FORT MYERS, Fla. -- They're all here, all the usual suspects you would expect to find at a Perfect Game BCS Finals national championship tournament. The 64 teams that are here to compete in the 15u PG BCS Finals over the next six days came from near and far and represent the most elite travel ball organizations in the country
You got your East Cobbs -- including the defending 15u PG BCS Finals national champion East Cobb Astros 15u -- your Florida Burns, your MBA Prides, your Orlando Scorpions, your South Florida Elite Squads and your Team Elites. And then you've got your Cincinnati Riverbats.
The Cincinnati Riverbats organization is well known in the Ohio Valley region but this is the first PG national championship tournament the Riverbats have compete in, so they're not so well-known in southwest Florida.
They opened play at the 15u PG BCS Finals Friday morning at the Player Development 5-Ple and were bounced by one of the those darned East Cobb teams -- this one the Tigers -- 7-1 in their debut.
"We're excited because this is an event we haven't been here before," Riverbats head coach Darren Callihan said before the game's first pitch. "Some of these guys are looking to play at a higher level and this a tournament to get that exposure. From that vantage point, I'm excited for the boys.
"You're going to see different levels of talent but for the most part the top talent," he continued. "For (the players) to have make adjustments to see what they level they need to get to and how hard they need to work is exactly -- at this age -- perfect for some of these kids to see there's a whole different world out there they need to compete with."
This is relatively new team for Callihan, who said most of the kids he coached from 9u through 14u are playing "grade equivalent" ball now while this group is almost all 15-year-olds in the class of 2016, with a sprinkling of 2015s and one 2017. They all come from cities and towns in the Cincinnati area and were brought together after Callihan watched them play over the past couple of years within the Riverbats organization.
"It's hard-working group and they're here to learn, and that's what's exciting for me," Callihan said. "They're great kids that want to get better, and at the end of the day that's why I like to coach."
The Riverbats were unable to get much going in their opener against the East Cob Tigers, although they trailed only 2-1 after four thanks to the strong work of right-hander Trent Spikes (2016, Loveland, Ohio). Spikes wound up working 4 2/3 innings and gave up 2 earned runs on three hits with two strikeouts and four walks. He also had two of the Riverbats' four hits, including a double, and drove in their only run.
Honestly, it's difficult to have any kind of read on these players because none of them have performed in front of Perfect Game scouts before this weekend.
The Cincinnati Riverbats organization has been around for more than 15 years, and Callihan called it one of the biggest travel ball programs in the state of Ohio. The organization -- which this year fields 16 teams from 8u through 18u -- prides itself on the mantra "development, first; win, second" with the philosophy that if a player is doing the right things in practice the wins will follow.
The 15u Cincinnati Riverbats team here this week is strictly a weekend tournament team but does conduct weekday practices a couple of times a week during the summer so they're prepared for the their tournament events. Callihan is a past president of the program, and he said one of the best things the group ever did was put an 8u team together.
"You can get in really further their skill development -- you're not getting a lot of these kids that are 9 years old and coming in from rec ball teams that really aren't taught the game the right way," Callihan said. "That's probably been the best thing we've done as far as the organization is concerned and helping the kids get better at the game."
Callihan said he enjoys working with these 15-year-olds, but did begin his response with a bit of caveat.
"I prefer 10s," he said, laughing out loud. "No, I like this group and it's a diverse group; a lot of them are either coming into or coming out of puberty and (entering) adulthood, so it's interesting. It's lucky for me that this group here hasn't forgotten how to work and hasn't forgotten the love for the game. I've coached kids in the past -- and a lot of times it's a parent problem -- that they quit working.
"The winning is expected and success is expected, and once you get complacent you're not going to get any better; I'm blessed with a hard-working group here."
It's not just the fact that this team is hard-working that appeals to Callihan, but also that it's a team that is willing to listen. As the team continues to compete more and more on the big state at Perfect Game national tournaments, the listening and learning part of the experience will become increasingly more important.
"I wouldn't be doing this if I couldn't teach," Callihan said. "That's what refreshing for me year after year is that I have a group here that just wants to work hard and get better. If that wasn't the case and it was all about the name on the back of the jersey, I wouldn't be doing this anymore."
The Cincinnati Riverbats have two more pool-play games scheduled Saturday against the New York Grays 15u and Orlando Scorpions 2016s Black. After all 64 teams complete their first set of three pool-play games, the pools will be shuffled and a second, playoff-determining set of three will be played Sunday and Monday. The round-of-16 playoffs are scheduled to begin Tuesday, weather permitting.
Callihan hopes his Riverbats are still playing in meaningful games on Tuesday. If not, the six games they will play over the next four days should at least be instructive if not even a little eye-opening.
"They're going to see different levels of talent but for the most part it's going to be the top talent," Callihan said. "For (the players) to have make adjustments to see what they level they need to get to and how hard they need to work is exactly -- at this age -- perfect for some of these kids to see there's a whole different world out there they need to compete with."