FORT MYERS, Fla. - Team Elite White 13u assistant coach Joey Hardigree stood outside the batting cages at City of Palms Park Sunday morning and soaked in the surroundings.
"This is going to be a fun tournament. The facilities ... this is something that we've never been on," Hardigree said with a wide smile. "This great looking stadium over here, City of Palms, it's worth coming down here just knowing you're going to get to play on a nice field, something that looks like they would play on in the big leagues.
"It's great and the kids are excited. Plus, we're at the beach ... and the kids are going to have a great time here away from the baseball field."
But this about baseball, first and foremost. Team Elite White 13u is one of 20 teams here this week for the Perfect Game 13u BCS Finals, the first 13u BCS Finals contested since 2006. The 20-team field is comprised predominantly by squads primarily from Florida, Texas and Georgia but also includes entrants from Louisiana, Delaware, Indiana, New York and Puerto Rico.
The teams are divided into five four-team pools and the tournament kicked off Sunday with each team playing the first of its first set of three pool games. After those three games are played by Monday, the teams will be shuffled into five new pools and three more games will be played Tuesday and Wednesday.
The five champions of the second set of pool-play games will earn automatic entry into the 16-team playoffs. The other 11 slots will be filled by at-large entrants based on their records in all six pool-play games.
The team playing here this week under the Team Elite White banner is actually the Georgia Bandits, an elite 13u team based in the Ringgold, Ga.-Chattanooga, Tenn., area. Hardigree, Bandits head coach Troy Roberson and Team Elite founder and general manager Brad Bouras reached an agreement in the spring to bring the Bandits here for the 13u BCS Final and put them in Team Elite uniforms. Team Elite Baseball is based in Loganville, Ga., near Atlanta.
“Troy Roberson and Joey Hardigree have the like mind-set for their players; they really care a lot about them and they’re very adamant about those kids getting exposure to the next level, where ever that may be,” Bouras told Perfect Game in early May. “I’ve expressed to them that Perfect Game at the high school division is pretty much the epitome of everything that gets kids exposure and gets kids seen by scouts.”
Hardigree said the arrangement will benefit both parties.
"The guys at Elite are just great instructors and we wish we could have more of an involvement with them than we can, but we're spread out so much it's hard to do," he said in regard to where the Bandits' players call home. "We've had a couple of camps over there that have been very beneficial to the kids; they can see that there's more out there than just fielding a ground ball or just catching a fly ball.
"There's a lot of small, minute things that go into polishing a baseball player and making him look good for the scouts and the recruiters."
Team Elite White lived up to everyone's lofty expectations by beating Action Baseball Club Green, 11-1 in five innings, in its tournament opener.
Jason Rooks (2017, Marietta, Ga.), batting seventh in Elite White's batting order, was 2-for-2 with a triple, home run, three RBI and two runs scored and Peyton Millirons (2017, Panama City, Fla.) was 2-for-2 with a double, an RBI and three runs. Right-hander Will Lumpkin (2016, Roanoke, Ala.) started and pitched four no-hit innings, striking out eight and walking two.
As 13-year-olds, most of these youngsters are getting their first taste of playing on regulation-size fields with pitching mounds 60-feet, 6-inches from home plate and 90-foot base paths. Hardigree said the Bandits played this spring primarily on fields with 54-foot pitching mounds and 80-foot base paths.
"We've played on the larger fields, but not very much," he said. "The hardest thing they have to adjust to is the fact that the mound has been moved back six feet and they get out in front of the pitch. Working on staying back and hitting the ball the other way has been the toughest adjustment because they don't have to pull the trigger quite as quickly."
These young players are still developing their individual games as well as their love for the game in general. Instruction is still very important at their age, but so is gaining valuable experiences for what lies ahead as they enter high school in the next year or two.
"Once we get on the ball field, I don't look at it as teaching anymore," Hardigree said. "There will be small aspects that we will teach them if they make a mistake on something that they've been shown already, but mainly this is about getting these guys out there and letting them know what it's like to be a Perfect Game (tournament) atmosphere. They're out there to showcase their talents and even though they're at 13, these guys are getting the experience now that is going to be second nature to them in a couple of years."
"We're preparing these guys for when they're 15- and 16-year-olds by seeing this now."
And, especially if you ask the kids, the one thing they most want to experience is winning. It doesn't matter if you're 13 or 18, carting home that PG national championship trophy and wearing a PG national championship ring is of the utmost importance, even to the coaching staff and regardless of any aforementioned references to days at the beach.
"Our head coach, Troy Roberson, will tell you that we don't go anywhere that we don't think we can win," Hardigree said. "We're down here with that expectation and we're going to try to win. The kids bust their tales; they bleed, they sweat, they get bruises, and as coaches we're going to do everything we can for them to make sure they have a chance to win.
"It's a two way street. If you're a coach asking a kid to be out there and do what these guys do, then we got to do what we can do to help those guys win," he continued. "Winning sometimes gets a bad reputation, but there's nothing wrong with doing your best and trying to win, and we strive to do that every time out."