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Sparks Black back on familiar ground

September 21, 2021 | Jeff Dahn

2021-Sparks

Nothing had been decided at the PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship as of Sunday night but it was impossible not to think that we had all seen what has become grand theater play out four times over the last four years being played out again.

The Cangelosi Sparks Black, the championship-winning program with its base in Lockport, Ill., pitched, hit and fielded its way back into a spotlight it has owned since the fall of 2017. This year’s version, the Cangelosi Sparks 2022 Black, have put themselves in position to replicate what the Sparks 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 Black teams accomplished before them:

Win the PG WWBA Kernels Foundation championship and have the cost of the entry fee into the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., taken care of, courtesy of Perfect Game. And on Sunday, the Sparks 2022 Black won a pair of bracket-play games to advance to Monday’s final-four with the idea of winning yet another Kernels championship front-and-center in their minds.

Winning five straight Kernels championships is unprecedented, of course, and not because it would be done in consecutive years. The four the Cangelosi Sparks Black have already won is the most by any program in event history, and it serves as a tremendous springboard into the WWBA World Championship, known throughout all of amateur baseball simply as “Jupiter.”

“We discuss it, but not at length or anything. It’s just one game at a time, one weekend at a time preparing for Florida, so they all know what’s at stake,” Sparks 2022 Black head coach Tyler Thompson told PG before his team’s quarterfinal game late Sunday.

“They all know that if we play our game and pick up the baseball and throw strikes and swing at good pitches we’re going to be in good shape to continue to play.”

PG All-American 2022 left-hander Noah Schultz, a Vanderbilt commit ranked No. 9 overall nationally, and 2022 right-hander/infielder Julius Sanchez (No. 102, Illinois) were both with the Cangelosi Sparks 2021 Black team that won last year’s WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship title.

“Our head coach (Thompson) always talks about us looking forward to this tournament and coming back and winning it,” Schultz told PG on Sunday. “It’s something we definitely take pride in, winning it the last (four) years, and we’re definitely looking forward to winning it again this year.”

Thompson used just two pitchers in each of the pool-play victories and the first-round playoff win and the combined to give up only one unearned run on seven hits over the full 21 innings.

2022 right-hander Julius Sanchez (No. 102, Illinois) and ’23 righty Grant Tenuta (t-500) combined on a nine-strikeout, five-walk one-hitter in a 4-0 win over Great Lakes 18u Red to open pool-play.

2022 righties Alex Alberico (t-500, Kent State) and Collin Amsden (HF, Lewis Coll) teamed-up for a 12-strikeout, two-walk three-hitter in a 3-0 win over Iowa Select 2022 Huckabone to clinch the pool championship; Alberico struck out eight without a walk in four innings.

The Sparks 2022 Black, which earned the No. 3 seed for the playoffs and a bye right into the second round, kept it rolling against the No. 14 Indiana Fall Stars in the bracket-play opener with ’22 righty CJ Byrdak (HF) and ’23 right-hander Cole Van Assen (HF) combining on a six-strikeout, no-walk three-hitter in the 3-1 win (the run was unearned).

“We’re carrying 12 guys so it’s just kind of nice to give guys a break,” Thompson said. “If somebody’s not playing the game the way we want to play it they can get replaced and when the next game rolls around we’ve got a couple of fresh guys coming off the bench hungry to go.”

Ten runs in three games might not sound like a lot but with that kind of pitching the Sparks were able to make it work. 2023 catcher Colin Barczi (No. 295, Vanderbilt) raked, stroking three singles, a double and a triple in seven trips with three RBI and three runs.

Tommy Atkinson (HF), Jayden Comia (t-500, Illinois), William Flanigan (t-500), Landon Mensik (t-500), Luka Radicevich (t-500) and Trey Swiderski (t-500, Louisville) each had two hits; Comia and Radicevich doubled.

“It’s a very competitive environment,” Barczi told PG. “We’re playing great teams so we have to (have) our best performance each game. Because of the environment, because of the competition we’re playing we all play our best.

“There’s just a bond that all the Sparks share, so meeting some of these new guys it’s easy to get along with them right away; it’s like a big family.”

The roster is impressive, made up of nice mix of top guys from the class of 2022, 2023 and 2024. Most of these prospects, all of whom attend high schools in the Chicagoland area, are ranked as solid top 500-level prospects with the notable exceptions of Schultz, Sanchez and Barczi.

