FORT MYERS, Fla. - Always a groomsmen and never the groom? That may seem like a harsh assessment, but the truth is the Dulins Dodgers 14u and 15u squads from the last two summer seasons have come up just short at four Perfect Game national championship alters.
It's a new year; a new summer season. Perhaps now, as a 16u unit, this group of Dodgers can seal the deal with PG national championship rings that will fit as snuggly and with as much commitment as a golden wedding band.
The Cordova, Tenn.-based Dulins Dodgers are at the Perfect Game 16u BCS Finals this week a couple of years wiser and more hungry than ever.
In the past two summer seasons this group of Dodgers made it to the championship games of the 2010 PG WWBA 2013 Grads or 15u National Championship in Marietta, Ga.; the title game of the 2010 PG 14u BCS Finals right here in Fort Myers; and the championship game of the 2011 PG WWBA 2014 Grads or 15u National Championship, also in Marietta. Each time, they came up short.
The Dodgers lost to the 6-5-3 DP Cougars in the 2010 WWBA 15u National Championship and to the So Cal National Travel Team in the 2010 14u BCS Finals. They then lost to the East Cobb Astros in the 2011 WWBA 15u National Championship title game and again to the EC Astros in the semifinal round of the 2011 15u BCS Finals.
In an effort to show they're still around and expect nothing short of a fifth straight PG national championship final-four finish, they won their first three pool-play games here this week.
"We're off to (good) start right now and we respect every opponent; we play the right way and it's not about the destination, it's about the journey, and this journey has started with this bunch for the last three years," head coach Mike Fitzsimmons said Monday after his team won its third game of the 16u BCS Finals on another steamy-hot afternoon at the Player Development 5-Plex.
"At one of these events there's going to be a culmination of everything, and we're tired of watching dog-piles," he said. "We're here with a plan and a purpose."
Fitzsimmons' son, promising young 2014 prospect Michael Fitzsimmons, played on all four of those final-four squads.
"We want to prove a point that we're here to win it this time, not just get there," Michael said. "We just need to get our heads on straight."
The Dodgers were fairly straight-on while winning their first three pool-play games Sunday and Monday, and will spend Tuesday and Wednesday trying to win their second four-team pool in an effort to make the 16-team playoff field at the 16u BCS Finals.
"I think we've played well but I also think we can play better," Coach Fitzsimmons said. "We've knocked on the door and now it's time for us to come and kick the door down. ... We have a select group of young men that realize it ain't about 'me' it's a about 'we'. We play truly for each other and I've got a great staff and we play for the love of the game."
The Dulins Dodgers 15u team from a year ago - this year's 16u group - entered the 2011 season ranked No. 1 in Perfect Game's National Travel Team Rankings. It came on the heels of the Dodgers' two runner-up national finishes the year before, and for a moment Fitzsimmons felt a little flummoxed.
"Perfect Game does a hell of a job of recognizing talent," he said. "They know how talented we are ... and no disrespect to any teams that have beaten us and wear rings, but we're here and that's our goal every time we go out to play. We tip our cap to an opponent that makes a good play but we're here with a plan and a purpose."
Michael Fitzsimmons, a 2014 at Memphis (Tenn.) University High School, has been pretty good at the plate so far, hitting .429 (3-for-7) in three games with four runs scored. Cody Henry is also 3-for-7 (.429) and Hagen Owenby went 3-for-8 (.375) with two triples and four RBIs. Right-hander Blake Bennett worked seven innings and allowed three hits and two earned runs (2.00 ERA) while striking out 11.
Michael Fitzsimmons attended the invitation-only Perfect Game Junior National Showcase in Minneapolis in early June.
"It was really good," Michael said of the experience. "The competition was good and it was good to see where I was at against the best competition in the country and see where I stand. My dream is to play at the next level ... and it was pretty cool going far away and seeing where the best players are."
Coach Fitzsimmons said he has been told by college coaches and recruiters that this Dulins Dodgers squad has anywhere from eight to 10 NCAA Division I prospects on its roster. It was a collection of talent that Dulins Dodgers founder Tim Dulin decided very early to keep together.
"This core group has been together since they were 12s and we came over and became the Dulins team at 14s," Fitzsimmons said. "Tim (Dulin) recognized this was a special core group and put in the added pieces, and they're really like brothers. This is an extremely tight group ... and it's a group that I truly, truly love coaching."
This Dodgers team will be at the PG WWBA 2014 Grads or 16u National Championship in Marietta July 13-20. Even with that wood-bat tournament just less than two weeks away, Fitzsimmons was thinking about the BBCOR-bat tournament that still has (hopefully, in the Dodgers' case) four more days to run.
"This is the best event in the country," he said. "(BCS Finals tournament director) Ben (Ford) just does a heck of a job and we're thrilled to be here. From the umpiring to the facilities to Ben Ford and the way (PG) takes care of stuff ... it's first class and it's better than anything we've ever played in.
"I tip my cap to Perfect Game and our dream and our goal is to wear one of those Perfect Game national championship rings."