Practice, practice, practice makes perfect for U.S. Elite Virginia 15U

By DN WRITING STAFF | July 6, 2023

Cole Karas singled, drove in a run and scored twice for U.S. Elite Virginia 15U.

By Rich Bevensee

After watching his team commit too many errors and get outscored 17-4 in two lopsided losses, Lawrence Johnson had seen enough.

The U.S. Elite Virginia 15U coach called an early morning practice on Wednesday, 90-degree heat be darned, and drilled his players for 90 minutes – or until they got it right – whichever came first. 

“Well, this morning was definitely hotter than fish grease, and I left practice with no voice,” Johnson said. “I told them after the two games I was tired of repeating myself, harping on the same thing. So we went over to McKnight Field (in Montgomery Township) to practice and it was about mass repetition. It was mass ground balls, mass fly balls, and then we played 27 outs, nine innings, get me the outs. We don’t leave till we get the outs. 

“I think they got the message.”

Johnson was still hoarse after his team’s third pool play game in the 15U Diamond Nation World Series, but this time his words were effusive with praise.

Against Tucci Lumber, U.S. Elite did not commit a single error. In fact, they completed two double plays and got three outs via pickoffs.

Lefty Teddy Montgomery, the benefactor of such marvelous defense, limited Tucci Lumber to three hits over four innings to lead U.S. Elite to an 11-0 mercy-rule victory on Wednesday at ‘The Nation.’

“We worked on pretty much everything that happened today,” Montgomery said. “It’s all about the grind. You gotta do what you gotta do.”

“Practice sucked,” said U.S. Elite leadoff hitter Ethan Burchard, who personified his team’s increased effort when he turned a bloop single into a hustle triple. “It was very hot but it was worth it. In our last game we had a lot of errors, and in this game, none.”

U.S. Elite, based in Alexandria, Va., will carry its newfound dedication to detail into its final pool play game when it takes on Jersey Boyz Baseball on Thursday at 8 p.m.

Montgomery walked the first two batters he faced in the top of the first inning – and he picked off both runners to chalk up a scoreless frame. 

Then the U.S. Elite offense went to work. Brycen Atland had an RBI groundout to start the scoring, and Mason Tillman and Conner Petit stroked RBI singles for a 3-0 lead. 

In the second inning Montgomery struck out two batters and catcher Cole Karas picked off a runner at first.

U.S. Elite then took advantage of some Tucci miscues to add four more runs and take a 7-0 lead in the bottom of the frame. Alex Willig scored on an error on a Karas grounder, Munoz scored on a balk, Burchard scored on an error on a Brycen Atland grounder, and Tillman added an RBI groundout.

U.S. Elite turned the first of its two double plays in the top of the third – second baseman Randol LaChapel to shortstop Tillman to first baseman Burchard. 

“At practice we went out there and it was defense, defense, defense, and we played lock down defense today,” Johnson said. 

In the bottom of the third, Burchard capped another wild inning with a dash around the bases. First, Xander Dietrich had an RBI single, LaChapel scored on an infield throwing error, and Munoz had an RBI groundout.

Burchard then looped a shallow fly ball into right field, a ball he believed would be caught. He never stopped running until he slid safety into third with a two-out, RBI triple.

“I thought I was out and then I saw it drop,” said Burchard, a rising sophomore at Rising Sun (Maryland) High. “The shortstop and second baseman went to the ball and there was no one at second so I just went. And the third baseman went to cover second, and he was late to third so I went to third.

“You have to play heads-up baseball. Being on first and being on second are two very different things. And second and third, that’s 90 feet, so on a bloop single you score.”

“Ethan’s effort was phenomenal – you don’t see that too often,” Johnson said. “One thing I harp on is, two out of the box, no matter what. We spot the ball, then we read. He immediately was thinking two out of the box and he read it. I was afraid he wouldn’t pick me up around second but it seems he was already ahead of the game.”

Passsionate U.S. Elite Virginia coach Lawrence Johnson directs Ethan Burchard at third after a triple.

Another double play helped Montgomery close out Tucci in the fourth. LaChapel caught a soft liner and tossed to first to double up a Tucci baserunner.

The shutout effort for Montgomery, a rising sophomore at Paul VI in Chantilly, Va., included yielding three hits and five walks with four strikeouts.  

“I tell all of our pitchers – ground ball, double play or strikeout. We don’t have to strike out everyone to play a good defensive game,” Johnson said. “If you let your defense work, these guys are just as talented as you are. You play for the guy to your right, play for the guy to your left, and I promise you’re going to walk away victorious more times than you walk away defeated.”

Johnson admitted he may have come up with the practice idea out of frustration, but his well-traveled baseball background helped him build an important lesson around the effort. The Springdale, Md., native played at Prince George’s Community College (Largo, Md.), Coffeyville (Kansas) CC, and at Our Lady Of The Lake University in San Antonio, Texas. He also played for two years in the Pecos League, for the Salina (Kansas) Stockade and the Weimar (Texas) Hormigas. 

“I wanted practice to be about mass repetition and allowing them to be students of the game, encouraging them to ask a lot of questions,” Johnson said. “Yeah I was mad, but I knew we could play much better, and today they showed what they were made of.” 

Tucci (0-3), of Norwalk, Conn., will be looking for its first victory of the 15U World Series when it faces Out Of The Park Cyclones 15U Futures on Thursday at 12:15 p.m. Tucci lost  a close one to Jersey Boyz, 9-8, and to the Lower Bucks Minutemen, 10-2.

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