High-SchoolBaseball: USA Baseball

Winker and Weickel talk Team USA

February, 28, 2012
2/28/12
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video This article appears in the March issue of ESPNHS magazine

Walker Weickel and Jesse Winker have been teammates on the Olympia (Orlando, Fla.) varsity baseball team for the past four years. This fall, they teamed up for the gold-medal-winning 18U National Team at the Pan Am Championships in Colombia. And as you can tell from this conversation, it was clearly the experience of a lifetime.

Winker: Wearing USA on your chest, that’s a huge deal. It gives you goose bumps every time you see it. Winning gold, bringing it home, that was awesome.

Weickel: Once I was able to hear my name called and Jesse’s name called, and we were able to put the colors on together, it was really just kind of a surreal feeling.

Winker: Two guys from the same school? That’s awesome. It was a true honor, and I’m glad we both got to do it.

Weickel: Going down to a foreign country like Colombia and being put in that environment of poverty and struggle and dealing with that off the field, it really gave you a sense of appreciation for what you play for here. Down there, when you’re from the USA, you’re kind of looked at like an outsider. We played Colombia. We played Venezuela. It’s a lot more boos and a lot more negative cheering in the crowd. At the same time, it kind of empowers you and gives you that sense of accomplishment — not just as a baseball player, but as an American.

Winker: It really was us 20 and our parents against Colombia. There were other countries there and every game everyone wants to beat you. That bus ride home after we won gold: There’s not a greater feeling.

Weickel: The coolest feeling of the entire trip for me was after the championship game standing on the podium. We all had our medals on and there were probably 15 or 20 thousand fans in the stadium for the ceremony. They started playing the national anthem, and the only people who could sing along were the 20 players and our families.

Winker: And the dog pile was awesome. We won on a walkoff hit, so we all came flying out of the dugout. And I’ll never forget it because I jumped on and I rolled off immediately, and I look over and I see Walker and he has the flag and he’s just running for the pile. He jumped so high; I’ll never forget that.

Weickel: After the game-winning hit, everybody just took off running. I stayed back for a second and undid the flag and made sure I was the last guy out on the field, carrying the flag. I was kind of the cherry on top of the dog pile.

Team USA reflects on winning gold

December, 6, 2011
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USA Baseball 18U National TeamCourtesy of El UniversalThe USA Baseball 18U National Team outscored its nine opponents 88-8 en route to a gold medal at the Pan American Championships.
Gavin Cecchini didn’t mind the elbow to the face or three 180-pounders on his back. Carson Kelly wasn’t afraid of the bodies colliding on top of him or the headlocks that followed.

The USA Baseball 18U National Team teammates will never forget this dog pile.

“When I look back 10 years from now I will remember the dog pile more than anything,” said Cecchini, a senior at Barbe (Lake Charles, La.). “It was the best feeling. There is nothing like winning a gold medal.”

The 20-plus person tower in the infield featured some of the best prep baseball players in the United States, and it capped a week where Team USA dominated the field at the COPABE 18U/AAA Pan American Championships in Cartagena, Colombia.

The exclamation point was a 12-2 win over Canada in the gold-medal game last week to complete a perfect 9-0 record in the tournament that featured teams from all over the world.

“It doesn’t get any better than this,” said Kelly, a senior at Westview (Portland, Ore.). “Every moment was incredible. It will be something I talk about for the rest of my life. I will remember it all.”

It won’t be hard to forget for the players and coaches who wore red, white and blue. Just check the box scores.

The American’s outscored their opponents 88-8, beating four of them by way of the mercy rule. On offense they combined to hit .353, and the pitching staff finished with a 1.00 ERA.

Between the chalk, they stole 45 bases, while defensively they only committed two errors.

“We absolutely demolished teams down there,” said Cecchini, an Ole Miss signee. “To tell you the truth, I thought the games would be much closer. But our hitters were awesome and our pitchers were unbelievable.”

