FORT MYERS, Fla. – By late morning on Tuesday, the 90-degree temperature and 70-percent humidity level were already making conditions seem somewhat oppressive at the Boston Red Sox’s JetBlue Park Player Development Complex.
Everyone involved with the 3rd annual 13u Perfect Game BCS Finals national championship was suffering. Players, coaches, family members, umpires, tournament officials, members of the grounds crew, concession-stand workers, the girls selling T-shirts and programs and even one grumpy old PG writer were all looking for a change of shirts by straight-up noon.
There were silver linings, of course. It wasn’t raining (huge relief); the playoffs at the 13u PG BCS Finals got under way right on schedule at 8 a.m. (another huge relief) and some of the best action of the entire tournament took place on the field as four teams were left standing to mix it up in Wednesday morning’s semifinals at City of Palms Park.
“This is tough,” Weston Black Hawks head coach Steve Alfonso said after his team won its first-round playoff game Tuesday morning. “These kids are coming out in (six) days and trying to play 10 games; it’s hot (but) the competition is good. … We’ve had to come from behind in just about every game, so the kids are showing a lot of character.
“But we don’t look behind; we don’t look too far ahead,” he continued. “We look at the next game ahead of us, we play that game and we try to make it not so big. We try to minimize everything and try to make it more about us and not who’s over (in the other dugout).”
The Weston, Fla.-based Black Hawks finished pool-play with a 6-0-0 record and came into the playoffs as the No. 3 seed, and they battled the heat and the opposition tooth-and-nail on Tuesday. They built a solid lead and hung on for an 8-6 win over No. 14 Alex Cintron Baseball (4-2-1) from Houston in the first round, then rallied for a 6-5 victory over the No. 6 Dallas Tigers-Hernandez (6-2-0) from Coppell, Texas, in the quarterfinals.
That was the last quarterfinal game completed Tuesday and set Wednesday’s semifinal pairings in stone: the No. 5 East Cobb Astros (7-1-0) from Marietta, Ga., versus the No. 1 Banditos Black (8-0-0) from Richmond, Texas; the No. 3 Weston Black Hawks (8-0-0) vs. the No. 2 Florida Stealth (8-0-0) from Del Ray Beach, Fla. The Banditos Black were the co-champions at the 2013 13u BCS Finals.
This tournament has been a mad scramble for the Weston Black Hawks. They had to come from behind to win five of their eight games and outscored their eight opponents only by a combined 69-41 (an average score of about 8-to-5). Their biggest and most important come-back came in their 6-5 quarterfinal win over the Dallas Tigers-Hernandez when they scored six runs over the last three innings to escape from a 5-0 deficit.
“It’s not always coffee and donuts for us,” Alfonso said, “but they understand what we’re looking for, they understand our goals. They’re learning how to be pushed a little bit to a higher level and they’re accepting the challenge; they’re pushing themselves and that’s the rewards that we’re getting.”
Twelve months ago this week, a group of 12-year-olds from all around the Dallas, Texas, area came to this city in Southwest Florida, and playing on softball fields at the Lee County Sports Complex, won the 2nd annual 12u Perfect Game BCS Finals national championship.
Nine of the 13 young prospects on this Dallas Tigers-Hernandez roster were also on the Tigers-Hernandez team that won last year’s 12u PG BCS Finals national championship. Another member of this year’s team – 2019 third baseman Anthony Garza Jr. from Grand Prairie, Texas – was named the Most Valuable Player at the 2013 12u BCS Finals while playing for the SIII Hustlers, the team the Tigers beat in the championship game.
“These kids won here last year, so they remember what it felt like and they know what it takes; we’re going to have a good shot,” Dallas Tigers-Hernandez head coach and organization owner Tommy Hernandez said before playing the Weston Black Hawks in the quarterfinals.
“I started this club 21 years ago and if you’re not coachable, you can’t play in this club; not this team specifically, but the club. We have some fantastic coaches throughout the club and all these kids – and the parents – have to buy into our system. … I told them from day one here that it is going to take all 13 of us and every one of them has contributed.”
The Dallas Tigers-Hernandez lost their third pool-play game of the tournament to the Iron Pigs (5-2-0) from nearby Port Charlotte, Fla., 6-4, but avenged that loss with a come-from-behind 7-6 victory of their own in the playoffs’ first round. The Tigers trailed the Pigs, 4-0, after one inning of play.
“The boys being down 4-nothing in the first, we’ve been down all year and have been able to come back and I was proud of them for sticking with the game-plan and executing,” Hernandez said. “In a close game like that you’ve got to have some breaks and we had some go our way, and we’re happy for that.”
Hernandez said he rotates his lineup every game and it is very uncommon to see the same lineup in back-to-back games. Every one of the young guys is prepared to play, he knows what to do when it is asked of him, and even if he starts the game on the bench he can be pretty sure he might be called upon to pinch-hit or as a defensive replacement or relief pitcher.
“We’ve played some really good competition all year so I think we’re prepared for the competition here,” Hernandez said. “These boys, I think we have great chemistry – being at the hotel, on the beach, in the pool, playing tennis, volleyball, they’ve had a blast. We’re just trying to have fun.”
The core of the Weston Blackhawks has been playing together since their 8-and-under years but Alfonso has been with them for only the last year. He’s learned a lot about his young charges over the last 12 months, and emphasized that this is about as “local” of a team as you’ll find at a national championship tournament event; six of the players call Weston home and all are from Broward County.
There is some talent on this team, too, particularly at the plate. Luis Diaz (2018, Hialeah, Fla.) went 8-for-17 (.471) in eight games with two doubles, 11 RBI, five runs scored and a 1.213 OPS; Edgar Quintana (2018, Hialeah Gardens, Fla.) was 9-for-20 (.450) with two doubles, four RBI and seven runs; Rolando Leyva (2018, Weston, Fla.) went 8-for-19 (.421) with a double, seven RBI and eight runs scored.
The Black Hawk coaches only want to get their players ready to play at the next level, which in this case is the high school level. Alfonso knows his players want to be able to play high school baseball at a high level some day and they’re eager to listen and learn as much as they can right now.
“We like our group, we love these kids, they work hard together and they practice hard together,” he said. “I like the fruits of their labor when they can come out here and win, and we are about winning; I’ll never say that we’re not. I’ve never taken the field and said ‘Let’s not win today’ and until that happens we’re here to win.”
But there is a flipside to that and it has everything to do with expectations. Four of the top-five playoff seeds are in Wednesday’s final four and success can be judged in ways other than the last numbers that go up on the scoreboard.
“If they do everything we ask them to do and play with the intensity they need to play this game with – the energy, the passion, the discipline – if they’re able to do those things, whether we win or lose is irrelevant, at least to us,” Alfonso said. “If we win that’s a bonus to us, that’s all gravy. We want to compete here and that’s our biggest objective.”
Oh, and having fun is still what this all about, even as everyone sweats through three or four shirts a day and thanks their lucky stars that it isn’t raining. With four teams still standing at this year’s edition of the 13u PG BCS Finals, no hope is lost and all hope springs eternal.
“We think we have as good a shot as anybody,” Alfonso said. “We take one game at a time, we don’t look ahead, we keep our focus and we’ll see what happens. Play hard and have fun – that’s the only thing we ask them to do; it’s pretty simple.”