FORT MYERS, Fla. – The easy smile and gregarious personality belied a sense of seriousness inside the young man when it came time to consider the task at hand.
“I come down here to compete; I don’t come down here to lose,” Mid-Ohio Bullets Blue 2015 corner-infielder Reed Norris said matter-of-factly, though with a smile on his face. “I don’t travel a thousand miles just to lose; we’re all down here to compete.”
By “all”, Norris was referring to every one of his teammates on the Mid-Ohio Bullets Blue, a squad based in Marengo, Ohio, in the Columbus area, that is in Southwest Florida this weekend and into next week competing at the 16u Perfect Game BCS Finals national championship.
Norris made his remarks Saturday morning from the backfields at the Boston Red Sox’s Jet Blue Park Player Development Complex before the Bullets Blues struck late and then held on to post an 8-5 win over the Long Island (N.Y.) Tigers, their second straight win to open the tournament.
Mid-Ohio may be lacking the highly ranked prospects that crowd the rosters of quite a few elite teams at the 16u event but it certainly doesn’t lack for drive or desire. Nor do the Bullets Blue lack an appreciation for where they will be spending the next four or five days.
“The biggest thing for us, coming from Columbus, Ohio, is the entire experience of playing on the nicer fields, the real baseball grass and, obviously, playing teams from all over the nation,” Bullets Blue head coach John Shepherd said Saturday. “We get exposure throughout the Midwest playing in the top tournaments, but we look forward to this; not only the teams that we play but the exposure Perfect Game allows all our players to have.
“This is a big deal for these guys and they’re definitely looking forward to it,” he continued. “We realize that there are so many good teams here that even the good teams get knocked out. … This is kind of a measuring stick for us against the best; that’s who we want to play, so we’re definitely looking forward to it.”
There are a lot of the same players on this Bullets Blue roster that were on the Mid-Ohio Bullets Blue 15u team that was here a year ago at the 2013 15u PG BCS Finals and didn’t advance to the playoffs after finishing 3-3 in pool-play. Norris was one of the players back this year for the 16u tournament, and was the only Bullets Blue player named to last year’s 15u BCS Finals all-tournament team.
“This isn’t our last tournament or anything, but this is always the main focus of our summer, a big highlight,” he said. “We just love coming down here and playing against some of the kids that will be getting drafted next year and some of the top kids in the country, and it’s just such a good time.”
The Mid-Ohio Bullets Blue is definitely a local team, with almost all of its players coming from Central Ohio in or near the Columbus metropolitan area. Of the 15 players on the roster, most have played together for the last two years and as many as nine for the last four or five years.
Several of the players attend the same high school. Norris, 2016 right-hander/middle-infielder Zach Bowden and 2016 catcher/outfielder Nicklaus Smith all attend St. Francis De Sales High School in Columbus; 2016 right-hander/third baseman Dominic Drouhard and 2016 catcher/third baseman Matt Phipps are classmates at Dublin (Ohio) Coffman High School; 2016 left-hander/first baseman Cody Gabriel and 2016 right-hander Carson Mittermaier are both at Upper Sandusky (Ohio) High School.
“This is a pretty exciting group from the standpoint that at the higher level you play, you typically run into guys that are carrying big egos and can be selfish and that sort of thing,” Shepherd said. “The key thing for this group is that they’re very humble and sometimes too humble – they need to play with a little bit more swag.
“But if a guy has a rough outing or doesn’t come up with a clutch hit, these guys are the first ones out of the dugout. I never have to worry about picking these guys up or consoling them or encouraging them; they do a good job of that on their own.”
The Bullets Blue got their first game of the tournament in on Friday before rain washed out the late afternoon schedule. Gabriel, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound lefty, and Drouhard, a 6-foot, 180-pound righty, combined on a seven-inning four-hitter in a 3-0 win over the Jacksonville (Fla.) Warriors White. Gabriel allowed the four hits in four innings while striking out two and walking two, and Drouhard threw three no-hit innings with two K’s and two BBs.
Gabriel also shined at the plate, going 2-for-3 with a double and an RBI; Mittermaier and 2016 outfielder Shane Carney each drove in a run.
Bowden threw a five-inning, two-hitter without allowing an earned run in the win over the Long Island Tigers, striking out seven and walking one. 2016 catcher Justin Springer had a pair of singles and drove in a run, and Gabriel and Phipps each doubled and drove in a run; 2016 shortstop Colin Shepherd also delivered a double.
“Sometimes we start out a little slow but potentially the sky is the limit for this team,” said Norris, who had a couple of singles, drove in a run, scored a run, was walked and hit by a pitch in the first two games.
“We have three solid catchers; we have a solid pitching staff. We might not be the best hitting team at times; all of our games are usually pretty low-scoring and we don’t make a lot of errors. I’d say that defense is really our key, not necessarily hitting. We can hit, but we always seem to win it with pitching and those sorts of things.”
Coach Shepherd noted that this team has “talent across the board” but also acknowledged that quite a few of his guys are what he calls “overachievers”, players who go out there “and don’t do anything numbers-wise that would impress you but they just play the game well.”
“I just think the team camaraderie, the chemistry, the way they pick each other up, it’s just a special group in that respect,” he added. “I’ve had a lot more talented groups through the years but never a group that got along this well.”
The Mid-Ohio Bullets organization has been around for about 11 years and has always prided itself on staying as local as possible. Shepherd called this team the “flagship product” of the organization, which is headed by Gary Hampton and who also operates an indoor facility called Hitter’s Headquarters in Marengo. And one thing is certain: the guys from Central Ohio are feeling right at home here in Southwest Florida.
“We definitely feel we belong here,” Shepherd said. “The last couple of weekends we played in 18u wood bat tournaments and our guys have gone out and performed against some of the top 18-year-old teams in the country. We feel like when the ball is hit and put in play and there’s throwing and catching, it’s all the same to us at this point. Our pitching and defense is what we rely on and when we hit the ball, we’re unbeatable; that’s the bottom line.
“We totally anticipate making bracket-play; that’s our goal,” he concluded. “I think if you make bracket-play then anybody has a chance at that point. We’ve seen (teams) over the years here – some of the so-called favorites – get knocked out in the first or second round of bracket-play, so that’s just is what it is.”
Or, to repeat Norris: “I don’t travel a thousand miles just to lose; we’re all down here to compete.”