FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Try as they might, four traditionally strong programs from the proud baseball state of Georgia couldn't overcome the potent one-two punch produced by the Venice (Fla.) High School pitching staff and the Indians' impressive defensive prowess, especially up the middle.
One by one, the Georgia high school teams from Savannah Christian Prep, Parkview, Cartersville and Blessed Trinity walked away from the fields at City of Palms Park and Terry Park shaking their heads with equal parts respect and frustration.
What needs to be done? What sort of magic is required to score a run off the Venice Indians, the third-ranked team in the Perfect Game High School National Rankings? They were questions that went collectively unanswered over the course of two days at the inaugural Perfect Game High School Showdown, which concluded Saturday night on the fields at COP and Terry.
Venice High, with its No. 3 national ranking, was widely considered the favorite coming into the Showdown, which pitted four elite programs from Florida against four of their equals from Georgia. The Indians shoved any doubt aside by winning both the overall and Florida team championships with a 4-0 showing, the only squad in the eight-team field to finish unbeaten.
And not only unbeaten, but un-scored upon. Venice outscored its four Georgia foes by a combined 19-0.
"It's great pitching but it's also great defense. Both of those things work together," 15th-year Venice head coach Craig Faulkner said after the Indians had whipped Blessed Trinity, 9-0, Saturday night at COP. "We threw a lot of strikes and it was solid relief pitching and solid starting pitching. You really can't expect (performances like) that."
To make it all the more special, the Indians' 18th win of the season (they are 18-2 overall) was also the 300th of Faulkner's career at his high school alma mater. His career record as head coach is now an eye-popping 300-144.
"These guys played great all weekend and to end up at the fourth game with the 300th win, in my career that's pretty special for me," Faulkner said. "These guys played great defense all week, they (showed) great pitching -- not giving up a run in this tournament is pretty tough -- and our hitting was outstanding as well."
Because its scheduled Thursday night Showdown opener against No. 13-ranked Parkview was postponed, Venice had to play its four games at the tournament in two days instead of three. That made what the eight-man pitching staff accomplished even the more impressive. None of the eight made more than one appearance or pitched more than seven innings.
Those eight arms pitched 28 innings in two days and allowed no runs on 14 hits with 25 strikeouts and 10 walks. Junior right-hander Ryan Miller, senior left-hander Nick Longhi and sophomore righty Colin Christello combined on a seven-inning, five-hit, 10-strikeout, four-walk shutout in the decisive tournament-ending win over Blessed Trinity.
One of the Indians most impressive pitchers all season has been senior right-hand side-arm throwing Cooper Hammond, a U of Miami signee who worked three innings of one-hit ball at the Showdown.
"It's been awesome," Hammond said of the Showdown experience. "Playing in a (PG) tournament with your high school team, it's pretty fun because you're not used to it. You're used to doing it with your summer team so it's fun to be with this group of guys and playing in a tournament."
As good as the Indians' pitching was, their defense might have been better. Starting right up the middle, from catcher Michael Rivera to shortstop Dalton Guthrie to second baseman Colton Lightner, there might not be any threesome playing on the same high school team in the country that are any better defensively. The Indians made only two errors in 112 total chances in their four games here Friday and Saturday.
"We take as much pride in our defense as we do in our hitting," Lightner said. "Up the middle, me and Dalton ... and with Michael Rivera behind the plate, we love playing defense, and we know that's just as big as the offense."
"This team is pretty special defensively," Faulkner said. "Our catching is outstanding -- blocking everything, throwing guys out, picking guys off -- and you can't speak highly enough of these young men."
Lightner, a Stetson University signee, was also the Indians' most productive offensive threat. He was 7-for-11 (.636) with a .714 on-base percentage and three of his team's 11 stolen bases.
"I was very comfortable at the plate," he said. "Just throw the hands at the ball; that's all I was thinking about. We saw some great pitching, too, but I just felt really good at the plate and was able to get the barrel of the bat on the ball."
Rivera was 7-for-12 (.583) with four doubles and eight RBI and Guthrie 4-for-11 (.364) with a .553 on-base percentage and three stolen bases of his own. Rivera and Guthrie, both juniors, are Florida commits.
When everything was tabulated at the end of the Showdown, the numbers showed it wasn't much of a showdown at all. The four Florida schools dominated, finishing a combined 11-5 against their Georgia counterparts. Georgia schools Parkview and Blessed Trinity both finished 2-2 and Parkview was declared the Georgia champion because it allowed 13 runs in its four games opposed to the 15 allowed by BP.
"Florida won this, but you know our district (includes) Sarasota which went 3-1 (at the Showdown) and beat some great teams as well," Faulkner said. "Our focus from this point forward is how can we get out of our district and keep moving on, because it's tough."
The Indians have certainly been challenged in the past couple of weeks. They spent last weekend at the prestigious USA Baseball National High School Invitational in Cary, N.C., where they finished in third-place with a 3-1 record. To think they went a combined 7-1 at the NHSI and the PG HS Showdown is really quite impressive.
"We've played some great teams," Faulkner said. "It's very special to play that kind of competition and it's everything that I could have hoped for. We want to play the best competition and we felt like we may have had the toughest schedule in all of the United States, possibly. It's very special to come here and win four in a row at this tournament; Perfect Game puts on such a great tournament and treated everybody so special, it's nice to be a part of their first year with this."
Lightner couldn't have agreed more.
"It's probably the most fun I've had playing baseball, these last two days," he said. "We came together as team and we just had so much fun playing the game. It was just awesome everybody all working together."