FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Don't mess with Maryland.
The Baltimore-based Arena Starz took care of a team from Florida in the first round of the playoffs at the 2013 14u PG BCS Finals and then systematically eliminated three teams from Texas in the last two days and claimed their first Perfect Game national championship Wednesday at City of Palms Park.
The No. 7-seeded Starz beat No. 10 Bullets Gold 14u from Valrico, Fla., in the first round on Tuesday, and topped the No. 15 Academy Select Sun Devils-Ingram out of Plano, Texas, in the quarterfinals, also on Tuesday. Wednesday started out with a win over the No. 11 Dallas Tigers-Woods, also based in the Lone Star State.
But they saved their best for last when they stopped the top-seeded and nationally acclaimed Houston Banditos Black in the championship game, 4-2, to complete a run through the six-day 14u PG BCS Finals with a 9-0-1 record.
"We play good ball up (in Maryland) and we know they play good ball down here, and that's why we come down this way," Starz head coach Scott Elliott said after his championship team had posed for what seemed like dozens of photos.
"This is a strong team and they win a lot of tournaments," he said. "They've been here before and they know what's it's like to compete at this level and they're not intimidated; they just come out and play their games."
Patrick Lightner (2016, Gaithersburg, Md.) and Jeremy Arocho (2017, Millersville, Md.) each drove in a pair of runs to stake the Starz to a 4-0 lead after 6 1/2 innings and right-hander Blake James (2016, Clarksville,Md.) finished with a seven-inning three-hitter to lead the Starz to the win in the title game.
The Banditos Black (9-1) had the bases loaded with no outs in the bottom of the seventh but were forced to settle for a couple of sacrifice flies. Jaxx Groshens (2016, Magnolia, Texas) had two of the Banditos' three hits.
"It's been a great tournament; these guys have fought hard," Elliott said. "We came down here without a couple of our (top) pitchers and had a couple of guys hurt, so we had to press a lot of guys into service that weren't use to pitching, but they did a great job with it."
Arena Starz 2017 prospect Brandon Dorsey was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player. A 5-foot-11, 165-pound corner-infielder from Mount Airy, Md., Dorsey was 10-for-20 (.500) at the plate, with three doubles, a triple, 10 RBI, eight runs scored, four stolen bases and a 1.395 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS).
The Houston Banditos Black's Landon Miner, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound 2016 right-hander out of Bryan, Texas, was named the event's Most Valuable Pitcher. Miner pitched in three games and picked up two wins and one save, working 12 1/3 innings without giving up a run, and striking out 19 while issuing but one walk.
The Arena Starz train at the Ripken Baseball Academy in Aberdeen, Md., and are no strangers to a high level of play. The organization was formed to bring together a lot of the best players at various age-groups from around the Baltimore metropolitan area and like to go out and compete against the better competition from throughout the nation but especially those from the youth baseball hotbeds in states like Texas, Florida and Georgia.
This group that can now call itself a Perfect Game 14u national champion was put together a year ago when most of the players were 13 years old. They are eighth- and ninth-graders who come from an area around Baltimore that extends as far south as Washington D.C.
"They've known each other for a while and a lot of them competed against each other in local travel programs and became friends," Elliott said. "We decided to all get together and take it south and go into the bigger tournaments together where you have to have the deeper pitching and the bigger squads."
Elliott said the Starz are a group that likes to "gut it out" when it comes to winning close games, adding that, "They don't want to quit and our guys want to be in there, and they know what it's like to play at this level." The only blemish on their record down here was a 3-3 tie with the Georgia Jackets, who entered the playoffs as the No. 3 seed but were eliminated in the quarterfinals.
"When you come down to these southern tournaments , even the first round games are tough games," Elliott said. "You've got to learn how to grind them out and just stay in there and stay mentally focused. One of the big things about this team is we don't put a ton of pressure on them; when they're down we're not beating them down and we just let them find their groove.
"They're a quieter team in the dugout -- they don't get all jazzed up and emotional -- but they tend to find their groove and just grind it out and make plays, and at the end of the day they're usually on top," he continued. "They do a good job and they're really a great bunch of boys."
The final four that participated in the semifinal games Wednesday morning on the two fields at City of Palms Park were representative of the bracket field at large. The No. 1 Banditos and No. 7 Starz were joined by No. 5 Palm Beach County PAL 14u (7-1-1) out of West Palm Beach, Fla., and the No. 11 Dallas Tigers-Woods (6-3) from Coppell, Texas.
The Banditos Black's Miner was superb for the Banditos in their 3-0 semifinal win over PBC PAL 14u. He need only 83 pitches -- 61 for strikes -- to complete seven shutout innings while giving up just three hits with no walks and striking out 10; his fastball reached 87 mph. Miner was also 2-for-3 at the plate with an RBI.
Blake Faecher (2017, Houston) and Tucker Bradley (2016, Chickamauga, Ga.) each had two hits, and Shane Daughety (2016, Spring, Texas) doubled and drove in a run for the Banditos. Tyler Ward (2017, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.) had two of PBC PAL's three hits.
Left-hander Matt Thomas (2017, York, Pa.) also needed only 83 pitches over seven innings to lead the Starz past the Dallas Tigers-Woods, 4-1, in the other semifinal. Thomas allowed only the one earned run on six hits and no walks, and struck out one.
Ethan Gallagher (2016, Catonsville, Md.) was 3-for-3 with a double, RBI and one run scored to lead the Starz' 10-hit attack. Raffy Baumgardner (2017, Rockville, Md.) was 2-for-3 with a triple and two RBI.
And when the day was done, the Arena Starz out of Baltimore, Md., were the 2013 14u PG BCS Finals national champion.
"Back to when they were in 11 and 12u they use to watch a lot of these teams -- the Banditos were one of them , and so were the Georgia Jackets -- and that's where they wanted to be," Elliott said. "This core group, they're good athletes; in every sport they've ever played they do a really good job, they're excellent students and the put this up on the shelf and said, 'Hey, we want to aspire to do this.' So we kind of built this team to go do that.
"So, yeah, I'm very proud of them. They don't quit, they never-ever quit; there's something about this team and I think anybody could coach them because they just go out and do what they need to do."
2013 PG BCS 14u Finals runner-up: Houston Banditos Black
2013 PG BCS 14u Finals MVP: Brandon Dorsey, Arena Starz
2013 PG BCS 14u Finals MV-Pitcher: Landon Miner, Houston Banditos Black