Kelly was one of those pitchers. The Oregon signee earned the win on the mound in the gold-medal game and also had the ball when USA beat host country Colombia in front of a national TV audience and a sold out stadium of more than 13,0000 fans.

“It was a blessing for me and very exciting for me to get to pitch in those two games,” he said. “It’s not very often you get to represent your country. So I wanted to make sure we came out on top.”

Offensively, the Americans were paced by Mater Academy (Hialeah Gardens, Fla.) senior outfielder Albert Almora, who was named the tournament’s MVP. The Miami recruit and Team USA veteran hit .421 and led the team in extra-base hits (6) and RBI (11).

Cecchini was named to the all-tournament team along with Olympia (Orlando, Fla.) senior pitcher Jesse Winker, Albuquerque Academy (Albuquerque, N.M.) third baseman Alex Bregman and Pace (Pace, Fla.) senior shortstop Addison Russell.

“Everyone on are team was not good — they were great,” Kelly said. “I said to myself, ‘Wow, these guys know how to play baseball.’”

Team USA manager and three-time World Series champion Scott Brosius said he was impressed with the focus and talent level of his team, which consisted of many projected first-round MLB draft picks.

“It was definitely exciting to watch this group,” he said. “We hadn’t played a lot together, so we had a few question marks heading in. So to come in and win gold in a dominating fashion felt real rewarding.”

Away from the diamond, Team USA didn’t have it as easy. Cecchini said fans “were brutal” and felt that “everyone was against us and tried to throw us off our game.” When Team USA arrived in Colombia, they were given a different schedule that included an 8 a.m. game 12 hours after arriving in South America.

“That was just the first of many curveballs we were thrown,” Brosius said. “But we prepared to expect the unexpected, so we just rolled with what was thrown at us.”

The Americans were the only team who did not have a day off, Cecchini said. Plus, Team USA had to play four morning games in a row, where in some cases they were waking up at 6 a.m. to make hour-long bus trips.

“They tried everything to take us away from our game,” Cecchini said. “Cold showers, wet clothes, dirty water. They tried to mess with Team USA. We got the last laugh.”

And a memorable dog pile.

Team USA wins Pan Am Championship

November, 30, 2011
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Pace (Pace, Fla.) senior infielder Addison Russell blasted a grand slam as the USA Baseball 18U National Team exploded for seven first-inning runs en route to a 12-2 win over Canada on Sunday in the championship game of the COPABE 18U/AAA Pan American Championships in Cartagena, Colombia.

Westview (Portland, Ore.) senior right-hander Carson Kelly tossed six innings of four-hit ball and fanned five to earn the win, his second of the tournament.

Meanwhile, Mater Academy (Hialeah Gardens, Fla.) senior outfielder Albert Almora was named tournament MVP after batting .421 with 11 RBI in nine games, all of which Team USA won.

Team USA travels to Colombia

November, 14, 2011
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Joey Gallo, Cincinnati Reds, Area Code Baseball, Area Code GamesScott Kurtz/ESPNHSJoey Gallo is on the 18U Team USA squad that will head to Colombia.

Outfielder Albert Almora has heard his share of heckling during his time with USA baseball.

Pick a language and chances are the Mater (Hialeah, Fla.) senior has heard it screamed from the stands during his six years associated with the national team.

English. Check.

Spanish. Check.

French. Check.

Taiwanese? Yep.

“You can go down the list,” said Almora, who has been to five different countries in a USA jersey. “Everyone goes after us. We are considered the bad ones. In baseball, everyone wants to beat us.”

Almora does not expect that to change when he and the USA 18U National Team travel to Colombia this week to play in the COPABE AAA/18U Pan American Championships.

“We are the ones with the target on our back all the time,” pitcher Carson Kelly said. “But I’d rather have the target than be the one chasing the target.”

