CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – The 48 teams participating in this year’s WWBA Kernels Foundation championship come in all shapes in sizes. There are the obvious powerhouse teams who on paper look like the obvious teams to beat, with rosters loaded with obvious Division I commitments and potential high draft picks.
And then there are the teams that are put together with a solid group of athletes generally from the same local area or region that are still looking for the exposure necessary to secure a commitment. If you have followed this event closely in recent years you will know that the perceived powerhouses don’t always fare as well as expected.
Every team that travels to participate in the tournament has legitimate expectations to win it all and take home the honor of the event championship, which also means an automatic, paid invitation to the WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla.
When you scan the roster of Nelson Gord’s Illinois Indians you see a lot of names from in and around the Chicago, Ill. area, with a near 50-50 split between 2015 and 2016 graduates. However, your eye stops at one name, as his Langley, British Columbia hometown does not fit in with those of his teammates.
That player is righthanded pitcher Kristjan Storrie, invited by Gord to take the ball on Saturday and face the Indians’ toughest competitor in their pool, the SF Giants Scout Team, who claimed the Kernels Championship here two years ago.
Storrie is currently ranked the 231st player in the high school class of 2015, and the fourth best from Canada. He has made numerous cross-country trips over the last year, starting with the WWBA World Championship in October of last year, playing for the DBacks Team BC.
He also travelled to Fort Myers, Fla. to participate in the 2014 National Showcase where he sat at 87-91 mph and peaked at 92 in his two innings of work.
“That was crazy,” Storrie said of his time at the National. “Big stage, a bunch of scouts, it was pretty sweet.”
Playing on the big stage isn’t new to Storrie, however, as he plays for the Langley Blaze, a travel program from British Columbia that makes frequent stops to Arizona and the Four Corners area to provide experience and exposure for their young players. That includes games against professional ballplayers in rookie ball.
“The heat helps,” Storrie said with a smile about playing in Arizona during the otherwise cold, winter months in Canada. “It’s nice to get out and travel around. The pro guys are the best part about it, challenging yourself against the rookie ball hitters. (The difference) really shows, because they’re pretty polished. You can look at the pro pitchers on the bench and see what they do, find out what they’re working on and talk to them.”
Storrie will once again travel to Jupiter, Fla. to play for the DBacks Team BC in late October before shutting his arm down for a few months to focus on increasing his strength and fine-tuning his mechanics.
As for coming to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to play in this year’s Kernels Foundation Championship, all Gord had to do was ask.
“He just needed an arm to come down and throw, so I came down, give him a good game and try to get him to the finals,” Storrie said. “I thought it would be cool to come down to Iowa, see a different place, meet some new players, make some new friends. It’s fun.”
Although the game got off to a dubious start for Storrie and his Illinois Indians teammates, with Storrie walking three of the first four batters he faced, he was able to settle down, record a strikeout and induce an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play.
“Kristjan actually threw against us in Las Vegas in February last year,” Gord said. “As impressive as he is as an athlete, just the way he composed himself on the mound and the stuff that he had, I just really liked the makeup. And he did more than we could ask of him and showed his makeup when he was able to settle in after a shaky start there.”
Storrie did in fact settle down, shutting down the SF Giants Scout Team for the first 5 2/3 innings of a 1-0 victory against their toughest opponent in the pool. He did walk six batters, and allowed five base hits, but he also struck out seven, minimizing the damage thanks to an upper-80s fastball before incorporating the rest of his repertoire.
“The fastball (was working) and later on I mixed in some changeups and curveballs and kind of varied my pitches and it was working better for me (later in the game),” Storrie said after the game of his performance.
If the story sounds familiar that’s because a similar situation happened a year ago for Gord’s Indians.
Last year Gord reached out to a pair of players from Northern California, righthander Stetson Woods and third baseman Tatum McCarthy. Gord turned to Woods to take the mound in the pool-deciding game against Team DeMarini-Koutnik, of which the Illinois Indians came out on the winning end on their way to their runner-up finish at the 2013 Kernels Championship.
McCarthy was named to the All-Tournament team by hitting .429, providing several keys hits, as well as an appearance on the mound in relief, during the Indians’ playoff run.
OF/LHP Jack Suwinski hit a solo home run and recorded the save in the Illinois Indians’ 1-0 win over the SF Giants Scout Team.
This year Gord and his Indians have already secured their pool with a win on Friday night and two wins on Saturday and look to continue to build off of their success with a team oriented approach.
“We’ve had two big ballgames,” Gord said after his 2-0 start with the win over the SF Giants Scout Team. “Neither game we’ve swung the bats particularly well. Yesterday we struck out a bunch. Today we struck out a bunch. (We) continue to work on things and get that offense going hopefully as we move into Sunday and hopefully Monday.
“Like I told them yesterday, the guys that have the most committed players or the guys that have the most potential draft picks doesn’t always make up the best team. Last year and again this year putting together a team and the right collection of guys who are selfless and want to work at it and be there for the right reasons, that’s what’s important. That’s what’s fun about the game.”
The team is made up of several versatile athlete, key to any team’s success with the always present need for pitching. The double-play tandem of Thomas Norton at shortstop and Bryan VanDuser remains the same as last year’s team, giving the club a reliable duo to turn to.
VanDuser’s impact was particularly notable on Saturday, as he came on in relief of Storrie with two outs and the bases loaded in the sixth inning and recorded a key punchout with a big breaking curveball.
“(Thomas) Norton was the shortstop on the team last year, he’s here again. (Bryan) VanDuser was the second baseman, he’s here again – he had two big punchouts, one big punchout yesterday, and two today. So them having been through this event they knew what to expect and have those guys in the middle of the field, it settles down the rest of the guys.”
Starting center field Jack Suwinski, who was responsible for the game’s only run by hitting a towering solo shot well over the fence in right-center field in the third inning, also came on to record the final two outs of the game.
“I’ve known him since he was eight years old, and it’s pretty special to watch grow like that,” Gord said of Suwinski. “He’s continued to work as hard as anyone I’ve ever been around. Jack’s not afraid of the big stage. The way he was out here today was the way he’d be in whiffle ball in his backyard. He’s just that kind of loose. It’s fun to be around, it’s infectious.”
Suwinski’s contributions, as well as those from Storrie, Norton and VanDuser, point to a team that looks to all of it’s players to contribute, in a variety of ways. That versatility is by design, and has led to the program’s success at numerous national tournament events.
“Like any other program or team it kind of starts at the top. As a player I played all nine positions. When I’m evaluating talent and I’m looking for kids to join our program I want baseball players. I want kids that don’t say ‘I have to play shortstop every game,’ or ‘I’m only this or that.’
“Baseball is a game, and no matter where you play you catch and throw the baseball. If you look up and down our lineup it’s (full of) kids that can play multiple positions, that go out there and know how to do things right, and aren’t afraid to try new things too. A lot of these guys will continue to get better and they haven’t nearly reached their potential.”