FORT MYERS, Fla. – It somehow seems strange that one of the oldest travel team organizations in the country is being represented at the 2011 Perfect Game 16u BCS Finals by one of the youngest teams in the tournament.
The Midland Braves, part of the storied and nearly 55-year-old Midland Baseball program out of Cincinnati, are here competing for the 16u BCS Finals championship with a 20-man roster that includes nine players who are in the high school graduating class of 2014.
That means those players will be sophomores in high school in the fall and most of them are just 15-years-old.
“We have some great young arms and we have a lot of young kids on this team, I think we only have seven 16-year-olds,” Braves Coach Gary Simon said.
The Braves are one of 52 teams from across the country playing in the 16u BCS Finals, which kicked-off Saturday and conclude with a championship game at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at City of Palms Park. Simon was speaking Monday before his team was getting ready to begin its second set of three pool-play games, the first against the undefeated Indiana Prospects at Terry Park.
Just because the Braves roster is relatively young for this tournament, that certainly doesn’t mean these kids can’t play. They opened their first round of pool play with a 6-5 loss to Palm Beach Select on Saturday, and then whipped SoCal National Travel Team 16u, 16-4, and the Jacksonville Warriors, 12-4, on Sunday.
They ultimately played to a 4-4 tie with the Indiana Prospects on the Fourth of July, and will have two more second round pool-play games Tuesday.
“This is a good tournament for us. It’s a very positive experience, and it’s very beneficial for the kids,” Simon said.
“We’ll be back down here in October,” pitching coach James Niggemeyer added, referring to the 2011 PG WWBA Underclass World Championships which will be played here Oct. 7-10. “This is a great way for us to get in front of the best teams in the country and get us prepared for our season.”
There have been a lot of seasons in Midland Baseball’s history. The organization was founded in 1958 by “Papa” Joe Hayden after he took over the coaching responsibilities for his two young son’s knothole baseball team in Cincinnati.
The organization grew at a steady pace over the next five decades, but is in a bit of a transition period this year. It has held on to most of its team, including the legendary Midland Redskins 18u team and the Braves 16u, but has cut back in other areas, according to Simon.
Midland Baseball fielded a very successful 17u team in the past called the Midland Indians – they won the last two CABA World Series – but that program was eliminated this year due to budget restraints. That turned Simon’s 16u Braves into the Redskins primary feeder program.
“We had a kind of elite 14u team last year, a very good team, and I was told that my team was good and they were going to have us play ‘up’,” Simon said. “We’ve got six or seven 16 year olds that have filtered in with our 15-years-olds, and we’ll see how we do.
“We’re kind of an experiment this year for the first time, but it’s all working out for us.”
That the storied organization is experimenting at all is a bit of a surprise. Some remarkable former and current Major League players have passed through Midland Baseball’s door, including pitchers Charlie Leibrandt, Rich Dotson and Roger McDowell in the early years.
More recently, notable big-leaguers Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Larken, Chris Carpenter, Zach Greinke, Ryan Theriot and Cameron Maybin played in the Midland organization.
The strength of this year’s Midland Braves 16u lies in its concentration of young arms. Right-handers Matthew Rupenthal, Mike Merker and Jacob Niggemeyer, and lefties Kody Brown and Trevor Simon are all in that 2014 class. One of their most effective pitchers in the class of 2013 is 6-5, 235-pound right-hander Michael Seebohm.
Most of the young players on the Braves’ roster are from Ohio, and most of those are from the Cincinnati area. One notable exception at this tournament, however, is catcher/corner infielder Karl Ellison, who calls nearby Naples, Fla., home.
Through the Braves’ first four games, Ellison was making a run for tournament MVP honors thanks to a 6-for-10 effort from the plate, with a home run, two doubles and nine RBIs.
Because of the talent that’s on board, the Braves feel like they can still be playing in this tournament on Thursday.
“With our pitching and our hitting, that’s certainly a realistic goal,” Niggemeyer said.