Holding the bow and arrow will be teams from Puerto Rico, Argentina, Aruba, Guatemala, Mexico and Colombia during an 11-day tournament in the beach resort town of Cartagena.

The Americans, who are the two-time defending gold medalists at the 18U Pan Am Games, will feature a roster full of future first-round MLB draft choices and Division-1 college stars.

“This has to be the best team I have played for,” outfielder Jesse Winker said. “When you look at our outfield, our infield and our pitching staff -- it’s all top tier. We are meshing very well. No conflicts. No flaws. We have everything good.”

Including experienced leadership on the dugout steps.

Enter former Major League Baseball player Scott Brosius who will manage the team this year, his first with USA baseball.

Brosius is no stranger to big-time atmospheres. He has played in multiple World Series games and has stepped into many tough, hostile environments during his time with the love-hate New York Yankees.

“As a player I got to play in the World Series and some other really big games with big atmospheres,” he said. “But (managing Team USA) will be a highlight for me. This is an achievement I will look back on and be really excited about. I am excited for the players more because this is a wonderful opportunity.”

The trip overseas, from a baseball standpoint, will be new to Brosius, who never played international baseball at any level during his playing days.

“Like many of these players I will have to adapt to the environment also,” he said. “It will be a learning, new experience for a lot of us.”

But for players like Almora, it will be just another colorful stamp in his passport. His veteran experience of playing baseball in different countries will be valuable for Team USA when they step on South American soil.

“A lot of guys have asked me about the environment and what to expect,” he said. “I just tell them it’s just like any other baseball game. It’s the same rules.”

His best slice of advice?

“Just don’t listen to the fans,” he said. “The fans all day and all night will try and get in your ear and throw you off. Even Canada, our sister country, roots against us. Just don’t listen.”

Winker, a senior who stars at Olympia (Windermere, Fla.), will be making his first international appearance with cleats on.

But the University of Florida commit is not worried about fan heckling.

“I just don’t let myself listen to the crowd,” he said. “At the end of the day you have to realize it’s just a ball coming out of hand that you need to hit and a ball in the air that you need to catch.”

Adapting to the fans isn’t the only issue when playing internationally. Players still have to eat.

Kelly, a senior at Westview (Portland, Ore.), was one of the members on last season’s 18U national team to travel to Mexico. He remembers his food options vividly.

“Man, it was tough,” he said with a laugh. “It seemed like we ate bread for breakfast, bread for lunch and bread for dinner. The food just didn’t look good. I think I even had cereal for dinner a few times.”

When told of a Colombian famous dish called La Lechona, a roasted whole pig stuffed with vegetables, Kelly laughed and was quick to answer.

“Wow,” he said. “I have to try that. Well, maybe I will try that.”

But cleaning off a plate of traditional Colombian cuisine is not what is on Kelly or the rest of the team’s minds.

The plan is finishing the tournament with a clean, perfect record capped off with the sweet taste of a gold medal.

“We aren’t thinking about the food or anything like that,” Winker said. “I know I’m looking forward to one thing.”

Is it the beautiful beaches?

“It’s the dog pile I jump onto when we win gold,” he said. “That’s our mission. That’s our vision.”

SCHEDULE

Nov. 18 vs. Puerto Rico
Nov. 19 vs. Argentina
Nov. 20 vs. Aruba
Nov. 21 vs. Guatemala
Nov. 22 vs. Mexico
Nov. 23 vs. Colombia
Nov. 25-27: Second round/crossover games

