Two Raleigh boys made the final roster for the USA Baseball 12U National Team and have been training near Los Angeles in preparation for the 10-day WBSC World Cup in Tainan, Taiwan, which begins Friday.
Ryan Clifford and Christopher Katz represent North Carolina on the 18-player roster, tied for the second most from any state. California has five players, and Nevada and Tennessee also have two.
After completing their third and final day of preparation with teammates at the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., Tuesday, Clifford and Katz will travel to play against the best young players in the world. And according to team manager Tanner Vesely, both promise to be key cogs for the defending champions in the biennial event.
“They’re both outstanding players. They’re great kids that are going to offer a lot of versatility,” Vesely said. “We’re really looking for both of them to be major pieces in our drive to win the gold medal.”
A standout from the Futures Invitational Camp that occurred June 25-28 at the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary, Clifford could pitch, play in the outfield and at first base throughout the competition, Vesely said, noting that he could have a big impact as a pitcher “as a big, left-handed kid.”
The U.S. 12U national team is ranked second in the world, and it will join top-ranked Japan, Mexico, Australia, Nicaragua and France in Group B for five days of pool play beginning Friday. Both Clifford and Katz noted that practicing with players from all over the country leading up to the event has been fun, with Clifford emphasizing the importance of staying within himself in such a competitive environment.
“You’ve got to put a lot of hard work in and you’ve got to hustle. You want to make sure that you’re not doing too much, you’re not trying to do more than you’ve done as you’ve been coming along,” he said.
Katz earned a roster spot after the National Team Trials, which occurred at the MLB Youth Academy last week. Like Clifford, he could see playing time at three or four positions because he is “such a good athlete,” Vesely said. Katz said that he has been working the most on improving as a catcher before the team travels to Taiwan, though he, too, could see time on the mound and has played at other infield spots in practice.
Despite getting to travel overseas for the first time like many of his teammates and experience international competition, Katz said his favorite part of the experience is “getting to represent the United States” once play begins.
After the five days of pool play, a nine-game Super Round Robin will occur between the top three teams from Groups A and B. The top two advance to the gold medal game Aug. 2.
The teams in Group A are No. 3 Cuba, No. 4 and 2011 champions Chinese Taipei – which the U.S. defeated to win the 2013 title – South Korea, Venezuela, Brazil and Russia.
Some of their opponents have been playing together for several months while the U12 national team just started its training Sunday.
“We have to come together as a team,” Vesely said. “We’ve got kids from all over the country, and we’ve got to get them on the same page so that we’re all trying to accomplish the same goal, we’re all driving in the same direction,” he said. “The skill level is there for us. The biggest part is getting them to buy in and gel.
“We’ve got kids that are used to being the best kids on their team, and being able to get to play every inning, that are now saying ‘Maybe I’m just a replacement late in the game’ or “Now I’m just a closer.’”
In their first game together, the 12U national team knocked off an MLB Urban Youth Academy squad in a scrimmage Monday 7-2. In a five-run third inning, Katz had a two-run home run and Clifford added a two-run double.
Many challenges await, including international travel, but Vesely said the players will appreciate the various aspects of the trip as first-time experiences.
“I don’t think it’s really sunk in for these kids yet. We tell them what it’s going to be like; we try and get them prepared for that. But it’s an unbelievable opportunity for these young men because obviously they get to represent our country. But we get to go be engulfed in another culture,” he said. “Going to Taiwan, they’re going to see what the culture is like and how these people live, and it’s an unbelievable experience.”