,” Reese said. “Next Level has definitely become a family to me and these coaches and trainers that we have are as good as they get in the country, I believe.”
Cole has similar praise for the University of Florida commit Reese.
“Blake Reese is a firecracker. He’s an energy guy,” said Cole. “He does a lot of things for us and he’s been with Next Level for a long time. He’s indispensable. He’s a guy that we have to have and we’re proud to have him be a part of our team.”
This Next Level Upperclass roster includes seven players ranked in Perfect Game’s Top 500, with Reese at No. 221. Reese Cooley is also listed on the roster, although he was not present for Thursday’s playoff games. Cooley was a part of the very exclusive Perfect Game All-American Classic played at PETCO Park in San Diego, Calif. last August and televised on MLB Network.
“I think this group right here is gonna be the group that everybody looks at and makes the name for Next Level,” Cole said. “There group right here is a special group and we’re excited about this group.”
That’s a bold statement from an organization whose alumni include Kansas City Royals star Lorenzo Cain and Florida State University standout and recent MLB Draft selection Luke Weaver.
“It’s been one of the best team I’ve ever played on, hands down,” said Reeves. “Between the talent and the coaches and the leadership from the guys on the field, it’s just awesome. I’ve loved every minute of it.”
This roster consists of four players who win play ball at junior colleges and six who have committed to Division I programs. In just a matter of months those players will begin baseball at the next level, and they have been set up for success early on.
“When they step onto campus, we want them to be able to contribute as freshman and playing the level of competition they play in the summer in these Perfect Game tournaments is gonna prepare them to do that,” said Cole.
In the meantime, Next Level Baseball will look to their next big game Friday morning when they take on the tournament’s top-seeded team in Knights Baseball 18u national. If they win that semifinal matchup and move on to the championship game, they will face either the Georgia Roadrunners or Team Elite Prime for the WWBA 18u National Championship title.