ROSTER

Player, Position, Hometown
Albert Almora, OF, Hialeah, Fla.
Alex Bregman, IF, Albuquerque, N.M.
Gavin Cecchini, IF, Lake Charles, La.
Troy Conyers, LHP, Lakeside, Calif.
David Dahl, OF, Birmingham Ala.
Chase DeJong, RHP, Long Beach, Calif.
Carson Fulmer, RHP, Lakeland, Fla.
Joey Gallo, IF/RHP, Las Vegas, Nev.
Cole Irvin, LHP, Anaheim, Calif.
Carson Kelly, IF/RHP, Portland, Ore.
Jeremy Martinez, C, Fountain Valley, Calif.
Chris Okey, C, Mt. Dora, Fla.
Nick Travieso, RHP, Pembroke Pines, Fla.
Nelson Rodriguez, C, New York, N.Y
Addison Russell, IF, Pace, Fla.
Clate Schmidt, RHP, Acworth, Ga.
Hunter Virant, LHP, Camarillo, Calif.
Walker Weickel, RHP, Orlando, Fla.
Mikey White, IF, Hoover, Ala.
Jesse Winker, OF, Windermere, Fla.

More girls playing high school baseball

October, 17, 2011
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Marti SementelliUSA BaseballTeam USA pitcher Marti Sementelli made headlines last year when she was a part of the first-ever high school baseball game that featured two female starting pitchers.

California teen Marti Sementelli thought she was walking into a scene of a new movie on that 2008 summer day.

But the lights weren’t for cameras and the 100 or so girls were not actresses.

“They were all just like me,” Sementelli said. “I was like, ‘Woah!’ I was shell-shocked because I had so much in common with them.”

It wasn’t just because they all had ponytails draped outside of their hats.

They were all baseball players competing for a roster spot on the USA Baseball women's national team.

“I didn’t even know there were others girls who played baseball,” said Sementelli, who has made the USA roster for the last three summers. “I really thought I was dreaming. It didn’t look real.”

Yes, girls play baseball, even at the high school level.

According to the National Federation of High School Sports Participation Survey, 698 girls played high school baseball in the USA last season.

One of them was Sementelli, a pitcher for Birmingham (Lake Balboa, Calif.) High School who made headlines last year when she was a part of the first high school baseball game that featured two female starting pitchers.

“I’m not a softball player or a volleyball player,” the 2011 graduate said. “I am a baseball player.”

GOING LOCAL

Sandy Almon remembers one of the first times she toed the rubber in a high school baseball game. It’s a story she loves to revisit and tell.

“When I got to the mound guys on the other team laughed at me and taunted me about my appearance,” she said. “First guy came up and I struck him out on three pitches. Next guy? Infield fly out. Third guy? Ground out. It was an eye-opener for them.”

And a teeth-shower for her. She ended up pitching six scoreless innings that day.

“I smiled big,” said the 2011 graduate of Mt. Pisgah (Ga.). “I love it when people tell me I can’t do something when I know I can.”

Like Sementelli, Almon played for the USA national team last season and expects to be on the team next summer.

And like Sementelli, Almon often hears the repetitive question from peers: Why baseball and not softball like all the other girls?

“Softball isn’t baseball and I like playing baseball,” Almon said. “It just didn’t make sense to just stop playing baseball because I was a girl. So what’s the big deal?”

Almon is a big deal. She reportedly has been clocked at 86 mph on the radar gun and currently plays for the Chicago Pioneers, a women’s baseball traveling team.

During her senior year she struck out nine batters in her first six innings of work.

“I don’t look at it like everyone else sees it,” she said. “Yes you see me as a girl playing baseball. But I see me as a baseball player part of a baseball team. I run as hard as everyone. I throw as hard. I work as hard.”

Sementelli agrees.

Playing baseball has been the norm for her since her dad starting teaching her the game. She played on boys teams all through Little League and eventually landed a spot on a high school squad after searching for schools which would allow a girl to try out for the team.

“As I got older people said I needed to go to softball because baseball was moving to a bigger field and I wouldn’t be able to do it,” she said. “Well. I never thought about switching. And I never will.”

She shined as a relief pitcher and also started some games at second base.

“People tell me I make a difference out there for other girls,” she said. “But I am really just trying to be like any pitcher – which is to get the next guy out. Only difference is I prove a girl can do it.”

