JUPITER, Fla.--When Andy Partin arrived in Jupiter, he believed his team was going to win the World Wood Bat Association Championship. The owner of Dirtbags Baseball and the head coach of the program's top team, Partin knew his team. He knew they had what it took to win.
Partin had seen his team develop throughout the summer and fall. Some teams might be more talented than his, but Partin believed in the Dirtbags' chemistry and he knew that his players weren't going to go down without a fight. On Monday, the Dirtbags proved Partin's intuition right, winning the championship with a 4-2 victory over Team Elite Prime.
The WWBA Championship, colloquially known as "Jupiter," is a unique event. It's the most heavily scouted tournament in amateur baseball and it's the most prestigious travel baseball event.
There's really no restriction on how teams can be assembled, so many top travel programs will recruit players from around the nation to play for their teams just in Jupiter. There are also scout teams, which are sponsored by major league teams, who often have a direct line to talent. Scouts build rosters of players who they're interested in seeing, and so they tend to be filled with talent. Teams get to know how players approach game situations and how they handle a competitive environment, vital elements that can't be learned by simply watching the game.
But that's not how the Dirtbags operate. Players primarily from the North Carolinas and Tennessee come up through their program for years. Out-of-state players do join the program, but the Dirtbags assemble one team for the summer and fall, and they develop team chemistry over the course of months.
The scout teams can sometimes excel with talent, but they have disadvantages in not knowing how their teammates play, and the coaching staffs don't know which players can execute specific game strategies.
Dirtbags pitchers had plenty of time to work with catchers Philip Clarke and Aaron McKeithan. They could feel comfortable elevating a fastball, because they knew they could trust center fielder Kier Meredith behind them. Hitters didn't have to worry about failing; they knew the lineup was deep enough that no individual had to try to be a superstar. Furthermore, Partin knows his players and how to get the most out them; he knew he could trust Angel Zarate to hold a two-run lead in the final inning of the championship game.
"This is our team. This is the team we play with in the summer," Partin said. "It's hard to beat a team like us, because we're a team. We know each other. We know exactly what our guys can do."
"We're a team that you don't want to mess with in a tournament like this. Sure, you might just out-talent us, but this is a group that just wants to win and we showed that this week."
This year's Dirtbags brought to Jupiter a unique blend of talent and chemistry. While some of their players lack the prototypical tools or body types to profile as professionals out of high school, the Dirtbags had plenty of players who showed the ability to make a difference in the games.
Davis Schneider (Eastern High, Voorhees, N.J.) proved to be the star of the tournament; following the championship game, he was named the tournament's MVP by Perfect Game.
Schneider's dominant week began in the opening game. After doubling in the fifth inning, Schneider reached on a successful bunt to load the bases in the seventh inning. The Dirtbags would score a run and tie that game; without that run, the team's entire week would have been different. Over the course of the week, Schneider went 9-for-22 and swatted two home runs and five doubles.
"Ripping the fastball," Schneider said when asked what was working for him. "I felt like I was seeing the ball really well."
Schneider's biggest moment came in the round of 16, when the Dirtbags ran into a talented CBA Marucci team that had knocked off the Evoshield Canes earlier in the tournament. In a scoreless game, Schneider pulled an elevated fastball over the fence in left field to give the Dirtbags a 3-0 lead and catapult them to the semifinals.
The pitching staff was equally impactful, allowing just nine runs in the eight non-exhibition games. The Dirtbags had a talented group, headlined by righthander Mason Hickman, a top prospect who is committed to Vanderbilt. Hickman was named the Co-Most Valuable Pitcher in the tournament, along with Team Elite Prime righthander Ethan Hankins.
But the club got several key performances from players who aren't as well known. Righthander Antonio Menendez pitched a shutout against CBA Marucci in the round of 16, and lefthander Angel Zarate excelled in the championship game, allowing two runs in seven innings.
Partin saw key contributions from players up and down the lineup, and the Dirtbags were particularly strong up the middle. Captain Meredith and catcher Clarke were steady performers throughout the week, with Meredith playing outstanding center field defense and getting on base at a .476 clip; he also stole six bases in seven attempts.
Clarke is an intriguing pro prospect as well. He has some things to iron out with his receiving, but he handled the Dirtbags staff magnificently and he has some polish offensively. He showed excellent strike zone awareness and reached base in 14 of his 27 plate appearances in Jupiter.
If Schneider hadn't been named the MVP of the tournament, that honor could have gone to Jacob Brown, who went 12-for-27 with five doubles and a triple. Brown consistently hit the ball hard this fall.
The list off key contributors could go on and on, because the Dirtbags were united in their quest for supremacy. Going forward, Partin hopes that the Dirtbags' success will encourage other travel programs to operate similarly.
"I just hope that we're able to show that you can come down and win without bringing in guys from all over the place," Partin said. "There's nothing wrong with that, but that's not what we do. I hope it will inspire people to get back to team baseball."