2023 infielder Cal Sefcik is a top-500 prospect who has committed to Indiana, and the two rostered 2024s, infielder Landon Mensik (t-500) and catcher/third baseman Collin Mowry (t-500, Louisville) are already highly regarded.

“We’re very young,” Thompson said. “We’re underclass heavy which I’m always excited about because years after this it’s going to give me some guys with some experience. This group is really good defensively and we’ve got some really high-end arms.

“When you have wood bats and you’ve got pitching that throws the ball over the plate and you’ve got people who will pick it up it gives you a shot to play with anybody.”

Schultz, the PG All-American, has obviously experienced a lot during his prep years and still has his senior season to go at Oswego East HS in Aurora, Ill. He appreciates the way Thompson and the other directors/coaches at the Cangelosi Sparks organization constructs these rosters so the players can get the exposure they need while also winning a whole heck of a lot of games in the process.

“I love our team,” Schultz said. “We get along really well and we play together really well, too; it’s really good getting to know all the guys. Since we’re all different ages, you would thing that on paper it would be really weird and the different ages would be separate but we really bond close together.

“It’s hard to tell at points who’s what age because we all treat each other the same…I just love being a part of this team.”

Barczi, who has been as impressive with the bat as anyone here this weekend, agreed with his senior teammate:

“When you’re surrounded by these guys the energy is always high,” he said. “Everyone shows their love and passion for the game and it comes out in the dugout…It’s pretty easy to keep up the energy level when you’re surrounded by a bunch of guys you love playing with.”

As fate would have it, the Cangelosi Sparks 2022 Black found themselves looking at brother-in-arms Cangelosi Sparks 2022 White in the quarterfinal pairing and the 2022 Black just kept right on rolling in an 8-0 five-inning victory.

2022 lefty Dylan Warda (t-1000) did what his mates on the pitching staff have done all weekend, and that’s throw a shutout (Sparks Black goes into Monday having outscored four opponents 18-1 with no earned runs allowed). Warda threw all five innings and gave up only two hits with five K’s and four walks.

Seven Sparks collected one hit apiece in the win with Flanigan, Barczi and Sefcik smacking doubles; Flanigan drove in three runs and scored another, Barczi scored a pair and Sefcik drove in one and scored one.

“Our coaching staff pushes us to play hard every game and to leave nothing on the field; If you do that you’re going to get far in these tournaments,” Barczi said. “So our coaches are pushing us and getting on us about things that we need to pick up and work on so we’ll apply it to the next game.”

“I like this group a lot,” Thompson said. “They’re still kind of unproven…but stuff is starting to go and the guys are starting to play a little bit more together and get more consistent at-bats.”

The semifinal matchups were set late Sunday night and it would be wrong to look and call them the status quo. The No. 3-seeded Cangelosi Sparks 2022 Black (4-0-0) play the Minnesota-based Northstar Varsity Crawford (5-0-0) one side of the bracket while Illinois’ Elite Baseball Training-Johnson (5-0-0) takes on the No. 1 Hawaii Elite 2G (4-0-0) on the other side.

It’s interesting that Thompson played in the PG WWBA Kernels Foundation championship himself 15 years ago with what was then called the Cangelosi Baseball Academy team. He knows first-hand the rich history the event enjoys and also how important it is for his players to be playing right into championship day.

“The more games you play together the more momentum you build and the more confidence they have going in,” Thompson said. “Baseball is a great game. Anybody can beat anybody on any day (and) it doesn’t matter how many commits or how many draft prospects they have. It’s just getting one unit to play together and that’s what we’re trying to build-up for…

“They’ve got to expect the worst going into every game. You’re not going to get every call; things are not going to go your way and great teams overcome that adversity and keep on chugging along.”

Barczi, the Vanderbilt commit, is wise beyond his years. He knows how important this tournament is Thompson and the rest of the Sparks 2022 Black coaching staff because they’re eager to keep the championship streak alive.

And, he said, winning that fifth straight Kernels crown is in the back of the players’ mind. They wouldn’t mind being a part of a historical achievement  that goes along with winning any Jupiter qualifier five years in a row. Who wouldn’t?

“We’re kind of on fire right now; we’re playing great,” Barczi said. “We’re getting ready for Jupiter, and in Jupiter you have to play your best or else you’re not going to go far. All these weeks leading up to Jupiter we’ve been playing our best and working hard just so we’re ready for that big tournament down in Jupiter, Florida.”

Jeff Dahn