GOING NATIONAL

Most players on the USA women’s national team are closer to the age of 25 than 20.

But Sementelli and Almon are proof high school teens are getting better at the sport. They are two of seven girls born after 1991 who made last year’s squad, marking it one of the youngest squad in the team’s seven–year history.

“I was really young when I first played in 2008,” Sementelli said. “I am still really young now and I am considered one of the veterans. But it appears more younger players are starting to make the squad.”

Enter Wynne McCann.

Last year the Boyertown (Penn.) teen became the youngest to play for the squad when she sported the red, white and blue at 16 years old.

“It was definitely scary being the youngest out there,” she said. “I never thought I would make the team because there is so much talent out there. But they gave me a shot. I took it.”

When Almon got her shot, she also took it.

But it didn’t come easy to her at first.

“I am used to playing with all guys so it was a little weird,” she said. “But it was great looking around and seeing all the talent. Everyone was so fundamental. I am sure we can beat a lot of men’s teams.”

The team won bronze medals at the World Cup in 2008 and 2010 and expects a strong showing at next year’s Cup in Canada.

“It’s truly amazing to play for your country,” Sementelli said. “It’s the best feeling.”

Her favorite part is learning from the veteran players and hearing stories about baseball.

“It’s just great to sit there and talk baseball with people who went through the same experiences as you,” she said. “It’s normal when we are together. No one is whispering about a girl playing baseball.”

EXTRA INNINGS

Sementelli, Almon and McCann are not finished making names for themselves on the diamonds across the country.

After her senior season this year McCann plans on playing college softball but will continue her baseball career with the national team.

Sementelli recently accepted a partial scholarship to play baseball at Montreat College in the mountains of North Carolina, and Almon expects to begin her college career next year. She also has bigger dreams.

“I am pushing for the majors like I always have,” she said. “It’s been my dream, and it will continue to be my dream. I’ll make it, and when people say I throw like a girl, I’ll say, ‘Yes. Yes I do.’”

Team USA 18U announced

September, 19, 2011
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The final roster is set for Team USA 18U and they will travel to Colombia to play in the 2011 COPABE ‘AAA’/18U Junior Pan American Championships, Nov. 17-27. This was the same tournament that was to be held in September, but was changed due to a natural disaster in the region.

A majority of the players come from two states: Florida and California and the team will be coached by former MLB player Scott Brosius.

Here is the 2011 roster:

Albert Almora, OF, Hialeah, Fla.
Alex Bregman, IF, Albuquerque, N.M.
Gavin Cecchini, IF, Lake Charles, La.
Troy Conyers, LHP, Lakeside, Calif.
David Dahl, OF, Birmingham Ala.
Chase DeJong, RHP, Long Beach, Calif.
Carson Fulmer, RHP, Lakeland, Fla.
Joey Gallo, IF/RHP, Las Vegas, Nev.
Cole Irvin, LHP, Anaheim, Calif.
Carson Kelly, IF/RHP, Portland, Ore.
Jeremy Martinez, C, Fountain Valley, Calif.
Chris Okey, C, Mt. Dora, Fla.
Cody Poteet, RHP, Bonita, Calif.
Nelson Rodriguez, C, New York, N.Y
Addison Russell, IF, Pace, Fla.
Clate Schmidt, RHP, Acworth, Ga.
Hunter Virant, LHP, Camarillo, Calif.
Walker Weickel, RHP, Orlando, Fla.
Mikey White, IF, Hoover, Ala.
Jesse Winker, OF, Windermere, Fla.

Eight players named to 2012 18U Trials

September, 17, 2011
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USA Baseball annouced eight players to the 2012 18U National Team Trials next year. The players were selected based on performances at the National Team Identification Series in North Carolina.

