FORT MYERS, Fla. – At least eight of the class of 2014 and 2015 prospects playing for Midwest Elite Baseball at this week’s 18u Perfect Game BCS Finals national championship know all about how a team can get hot and get on a roll at the most opportune time.
Those players hopped on and rode a magical wave to a Perfect Game national tournament co-championship about this time a year ago. And now, after an unexpected setback Monday morning, they’re going to have to hope they can catch that same sort of wave again later in the week.
Midwest Elite Baseball, a veteran squad with its home-base in Bloomfield, Mich., arrived at this year’s 18u PG BCS Finals hoping to build on the championship it shared with the mighty East Cobb Astros 16u at the 2013 17u PG BCS Finals.
“We were excited about how we did last year, and we were excited to play in a Perfect Game national (championship) tournament,” Midwest Elite head coach Brian Kalczynski said Monday morning from the JetBlue Park Player Development Complex where his team was set to play Nelson Baseball School in their second pool-play game of the tournament.
“A lot of the tournaments we play in are basically Indiana-Michigan-Ohio type of things, or at least more Midwest,” he added. “We come down here because we want to compete against the best teams that we can, so that’s why we’re here again and hopefully we can do well.”
The mood in the dugout was decidedly loose as the squad from one of the Great Lakes states in the Upper Midwest prepared to tangle with a team – Nelson’s – out of the baseball hotbed of Acworth, Ga.
On Monday, the Elite Baseball players were up early and at one set of batting cages at JetBlue by 6:50 a.m. so they wouldn’t get shut out of some extra BP. They were here before any other team; they all got their swings in and were ready for that first pitch at 8 a.m.
Among the early risers was Sammy Stevens, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound left-handed swinging catcher from Birmingham, Mich., who just graduated from Brother Rice High School as his class Valedictorian (4.37 GPA); he is headed to Georgetown University in Washington D.C. in the fall.
“This is our fourth Perfect Game tournament together since we’re a relatively new team, and this is great; this is the best competition we’ll see all year,” Stevens said Monday. “We played East Cobb in the finals last year and a Puerto Rican team in semis, so for us being from Michigan we can play teams from California, New York, Florida – it’s a good experience.”
Stevens is one of the eight players on this 18u roster that were on the 17u roster a year ago. Among the others are 2014 outfielder/left-hander Tanner Allison (a Western Michigan recruit); 2014 right-hander Antonio Jacobs (Grambling State); 2014 middle-infielder Freddy Jehle (Sienna); 2014 third baseman/outfielder Ryan Mergener (Wayne State) and 2014 right-hander Jonathan Hentschel (Olivet Nazarene).
Stevens, Jacobs, Jehle and Hentschel were named to the 2013 17u PG BCS Finals all-tournament team. This year’s roster also includes 2014 right-hander Nathan Witt (Michigan State), 2015 left-hander/outfielder Colin Goslin (Michigan State), 2015 left-hander Tyler Schmidt (Ball State) and 2016 right-hander/third baseman Karl Kauffmann, a Michigan commit ranked 111th nationally in his class.
That tournament of a year ago was equal parts grueling, frustrating and exciting. It rained in Southwest Florida the entire week, causing havoc with the schedule as PG officials worked tirelessly to get all the games in.
Midwest Elite Baseball came into the final day having to play its round-of-16 playoff game first thing in the morning, and a victory in that game was the first of two more that ultimately landed them in the championship game – their fourth of the day.
The championship game was played on one of the unlighted backfields at the JetBlue Complex. Rain and lightning delayed the game for more than an hour in the sixth inning with the Astros leading 5-3 and when play resumed in the seventh, Midwest Elite tied the game at 5 apiece. Two more innings were played before the game was called for darkness, ending it in a 5-5 tie; co-champions.
“We played four games that last day and we really got on a roll,” Stevens said. “We got a lot of good pitching performances out of a lot of guys and we swung the bats well all day. When you play those four games you get this kind of mentality where you just keep going and going and going and going, and all of a sudden we put together 12 hours of good baseball. … It just shows what getting on a roll like that can do.”
Kalczynski acknowledges that his team came in under the radar last year with a roster of only 14 players and no primary pitchers, just a bunch of two-way guys. “When a Michigan team comes down to Florida, I don’t know what people think of us – we probably don’t scare too many people initially,” he said.
Midwest Elite blitzed Team Tampa Bay, 13-0, in its tournament-opener Sunday but got knocked for a loop by the Nelson Baseball School, 11-4, on Monday. The loss doesn’t sound a death knell for Elite’s playoff chances as it needs to win only its final three pool-play games to earn an automatic berth.
“I think this is a gritty team,” Midwest Elite’s Ryan Mergener said. “We play hard, we can scratch out wins when we have to and we’re always in the game, always playing hard. We have good communication and we get along well, and we know each other pretty well.
“And his is our favorite tournament,” he continued. “From the fields and complexes where we play to the teams that we play to just being in Florida, it’s the most fun week of baseball that you could ask for.”
Elite Baseball played in three regional tournaments before coming to the 18u PG BCS Finals and won the championship at two of them. They brought a 15-game winning streak into Monday morning’s game and were feeling pretty good about things.
“The thing that I like about our team is that they really love to play,” Kalczynski said. “This is the highlight of their season is to come down here and play in a Perfect Game (tournament) and play against good competition.”
“I like seeing the different teams and seeing the best players around with guys that have committed to Florida, Florida State, Georgia Tech and all the big schools, it’s fun playing the guys going to big-name schools,” Mergener added. “But we’re going to go as far as we can and we hope that we’re playing all the way to the end of Friday.”
The players on the roster all call Michigan home but they come from all over the state; only a handful attended the same high school. They all have the same strong values and sense of commitment, and Kalczynski said he has very few rules in place when the team is on the road.
“I tell them, ‘Hey, we’re playing tomorrow at 8 o’clock and you guys know what you need to do to be ready,” he said. “I could be naïve, but I think for the most part they do a good job of that, and between what they’re going to do off the field and with their baseball talent on the field, I feel like they’re all similar in that respect.
“What I’ve tried to do is compile a team of guys that I like to be around,” he added with a laugh, “that’s the biggest thing to me.”
Midwest Elite Baseball has what Kalczynski describes as an “incredible” sponsor (who wishes to remain anonymous) that takes care of all the team’s expenses in terms of travel, lodging, meals, uniforms and equipment. It’s an investment that adds up to tens of thousands of dollars and provides what Kalczynski said is a “once in a lifetime experience.” They’ll do anything to try to not let their sponsor down.
The loss Monday morning will not dampen the Midwest Elite’s players’ enthusiasm for being here this week. And as so many of them know, anybody can catch that magical wave at the most opportune time.
“I think our kids play good baseball, and we’re excited to be here again, and hopefully playing into Thursday and Friday,” Kalczynski concluded. “I think that’s kind of the goal all the time is to get into the (playoffs) and then anything can happen. You can have the best team and get beat in the first game or you can get on a roll and hit and all of a sudden you’re in the championship game.”
It’s happened before.