WO alumnus Gunnar McNeill thrives at summer league in Virginia

By on August 21, 2014
Gunnar McNeill puts a tag on a runner as the first baseman for the Staunton Braves this summer in the Valley League.

Gunnar McNeill puts a tag on a runner as the first baseman for the Staunton Braves this summer in the Valley League.

George Laase, the head coach of the Staunton (Va.) Braves, has a message for the residents of West Orange County: we should be proud of Gunnar McNeill.

Laase coached McNeill, a West Orange High School alumnus and rising sophomore for FIU’s baseball program, this summer in the Valley Baseball League — a wood-bat, collegiate summer league based in Virginia.

It was during the VBL’s 2014 season, which spanned just over two months, that McNeill was seemingly on a prolonged hot streak, dominating nearly every offensive category en route to a near unanimous selection as the league’s 2014 Player of the Year award.

“This was a special season by a player that just dedicated himself … he’s grinding out at-bats, quality at-bats — every game,” Laase said. “[His] community back home should be very proud of him.

“He represented [West Orange County] very well.”

McNeill, who saw action as a freshman at FIU as a pitcher and first baseman, hit .402 over the summer for Staunton — leading the league. 

The former Warrior led the VBL in RBIs  (50), slugging percentage (.604) and hits (68), while finishing second in doubles (16) and fifth in on-base percentage (.469). McNeill’s massive numbers, compiled over the course of a 42-game season, could have even been larger with the way he was swinging the bat, as Laase tells it.

“To bat over .400 — it’s just unheard of,” Laase said. “There were at least 20 outs [by McNeill] where he got out and we thought it was going to be a base hit. …

“He could have easily hit .460 or .465.”

Gunnar McNeill

Gunnar McNeill

From McNeill’s perspective, it was quite a summer that started with the modest expectations of heading up to Virginia to hone things he was already doing well and to improve his approach in handling off-speed pitches. 

McNeill says he enjoyed everything about the experience — from playing every day to using wood-bats, which he says he prefers, to the people and town of Staunton.

“I love the people from [Staunton],” McNeill said. “They treated us right.”

Staunton finished the regular season with a 25-18 record, good for fourth place in the standings, and fell in the playoffs to the Charles Town Cannons, 6-5. Laase appreciated not only McNeill’s contributions as a ballplayer — but also his contributions as a leader.

“Being able to talk with him, and have someone that young understand the terminology we’re trying to reach across,” Laase said. “It felt like we had another coach on the field.”

The monster summer that McNeill compiled will almost certainly lead to an increased role for him at FIU in the 2015 season next spring. It also fetched him an invite to play next summer in the exclusive Cape Cod Baseball League — widely regarded as one of the top collegiate summer leagues in the country.

“It means a bunch to me — this is my chance,” McNeill said reflecting on what his strong summer will mean for him going forward.

If nothing else, McNeill, who will be eligible for the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft in 2016 following his junior season at FIU, has made clear that he is an athlete who will capitalize on opportunities when they are given to him — in his collegiate career and perhaps even beyond.

“I think what he needed most was repetitions,” Laase said. “He’s on the verge of doing something very special.”

About Steven Ryzewski

Steven Ryzewski is the Sports Editor for the West Orange Times & Observer and has been covering prep sports in the Central Florida area for more than three years.