Here are the eight players:

Cole Billingsley, OF/LHP, Cropwell, Ala., Mid-Atlantic
Ben Eckels, RHP, Davis, Calif., Northern California
Chris Flexen, RHP, Newark, Calif., Northern California
John Kilichowski, LHP, Tampa, Fla., USA Stars
Kieran Lovegrove, RHP, Mission Viejo, Calif., Southern California
Russell Reynolds, RHP, Baton Rouge, La., South Texas
Drew Ward, IF/OF, Leedey, Okla., Midwest
Connor Williams, OF/RHP, South Jordan, Utah, Mountain West

Four of these players played in the 2011 Area Code Baseball Games as underclassmen: Drew Ward (White Sox), Ben Eckels (Athletics), Connor Williams (Reds) and Kieran Lovegrove (Brewers).

Pitching to highlight USA trials

September, 1, 2011
9/01/11
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Joey Gallo, Area Code Baseball, Cincinnati RedsScott Kurtz/ESPNHSJoey Gallo played for the Cincinnati Reds Area Code Team in 2011. He is looking to be on the final Team USA 18U roster.

Starting on September 12, Team USA will host the second set of trials at the National Training Complex in Cary, N.C. This will be the final tryout where the roster will be trimmed from 28 players to 20, before the team heads to Colombia for the COPABE Pan American AAA/18U Championships. Team USA is the defending champion in this event when they defeated Cuba back in 2009.

There is a major change to the event this year. It was supposed be held at the end of September, but due to a natural disaster in Colombia this August, the dates have changed to November. This could significantly change the way the roster looks especially since the tournament is at an odd time. The biggest factor is missing school and players who play another sport.

With that said let’s take a look at some of the standout players from the 28-man roster. Later we will look at some of the position players.

The strength should be the pitching. Seven of the arms hail from California and these guys are all known nationally (we are going to see some high strikeout totals in California next Spring).

Lucas Giolito; Harvard-Westlake; North Hollywood, Calif.
Gioltio is a nationally known pitcher and may be the top arm of the Class of 2012. He has a mid-90s fastball and has been clocked up to 98mph. He pitched in both the Area Code Games (Brewers) and the Perfect Game All-American this summer and threw the ball well at both events. At the Area Code Games he was rated as the No. 1 pitcher overall for the event.

Max Fried; Harvard-Westlake; North Hollywood, Calif.
It was an interesting summer for Fried and that’s because his previous high school, Montclair Prep (Van Nuys, Calif.) suddenly dropped the athletic program. Fried was a free agent and decided upon Harvard-Westlake for the academics and athletics the school offers. He throws in the mid-90s and does it from the left side. When he teams up with Giolito in 2012 the Wolverines may win a couple of games.

Hunter Virant; Camarillo; Camarillo, Calif.
We first saw the lefty pitch at the Area Code tryouts in Santa Barbara and if he wasn’t dominate then he was close to it. The rumor floating around the tryout was that he just learned to pitch within the year. He plays in the outfield for Camarillo. If that’s the case then the sky is the limit with him on the mound. He had natural movement on his fastball and his off-speed pitches were just plain nasty.

Joey Gallo; Bishop Gorman; Las Vegas, Nev.
Gallo plays for a school that has won six straight state titles in baseball, which is a story for another time. He is an infielder/pitcher and stands in at 6-foot-5, 205 pounds. When we saw him this summer in Long Beach he pitched and played first base. He struggled at the plate in the Area Code Games (if you go by stats), but showed he could handle the bat. In 2010 he reportedly hit 25 homers and on the mound is the low to mid-90s.

Ty Hensley; Santa Fe; Edmond, Okla.
Hensley pitched for the Chicago White Sox in the Area Code Games in August and also pitched in the Under Armour All-American Game at Wrigley Field. He is a big physical player, standing in at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds. He has a fastball that gets up to 94, as we saw in Long Beach this August. He is another example of a big physical pitcher from Oklahoma. Hensley was named to the ESPNHS First Team Underclass All-American Team.

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