FORT MYERS, Fla. - The backdoor to the Perfect Game 16u BCS Finals playoffs was left wide open, so Next Level Baseball walked right in.
Next Level, a two-year-old organization fielding a 16u team for the first time this summer, will enter the 16u BCS Finals playoffs on Thursday with an overall record of 3-3 after six pool-play games over the past four days.
But a 2-0 Fourth of July - a dominant 2-0 Fourth of July, one might add - was all that mattered when the final tie-breaking procedures were considered and all the ducks were most assuredly in a row.
Next Level, based in the capitol city of Tallahassee, Fla., seemed to be a playoff long-shot after winning only one of its first three pool-play games, even though those games wouldn't directly factor into playoff qualifications.
Only the final three games of pool play really mattered, and when Next Level lost its first game in that series to ABA Braves Blue - signifying a 1-3 start to the tournament - it most definitely seemed dead in the water.
"We not only went 1-2 (in the first round of pool-play) we got drilled, actually," Next Level head coach Micah Posey said Wednesday. "It was kind of a collective of a lot things. We batted 11 guys trying to give some guys some opportunities (and) we pitched everybody one or two innings and kind of staffed it. The top of our lineup is as good as anybody's and we're much better as a nine-man lineup.
"Those first two days we were showing a lot of individualism and I think we came together as a unit the last couple of days, and we're playing our best baseball now."
The Next Level prospects either had to start playing their best baseball or they were going to have start packing for a trip back to Tallahassee, two days earlier than any of them had hoped.
Finally, with just hours to live, Next Level took off like a bottle rocket on Wednesday. It opened play in the morning with a 15-2, four-inning win over SF Prospects Navy and followed that up with a 13-0, four-inning win over DBAT Mustangs Brady.
After all four teams in Pool XX had completed play on Wednesday, Next Level, DBAT Mustangs Brady and ABA Braves Blue all stood 2-1 in the second round of pool-play. Next Level was awarded the pool title based on the tie-breaker rule that it allowed the fewest runs (six) of either DBAT or Braves Blue in its three pool-play games.
"It worked in our favor and it was definitely a learning experience," Posey said of the 16u BCS Finals format. "We learned who was what and where we were as a team, and I think if those first three games would have really mattered I probably would have approached it a little differently."
The seeding for the 16-team playoffs take into consideration all six pool-play games, just not the last three.
"The seeding wasn't really a big deal to us ... so we kind of approached it differently," he continued. "But yeah, we found out a lot about ourselves in the last couple of days and it's kind of exciting to watch the kids mature in even the last two or three days."
Everything came to fruition on Wednesday. That Next Level needed only eight innings to dispatch a pair of quality opponents by a combined score of 28-2 pretty much speaks for itself.
Next Level pounded out 15 hits in the 15-2 pulverization of SF Prospects Navy, and four players had at least two hits. Evans Bozeman (2015, Pensacola, Fla.) was 2-for-3 with a double, triple, five RBI and two runs scored; Jared Barnes (2014, Tallahassee) was 2-for-2 with a double, three RBI and two runs; Jacob Dulworth (2014, Tallahassee) went 2-for-3 with a couple of runs driven in; and Logan Dungey (2015, Tallahassee) was 3-for-3 with an RBI and two runs scored.
Left-hander Ty Russ (2014, Bonifay, Fla.) scattered three hits over four innings and struck out five.
In the big win over DBAT, Next Level produced 13 hits, including another huge game from Barnes. A veteran of seven PG events, he was 3-for-3 with a grand slam and finished with five RBI and two runs scored. His Fourth of July celebration ended with a two-game 5-for-5 performance with two extra-base hits, eight RBI and four runs.
Bozeman was also good again in the second game, going 2-for-4 with a double, an RBI and two runs, and Blake Reese (2015, Tallahassee) was 3-for-3 with a double, an RBI and a run scored.
Right-hander Cole Sands (2015, Tallahassee) allowed three hits and struck out six in his four innings of work.
"We're going to be a real low seed (in the playoffs), but the fact that we're in it and we're going to be able to compete another day is fine with us," Posey said. "You can seed us 16 and we don't care; we just want to keep playing, especially after the games we've had."
A year ago, the Next Level Baseball organization brought its only team at the time - a 17u group - to the 18u BCS Finals. It was impressive debut, as that team finished 6-0 in pool play, entered the playoffs as the No. 2 seed and advanced to the semifinal round before finally getting knocked off one game short of the championship.
Posey doesn't want his young team to feel any pressure to repeat that outstanding showing of a year ago by an entirely different group.
"This is our first year having a 16u team and our expectations are to compete, but as far as making it to a certain place (showing) we don't have that many expectations," he said. "We're just trying to get the most out of the kids, and if we put our nose down and play hard and we make it to the finals, then we do that. If we don't, well, it's about getting these kids looks and getting them to play hard and play the game the right way."
Posey was a 15th-round draft pick by the Anaheim Angels in 2001 and spent six years in the Angels' farm system. He now helps his father, Mike Posey, coach at North Florida Christian High School in Tallahassee.
During his time in the Angels farm system, he spent parts of two seasons with the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Kernels, a low-Class A affiliate in the Midwest League. The Kernels stadium - Perfect Game Field at Veteran Memorial Stadium - sits pretty much across the street from PG's Cedar Rapids headquarters, and Posey remembers making trips over to PG's main office.
"We'd go in there and go into the back office with the Fords and we'd see all those names (of PG alumni and current prospects) and it seemed like there were a million names up there," Posey said, chuckling at the recollection. "But (Perfect Game) does a first-class job and that's why we've got our kids here.
"We're spending (a good sum of money) to come to these events, but it's definitely worth it," he continued. "We can find thousands of tournaments to play in for a couple of hundred bucks, but this is where we want to be. We're going to the (PG WWBA 16u National Championship) in a couple of weeks and we're looking forward to it. Our guys are excited."
They're also excited about making a decent run in the 16u BCS Finals playoffs.
"Our pitching is getting a little thin and I think we spent some bullets in these last three games, but I've got some guys ready to go who can get some outs and are good pitchers. It's just going to be about how those guys do," Posey said, without naming names. "I think I've got seven arms ready to go the next couple of days and we're feeling good about it."