After a team from Ontario, Canada, was forced to withdraw from the Premier Baseball Junior National Championship tournament on short notice, Kyle Wolf was approached with the idea of creating a replacement team with players from the immediate area to participate.
While there was no question Wolf wanted the opportunity, there was a problem: The tournament was slated to begin in Joplin in just two weeks time. That meant Wolf had to come up with a coaching staff and a roster of available student-athletes in less than 10 days.
Wolf, Joplin High School’s head coach, filled out his coaching staff with McDonald’s County’s Kevin Burgi and Seneca’s Chris Yust, and they reached out to Webb City’s Flave Darnell, Neosho’s Danny Powers and Carl Junction’s Jake Stevenson for input on filling out the roster
“All of the area coaches were in constant contact with each other all week about the kids and how they play and handle certain situations,” Wolf said. “It was a collective effort for sure.
“A couple of weeks before the tournament, (the area coaches and I) sat down and talked about filling out a local roster,” Wolf said. “We wanted to make sure we had enough pitchers and catchers available and that sort of thing.”
Wolf and the area coaches comprised a roster that consisted of six players from Joplin, four from Webb City, three from McDonald County and two each from Neosho, Seneca and Carl Junction.
“From the beginning, I think this group had a lot of confidence in their ability to perform at a high level,” Wolf said. “The thing that really stood out was how quickly they gelled together, and there were really no ego problems from the start.”
The Southwest Missouri All-Stars took the practice field together for the first time just days before the Premier tournament began, which is not ideal for a sport where chemistry on the diamond is ideal. Though many of the players knew of each other, they had not spent any time together as a team. It didn’t take long for them to gel, however.
“We had our first practice a couple of days before the tournament began,” infielder and Joplin product Cade Carlson said. “We didn’t really talk to each other much in that first practice, but as soon as we won that first game, we came together as a group and played great together.”
“It was crazy,” Webb City outfielder Devrin Weathers said. “We got together just before the start of the tournament and clicked quickly. It was awesome coming out and playing with these guys. It felt like we had been playing together since Day 1.”
Playing in its white-on-white uniforms with the sponsored Old Chicago logo across the chest, the Southwest Missouri All-Stars turned some heads, and not just because it jumped out to a fast start in the opening round of pool play with a 3-0 record after wins over Building Championship Luangamath, Oklahoma Fuel and Texas Stix North in the first two days of action.
“The uniforms kind of brought us together a little bit,” Wolf said with a smile. “When we got on the field, some of the other teams gave us a hard time about our ‘Old Chicago’ jerseys. After the first day, I was planning on having the kids wear their high school uniforms, but they wanted to continue wearing the all-white uniforms, and they took pride in it.”
“After we won our first three games, we realized we were just as good as any team here,” Carlson said. “That was fun to figure it out together while we were on the field.”
Advancing to the 16-team round of championship pool play, Southwest Missouri generated a pair of wins in come-from-behind fashion, knocking off Arlington A’s Howeth 11-6 and Texas Stix Mistler 10-8 on Friday before falling to Rawlings Tigers Quatro 7-3 in an early Saturday game. The 5-1 start earned the Southwest Missouri All-Stars the eighth seed in the Gold Bracket, the highest level of the three brackets, with a quarterfinal matchup against top-seeded Rawlings Tigers Velo looming Saturday night.
“After we started off 5-1, I thought we had a chance to win it all,” Wolf said. “The kids were playing really well and consistent together against stiff competition. Once we got in the Gold Bracket, I think we realized anything could happen.”
Taking a 4-4 tie into the seventh inning, Southwest Missouri scored five times in the frame for a 9-4 win over Rawlings Tigers Velo to advance to the semifinals to face a familiar opponent in Texas Stix Mistler on championship Sunday.
Once again, after finding itself in a 2-0 hole after two innings, Southwest Missouri rallied with eight runs in the fourth inning and two more in the fifth on the way to a 10-2 win over Texas Stix Mistler to earn a spot in the Gold Bracket championship game against the Colorado Slammers Jenkins.
Southwest Missouri jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the championship game and defeated the Slammers 7-4 to punt an exclamation point on the Cinderella run with a Premier Baseball Junior Gold Bracket National Championship title, the first local team in the history of the tournament to do so.
“The kids stepped up in a lot of ways over the week,” Wolf said. “They grew as ball players and they grew as men. Different kids stepped up in different situations. All of players benefited greatly from taking part in the Premier tournament and playing in that environment.”
Looking back, Wolf and his players had a hard time finding the right words to truly express what it meant to see the team, a group of talented local players who had never played collectively before, come together on little notice before going on a nine-game run that netted a prestigious summer tournament championship against club teams from all over the country that had every advantage in terms of chemistry and cohesiveness.
“It just shows how much talent is in the area that people don’t really notice,” Carlson said. “This was one of the funnest baseball experiences I have ever had.”
“I had a lot of fun,” Weathers said. “This was the funnest tournament I had played in all summer. It just shows that teams from Missouri can complete with the teams from Texas and Colorado and all the other states that were represented.”
Of course, with the success the Southwest Missouri All-Stars had at the Premier tournament, the question had to be asked: Does this win mean there is a greater chance that we see a club team in the area form to continue the Premier tradition?
“Certainly, I think it’s something that we would like to continue,” Wolf said. “The whole idea is to give the area kids a unique opportunity to get exposed to more scouts and colleges that they wouldn’t otherwise get.”
Southwest Missouri All-Stars
Cade Carlson, IF, Joplin
Carlos Maturino, P/IF, Joplin
Holden Ledford, OF/P, Joplin
Tyler Ledford, OF/P, Joplin
Luke Benfield, C, Joplin
David Fiscus, C, Joplin
Devrin Weathers, OF/P, Webb City
Cale McCallister, OF/1B/P, Webb City
Treghan Parker, IF, Webb City
Wyatt Hodson, IF/P, Webb City
Cole Martin, IF/C, McDonald County
Parker Toney, P/IF, McDonald County
Riley Boyd, P, McDonald County
Weston Durman, IF/P, Neosho
Gage Kelly, OF/P, Neosho
Carson Johnson, SS/P, Carl Junction
Drew Beyer, IF/P/C, Carl Junction
Monty Mailes, OF, Seneca
Titus Atkins, 1B, Seneca
Kyle Wolf, Joplin
Kevin Burgi, McDonald County
Chris Yust, Seneca