FORT MYERS, Fla. – Is there really any advantage (or disadvantage, for that matter) in being the defending champion at an age-group tournament? It’s certainly open for debate.
Palm Beach County PAL 16u won the Perfect Game 16u BCS Finals in 2010, and Coach Craig Gero is back again for this year’s tournament – being played at numerous locations around the Fort Myers area, including Terry Park, City of Palms Park, the Lee County Sports Complex and the Boston Red Sox Player Development 5-plex.
Gero was able to bring back a handful of players from last year’s 16u BCS Finals champion who were just 15 when they played on that team in the summer of 2010. Most years – and this year’s group is really no exception – the team’s roster is almost completely different from the one that won the last year’s Finals.
But PBC PAL always seems to return as strong as ever.
“Our program and its reputation in our area help us,” Gero said Saturday as the tournament kicked off its six-day run. “We get a lot of the premier players that want to be part of our program for a number of reasons. Some of it is the success we’ve had and that some of our players end up going to four-year schools. Some of it is that we have good coaches and we teach good baseball.”
The players on the Palm Beach County PAL teams – there are 16u, 17u and 18u squads – all live within the county. The baseball teams are under the umbrella of the Palm Beach County Police Athletic League, which offers programs in a variety of activities of which baseball is just one.
Gero explained that each of the three teams makes a commitment to a core group of 20 young prospects who represent the best of the best at their respective Palm Beach County high schools. The situation is unique when compared to a lot of the other travel ball programs that are here through next Thursday for the 16u and 14u BCS Finals.
“It’s not always travel ball, because in travel ball you bring different kids in and the kids don’t know each other,” Gero said. “The fact that we’ve got kids from Palm Beach County is kind of interesting … and half the fun is seeing friendships that are made (on this team) even though they’re trying to beat each other as hard as they can the following year (in high school).”
A lot of the early buzz surrounding the 16u BCS Finals centered on Perfect Game’s decision to require the use of BBCOR-3 bats in all of the BCS Finals except the 14u.
The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive as the young prospects acclimate themselves to the same bat used by NCAA member conferences. Most state high school athletic associations are mandating their use in 2012, as well.
“We’ve swung them in practice but we used wood for about the first two months of the season so this may be a bit of an upgrade from that,” Gero said. “The kids are going to have to swing them in high school anyway, so I don’t think that’s an issue. If you pitch good and you play good defense, you’re going to have a chance to win anyway.”
As is the case with all of the travel team programs that attend Perfect Game events, PBC PAL wants its players to get the exposure necessary so that they can continue their careers at the next level, which usually means college baseball.
None of the players on its 16u roster have verbally committed to any school yet, but those commitments will come in time. In the meantime, Gero will remain committed to not only providing his players with the exposure they need while also instilling them with a winning attitude.
“There are a lot of things you want for your players, and most of all you want them to improve,” he said. “We tell our guys that we’re going to try to win every tournament – obviously not at all costs and we have enough pitching so that we’re not going to hurt a pitcher – and we tell them in the very first tournament that we go to that we expect to win.
“I think you get better when you strive to win because you strive to improve your game and your team game, and I think that’s where our program is so unique is because it’s all about ‘team.’”
PBC PAL 16u won its BCS Finals opener Saturday afternoon, 12-4, over Team Orlando. Franco Guardascione was 3-for-4 with a pair of doubles and four RBIs, Courtney King was 2-for-2 with three RBIs and Trey Amburgey was 3-for-4 with three runs scored to lead a 12-hit attack.
The PBC PAL 17u team coached by Chad Upton has also enjoyed a tremendous amount of success following that same “team first” mentality. In 2010, PBC PAL 17u won the 18u WWBA Memorial Day Classic on the same weekend the PBC PAL 16u won the16u WWBA Memorial Day Classic.
This past Memorial Day weekend, Upton talked about the importance the PCB PAL program puts on winning Perfect Game tournaments.
“We’ve been lucky enough to do some winning throughout our history, but any Perfect Game event is a special event to win because we know that all the big clubs are going to show up. Anytime we can win a Perfect Game event, that’s terrific,” he said.
Gero said it’s been a great relationship.
“Perfect Game has been good for us,” he said. “It’s close for us right here in Fort Myers – it’s a two-and-a-half hour trip – and the (WWBA) East Cobb events are big events because of the exposure to our kids. Perfect Game is high on our list as far as events we want to participate in.”
And that’s regardless of whether or not they come in as the defending champion.