There are few people at the 11U/13U National Team Identification Series (NTIS) Champions Cup in Cary, North Carolina, who know more about what it takes to win gold on the international stage than Jason Sekany.
Sekany, who is the NTIS Northwest Regional Director, has been a 12U National Team coach five times and helped the stars and stripes win gold on four of those occasions. His most recent stint was with the 2023 12U National Team which won gold at the World Baseball Softball Classic (WBSC) U-12 Baseball World Cup Americas Qualifier in Mexico back in May.
He has been a part of the NTIS for 14 years, and has helped guide the Northwest region to a combined 14 top three finishes since 2017, including gold medals at the 15U and 16U levels in 2019.
USA Baseball caught up with Sekany to talk about his Team USA experience and how it translates to his efforts at the NTIS Champions Cup.
Q: As a regional director, what has your role been these last few weeks at the NTIS Champions Cup?
A: “The primary role as a regional director is to really make sure that the coaching staff has everything that they need in order to be able to give our players the experience and the opportunity that we feel like they deserve while being here. I want to make sure that our coaching staff has anything and everything to be able to give these players the best opportunity possible. The other part of my role is to communicate with the Task Force and those who are a part of the administrative staff as far as maintaining schedules and letting parents know where they're supposed to be at. So, it’s one of those multi-head type positions, but that's the gist of it.”
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the process of identifying players through the NTIS for the Champions Cup? What goes into putting together two teams for six age groups every year?
A: “We run a two-step process in the Northwest region. We have an initial round of what we call ‘section identifier events,’ which are open events for players anywhere in the region, and those run throughout the winter into late spring. Then, we go into our second round where players are selected to move on to round two, and they are put in more of an on-field competitive game type of environment. We do one of those in each of the states that are part of our Northwest region. And then from there, we basically gather up the data, the information, the reports that we've got, and then communicate with those who were at each of those events, to ultimately select players for each of the two teams.”
Q: Is there anything that stands out to you about the character of players who come through the NTIS Champions Cup?
A: “I think there's just a lot greater emphasis on the character component at this event compared to more of the metric-only based environment that exists where players are being ranked solely on their raw tools. The USA Baseball process is understanding that not only are we looking to go be successful in terms of winning gold medals, but it’s how we go about it, how we represent the uniform and our country, and ourselves as a group. It's more than just what is a cliche out there about being a good person and having the character components that allow you to be successful on the field, in terms of wins and losses, and how you go about things.”
Q: You’ve been a 12U National Team coach five times now and have been a part of four gold medals, so you’re familiar with the gold standard at USA Baseball. What does it take it take for a team to win gold on the international stage?
A: “I would love to say it's five out of five, but we're pretty happy with four. But it definitely takes at the 12U level not just talented players, but players who have the ability to understand a role who are used to being in the superstar world. The most difficult thing is that we're bringing young players who have always been the highlighted player wherever they're at, and they have to be able to come in and not only perform, but also understand that they are a part of a unit that really is going to have to work effectively together.
“They probably haven't been on an 18-player team before, and most of them have never been on a team where they didn't play that much. It’s very critical that we have players with that kind of maturity at that age level to not only be able to understand and handle that role, but being in an uncomfortable environment while in a foreign country. Those are hard things to figure out in a short period of time with young players, but they're every bit as critical as the premier athletic ability and skill set of the players on the field.”
Q: What was your most recent experience with the 12U National Team like in Mexico? Does winning gold ever get old?
A: “Absolutely not. That was an incredible experience, as far as being a part of a team that was down 11 runs going into the bottom of the last inning in the gold medal game and still believing they had the ability to come back and win. Those players buying into that was just a remarkable experience. I haven't really been on a team previously where I felt like we were still in the game despite being down 11 runs going into the last inning.
"On top of that, the relationships that are built not only between the coaches and the players, but just the connection amongst the coaches in general was a phenomenal part of the whole experience.”
Q: Is there anything from your time with Team USA that you have been able to relay to the players in your region about what the Task Force is looking for?
A: “A competitive comfort. I think that this environment here creates a stage that's somewhat unusual for the players, even those who play in big tournaments back at home. One of the big things the Task Force is really looking is players who appear to be very comfortable. They’re capable of performing and being themselves and doing what they've done to get to this point in this environment.
“A huge piece for a national team staff is to know that this is what we can expect from a player and the tools that they bring to the table much more so than just looking for peak performance numbers at any given time. One of the more unique and bigger things that the Task Force really is trying to identify is who seems like they feel very comfortable with competing in this type of environment.”
Q: What would your advice be for a player who wants to play for Team USA?
A: “Persistence. It’s the most difficult team to make in the world. It sounds corny, but you hear it spoken about several times in the Opening Ceremonies. We've been fortunate to be very successful from the 12U level all the way up to the Pro team. There's only one team with somewhere between 18 and 25 players who make it, so looking at even the most elite teams out there that these talented players are making, this one is that much more difficult for players to make.
“So don't be discouraged in this process, based on where you make it. We have to have that conversation where players often hear that they only made it to our second round, and they're discouraged because they didn’t make it to the Champions Cup. It's fortunate that this is a multi-year process in where we really try to emphasize to learn what it takes to be able to make it one step further in this process the following year. Ultimately, you may make it all the way to the endpoint, but regardless it's a remarkable process, whether you make it to the finish line or not, and end up being one of 20 players from the entire nation that's on that team.”