When a baseball team goes to a tournament and scores 40 runs while only giving up five, you’d expect them to win the tournament handily.
And when the Carrollwood Gators competed in the Perfect Game’s World Wood-Bat Association Labor Day Classic in Fort Myers, that’s exactly what happened.
The Gators’ 16U team — for athletes graduating high school in 2017 — went through the tournament with a perfect 6-0 record, claimed the title, and earned Most Valuable Player and Most Valuable Pitcher honors as well.
Performing well at a Perfect Game event is a big deal, according to Danny Rodriguez, general manager and founder of the Carrollwood Gators.
“It’s the organization to go to in order to get your boys seen on a college and a pro level,” he said.
In addition to the victory at the recent 16-team Perfect Game tournament, the Gators also finished in the top 16 of the organization’s 100-team Memorial Day tournament, and in the top eight of its 86-team Fourth of July tournament.
While the Gator athletes also play on their high school teams — several attend Steinbrenner High School, and most live in Lutz or Land O’ Lakes — the travel ball team offers them extra opportunities to get noticed by college scouts. The Perfect Game system is extremely competitive, Rodriguez said, and good performances in tournaments will get the club — and its players — noticed by colleges around the country.
The 16U team should have a national ranking after the victory; the general manager is hoping for a top 10 spot when they’re released in a couple of weeks.
That kind of recognition is essential for players looking to extend their careers beyond high school, Rodriguez said. In addition to playing in high school, a quality travel ball team experience is essential to helping athletes take that next step.
“It’s a must,” he said. “If they want to go to the next level, they need to go to the college showcases that they want to go to, and they need to be a part of something that’s going to get them seen, that’s going to be right there in front of the college coaches.”
Rodriguez tries to help get his athletes noticed by colleges, and said the tournament win will only increase the stature of the program. Athletes playing for the Carrollwood Gators have gone on to play in schools like Pasco-Hernando State College, the University of Florida, the University of South Florida, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Alabama State University. Some students attend on full scholarships as well.
While all the teams in the Perfect Game system are talented, the Gators do things differently. Instead of large-scale tryouts that draw athletes from different cities, or even states, and multiple teams representing each club, the team prefers to draw from local talent, mostly hand-selected athletes who play different positions.
That keeps the traveling team small: The Gators brought just 11 players to the recent tournament. And according to head coach Pete Mocny, there are significant benefits to their philosophy.
“They all know each other from previous travel teams,” Mocny said of the players. “The team chemistry is big in helping us do a little extra to beat the sometimes more-talented teams. We can still really compete, and many times beat them.”
C.J. VanEyk, a Steinbrenner student whose pitching was instrumental in the team’s only close game at the tournament, a 5-3 semifinal win, agrees.
“Everybody knows each other really well. We have good chemistry and everybody gets to play more with a smaller team,” he said. “We hit the ball really good, and we had the pitching to back it up. And when you do that, you can’t really be beat.”
Strong fundamentals were another reason why the Gators weren’t beaten at the tournament, Mocny said. The team committed no errors in the first five games, and shut out their opponent in the final by a score of 7-0. As a result, it was one of the best performances the coach has seen from the team.
“It’s easy to coach them,” Mocny said. “I’m proud of them. They did a great job out there.”
And Rodriguez believes the team that achieved so much is full of players who can achieve even more in college.
“Every single one has the talent,” he said. “If they play it right and they keep their grades (up), there’s a place in college for each one of those players.”
Published September 10, 2014
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