FORT MYERS, Fla. – After wrapping up about a 10-minute conversation with a Perfect Game writer Tuesday morning, 6-4-3 DP Cougars head coach Ryan Sterling told the writer, “Thanks for noticing us.”
Truth-be-told, before play began Tuesday on what was the fourth day of action at the Perfect Game 16u BCS Finals, the 6-4-3 DP Cougars had been hard to miss.
The Marietta, Ga.,- based Cougars had zipped through the first round of pool-play at the Finals with a perfect 3-0 record while outscoring their opponents, 30-5. They opened the second round of pool-play Monday with a 10-1 victory and were one of just a handful of teams that were 4-0 three days into the six-day tournament.
The winning streak ended a little over two hours after Sterling spoke with Perfect Game, due to a 10-8 loss to the So Cal National Travel Team on Clemente Field at Terry Field.
The outstanding pitching that had led this group to four straight wins here – and to the title at last year’s PG WWBA 2013 Grads or 15u National Championship in Marietta – took a seat for a couple of hours. The Cougars still had one last pool game to play Tuesday afternoon, and all of the team’s high expectations remain in place.
“I had some big expectations because I believe in our team a lot,” Sterling said of his thoughts coming into the BCS Finals. “We made a pretty good run last year up in Marietta (at the WWBA National Championship), so I definitely expected us to have a shot at making a good run here.”
The Cougars are part of 6-4-3 DP Athletics, which was established in 2007 under the direction of Danny Pralgo, a well-known coach and instructor in the Atlanta area. The club started with two teams – 9-year-olds and a 16-year-olds – but quickly grew from two to eight teams, and this year fields 15 teams from ages 8 to 18.
The organization just opened a three-field facility in Marietta called the Aviation Sports Complex.
“(Pralgo) does things a little different,” Sterling said. “He’s very high energy, very positive, doesn’t beat his kids up, plays everybody and really works on creating a family. And people notice that.”
While a pair of pitchers gave up eight earned runs in the first three innings and four combined to give up 10 runs on 11 hits in Tuesday’s loss to the So. Cal National, there is no denying the 6-4-3 DP Cougars’ starters carried them to their first four wins.
“We built our team around pitching and defense, and that’s what we pride ourselves on,” Sterling said. “If we can play good defense and throw strikes, we believe we’re going to have a chance to win a ballgame – that’s how we built it and that’s what we harp on all year.”
Right-hander Matt Phillips pitched five innings of one-hit ball and struck out 11 in the 8-0 tournament-opening win over World of Baseball, and right-hander Taylor Allum threw six innings of four-hit ball with eight strikeouts and allowed only one earned run in an 11-3 win over the All-American Prospects 16u.
“Matt Phillips is a kid who just has incredible stuff, has a very good mound presence and throws a lot of strikes,” Sterling said. “Taylor Allum has really been our most consistent kid all year who doesn’t necessarily throw as hard – he probably sits between 83 and 86 – and he is very, very efficient.”
Logan Haner, who threw a seven inning shutout in last year’s WWBA 15u National Championship title game, was up next and allowed only two earned runs while scattering six hits over six solid innings in an 11-2 win over the Pro Source A’s. In 6-4-3 DP’s fourth game, played on the Fourth of July, Payton Smith was special with a one-run, two-hit, 10-strikeout performance in 5 1/3 innings.
“Logan Haner is another very efficient pitcher who throws a lot of pitches for strikes,” Sterling said. “Payton Smith is a flame-thrower with a real good breaking ball and when he’s in the strike zone, he’s deadly. He filled it up for us (Monday) and we gave him some runs and ran with it.”
The Cougars’ offense has been led at the tourney by outfielders Dalton Ewing and Benjie Grifenhagen; middle infielders Zach Odom and Drew Davis; and catcher Travis Wildermuth.
“We’ve had very timely hitting,” Sterling said. “The umpire said to me (Monday) that we should start each of our innings with two outs. I think we scored seven of our 10 runs with two outs. They’re a very a scrappy group of kids who take pride in playing the game the right way and never really slowing down.”
Because of the way the 6-4-3 DP Cougars were built, the use of the BBCOR bat at the 16u BCS Finals has had little effect on their approach to each game.
“Like I said before, we built our team on pitching and defense and I’ll be the first to tell you that when we get a wooden bat in our hand, we are a better team. It allows our pitching and defense to work,” Sterling said. “We have been swinging wooden bats all year, so when we went to the BBCOR it was almost like, ‘Man, these things are hot!’ when compared to the wooden bat.
“For us it was nice to get that lighter-weight bat in your hand and the smaller sweet spot, and the deader bat really doesn’t affect us because we’re not a power hitting team.”
This week’s 16u BCS Finals is only the second Perfect Game event the 6-4-8 DP Cougars have taken part in, and Sterling and his players have enjoyed the experience. They won’t be strangers.
“We love the Perfect Game just because it brings in great competition,” Sterling said. “It gives us a chance to get our kids around great competition and it really helps us as a program to put our name on the map.”