Cam Kozeal waited with immense anticipation as manger Denny Hocking began announcing the 20 baseball players – out of pool of 42 – set to represent Team USA at the U-18 World Cup.
RJ Hamilton … Kendall George … Alex Clemmey … Cameron Tilley …
Like a hard double off the wall, the next words rang the loudest for the Nebraska prep standout.
Camden KO-ZEEL …
“I was like, ‘Oh, no, he said my name wrong!’” Kozeal (pronounced KO-ZULL) said. “But he said my name!
“Everything kind of just went silent in my head when I first heard my name.”
What was already a surreal experience only got better. Kozeal and his USA teammates played their way into the World Cup final Sunday in Sarasota, Florida. Then they claimed gold medals and watched the United States flag rise following a 5-1 win against Chinese Taipei.
Kozeal, a Millard South senior and Vanderbilt baseball recruit, played in four of the nine games, hitting .308 with four hits and three RBIs.
The best part? The dog pile, of course.
“That was definitely No. 1, getting that last out,” said Kozeal, who helped Team USA wrap up a fifth gold medal in the past six World Cups. “Knowing the night before that we decided to have a players’ meeting in one of the hotel rooms and we all just kind of laid out, ‘This is how we’re going to win.’”
WORLD CHAMPIONS!#ForGlory???????? pic.twitter.com/Kw7NKucmYj
— USA Baseball 18U (@USABaseball18U) September 18, 2022
Kozeal, a 5-foot-11 infielder, received an invitation over the summer to try out for Team USA in early September. He had a strong trials and earned a spot on the final roster to extend his stay in Florida.
It was a “special” run for Kozeal – one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. He played with not only the best in the country, but the world’s best. He soaked it all in, including wisdom from former big-leaguers like Hocking and assistant coach Jack Wilson.
“I’m one of those people that writes notes down,” Kozeal said. “Every night I kind of sat down and reflected in my bed and wrote notes from the day. So many of those (guys) are big-leaguers and they have so much knowledge.”
Tryouts meant having to catch up with fastballs fired by the country’s best 17-year-old arms. Kozeal put together good at-bats, finishing as one of the top hitters in the early stages of the trip.
“It was another story when you’re playing in the actual World Cup and you’re facing guys from Taiwan or Japan who are throwing gyro-spinner balls,” said Kozeal, who hit .420 with six homers and 42 RBIs as a junior at Millard South. “(Pitches) that you never see in America, so that was definitely a new experience.”
It’s been “go, go, go, go” for Kozeal, who also is Millard South’s starting quarterback. He threw for 300-plus yards and three touchdowns in the Patriots’ season opener before heading to Florida. He returned to school Monday and was spinning footballs a few hours later at practice, trading seams for laces.
After a bad throw early in practice, he found his groove.
Teammate Gavin Nunnally even joked, “I thought you were playing baseball in Florida.”
“I’m super excited,” Kozeal said of getting back on the football field. “It was fun to be on this baseball adventure but I’m glad I’m back home and with friends and being able to compete on the football field with them.”
After beating Millard West to begin the season, the Patriots are 1-3 with upcoming games against Lincoln North Star, Lincoln East, Columbus and No. 1 Omaha Westside. There’s a lot of talent on the team and Kozeal said he’s ready for the final push.
Kozeal won’t forget about playing for Team USA. He’ll have some daily reminders – a gold medal and a soon-to-be framed USA jersey – to help with that.
For Kozeal, who is ranked as the nation’s No. 103 baseball prospect by Perfect Game, the World Cup was a chance to learn more about the game and to bond with players from around the country (Three other players also are committed to Vandy). It was an opportunity to show he can play with the best. Kozeal was the only player from the Great Plains on the roster.
Above all, it was bigger than baseball.
“The best part of it was probably just being able to say I represented my country in a way that I love doing it,” Kozeal said. “A lot of people join the military and other stuff, but I did it in a way that’s unique to me and I play baseball for my country.
“It felt great to do it with so many amazing guys and so many amazing people. The coaches were amazing. There’s a lot of people behind the scenes that just made it an unbelievable experience.”