Thursday, July 12, 2018

Diamond Elite a 17u BCS gem


Photo: Nate Savino (Perfect Game)

FORT MYERS, Fla. – It can often times be easy to dismiss comments made by coaches and players from any number of well-respected travel ball programs as tried-and-true, but somewhat worn-out clichés. That is not a criticism at all, it’s just that sometimes the words begin to seem repetitive and practiced even if they aren’t lacking in sincerity.

But, for whatever reason, that just wasn’t the case when Diamond Elite 2019 top shortstop prospect Carson Swank was asked what he and his teammates’ expectations were coming into this week’s Perfect Game 17u BCS National Championship.

His answer had been repeated hundreds of times before at hundreds of different venues by hundreds of different standout prospects with nothing but the most noble of intentions, but Swank’s response just seemed more genuine and unrehearsed; maybe it was nothing more than the tone of his voice.

“We all have that winning expectation, of course,” he told PG Thursday morning, speaking from Fenway South, better known as the jetBlue Park Player Development Complex. “We’ve just got to come out here and work our hardest and try our best and hope for the best outcome.”

And so it goes for the Ashburn, Va.-based Diamond Elite 2019s, a team that won a pair of pool championships in the first four days of the 17u BCS National after finishing 2-0-1 in the first set of three pool-play games and 3-0-0 in the second set; they “got past” their six opponents by a combined count of 45-5.

“This group has been together now for about three years and they love the game,” DE 2019 head coach Sam Plank told PG on Thursday. “They play great defense … and we pitch and catch and, every once in a while, we’ll get hot with the bats.”

Averaging nearly eight runs at a game at PG national championship event isn’t exactly “every once in a while” in regard to generating offense, but by choosing those words Plank only further expressed the humble vibes that emanate from this team. Four days into this six-day PG national championship, Diamond Elite had proven it might speak softly but it can carry a big stick.

Plank, the Director of Baseball Operations at Diamond Elite since 2008, is a long-time high school coach in the area, with tenures at Stone Bridge (2001-15) and Riverside (2016-present), both in Ashburn; he also played college baseball at the University of West Virginia.

The Diamond Elite Baseball travel ball organization and training facility in Ashburn, Va., is owned and operated by Ken Bukauskas, who is also the father of PG alumnus Jacob Bukauskas. Jacob was as first-round pick of the Houston Astros out of the U. of North Carolina in 2017 and played high school baseball for Plank at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn.

The DE program fields one team per age-level from 13u through 18u, and all of the prospects on this DE 2019 roster are from cities and attend high schools in the north Virginia area west of Washington D.C. There 12 2019s filling spots with a couple of highly touted 2020s in the left-hander Nate Savino and right-hander/utility Joe Vogatsky also on board.

“There is good leadership here, and all of my guys are really good students and they’re all very respectful,” Plank said. “Having that leadership (from the 2019s), they just grabbed Nate and Joe by the ears and said, ‘Let’s go.’”

Savino is a 6-foot-3, 195-pound two-way talent from Sterling, Va., who has committed to the University of Virginia; PG ranks him as the No. 22 overall prospect in the national class of 2020. He was named to the Top Prospect List at the PG Junior National Showcase held early last month at PG Park South-LakePoint in Emerson, Ga.

Catcher/utility John Barrie (Marymount U.), right-hander Hunter Entsminger (James Madison) and the shortstop Swank (Yale) are the 2019s who have already made their college commitments.

Heading into Thursday morning’s pool-play finale, 2019s Nick Connolly, Reese Goodlin and Josh Harbinson had all been swinging the bat very well; Entsminger and Vogatsky had combined to throw 13 shutout innings, allowing just five hits while striking out 18.

Savino did Entsminger and Vogatsky proud in Diamond Elite 2019’s 6-1 victory over the Banditos Florida Prospects 17u Thursday morning. He needed only 85 pitches to throw a seven-inning complete-game six-hitter, allowing only one earned run while striking out 10 and walking one. He showed a fastball that topped-out at 93 mph, and also singled twice and scored a run.

Connolly singled twice, walked twice and scored two runs in the win; John Heltebran matched those two singles and notched three RBI.

Swank is a 5-foot-11, 170-pounder from Ashburn who plays for Plank at Riverside HS; PG ranks him as a top-1,000 prospect in the 2019 class and the No. 7 top shortstop prospect in Virginia. Plank described him as standout defensive shortstop who also happens to carry a 4.4 grade-point average into the classrooms at Riverside. In a couple of years, he’ll be heading to Yale of the Ivy League.  “That is obviously a dream come true because I’ve been working toward that (Yale) commitment my whole life,” Swank said. “I want more than just baseball from college and Yale’s high academic standards were big for me.”

Like every other coaching staff that has a 17u team here this week, Plank and his assistants try to strike a balance between business pleasure or, to be more precise, baseball and the beach. He trusts his guys to make the right decisions and thinks it’s great that they’re having a blast here in Southwest Florida, calling Fort Myers a “great town.”

The only thing he asks of them is when they do decide to go out and have some fun under the hot summer sun is that they drink lots of water and stay hydrated. “They’ve done a good job of doing all the right things,” Plank said.

Doing the right thing seems to come naturally to these guys. Swank described an atmosphere surrounding the team that promotes great chemistry amongst the players, one that came about because they’ve been playing together for so long.  And it’s not only playing together, but also against each other on the hundreds of high school fields that are seemingly within a stone’s throw of one another in northern Virginia.  Plank called it a “cool thing” that a group of teenagers who all live about 40 miles from each other can walk onto a stage like the PG 17u BCS National Championship and not only fit in, but essentially dominate. He is not, however, surprised.

“We try to teach the kids to respect and play the game the right way,” he said. “You’ll see our kids, they run hard ‘90s’ and they’ll run on and off the field. They’re not all about the flash or the fanciness, they just want to win and play the game right way.”

Diamond Elite Baseball officials went back-and-forth with one another, trying to decide whether to send this team to last week’s PG 17u WWBA National Championship up in the Atlanta area or to bring them here to Southwest Florida. They ultimately decided to make Fort Myers the team’s one big trip for the summer, and Plank is glad they did.

“It’s great for them to be here and being able to play the game they love,” he said. “I just hope that all the coaches out there can always keep that in their first thought: this is about the kids. It’s about the game we all love and we should let them enjoy it. You’ll see a kid that’s struggling at the plate and you tell him, ‘Go have fun,’ and then he gets two hits. We just put so much pressure on these kids.”

Ask a top national prospect like Savino about that, and he’s likely to say, “Pressure? What pressure?” And if you ask him about the expectations he and his teammates carried into the 17u BCS National Championship, you’re going to get an answer freakishly similar to the one Swank provided. It may sound cliché, but it’s as genuine and unrehearsed as just about everything else involving Diamond Elite 2019.

“This is just a great group of guys; we just fight hard,” the UVa recruit Savino told PG. “Not a lot of people thought we could make it this far but we’re just fighting. If we play as hard as we can we can beat anyone. We’ve got a lot of team chemistry and we know how to play together, so it’s a lot of fun.”  The playoffs get underway at the 17u BCS National Championships on Friday, and it would be wise to keep an eye on the Diamond Elite 2019.