Tournaments : : Story
Sunday, June 22, 2014

Jackets enthused, energized

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Between innings and at-bats, the pulsating sounds of uplifting bass-driven music could be heard coming from an over-sized speaker contraption behind home plate. Not too loud and never a distraction, the beats and rhythms offered nothing but encouragement to the young ballplayers out on the field and a reason to clap along for family members in the stands.

Just as persistent as the music was the chatter emanating from the Georgia Jackets National’s first base dugout on Field 4 at the Player Development 5-Plex on this sunny Sunday morning. The players’ vocal encouragement of their teammates blended efficiently with the music and made everyone within earshot want to grab a bat and head for the plate.

Welcome to the energetic and enthusiastic world of Georgia Jackets National baseball. This an outfit based in Ringgold, Ga., that along with 39 other teams from 10 U.S. states and Puerto Rico spent Sunday working toward securing a spot in the 16-team playoffs at this year’s 13u Perfect Game BCS Finals national championship.

The Jackets were one of eight teams that emerged from the first set of three pool-play games with unbeaten, untied 3-0 records, and they made it four straight with a tense 8-6 win over the Puerto Rico-based IBAHS Knights Sunday morning. It was the first of three additional pool-play games the Georgia Jackets had scheduled Sunday and Monday with an eye on Tuesday’s first round of the playoffs.

Georgia Jackets National was an entertaining team to watch through its first four games, although some of the parents’ fingernails may have met their teeth a time or two. The Jackets won their first four games by an average score of 10-5 while posting a team batting average of .339 (37-for-109 with eight extra-base hits) and a team ERA of 3.92 (14 ER, 17 Ks, 23 BBs in 25 IP).

 “We’ve been playing smart baseball offensively, whether it be a one-out groundball to second with a runner on third, getting a bunt down or executing a hit-and-run,” Georgia Jackets National head coach Brent Tucker said at the 5-Plex Sunday morning. “Also, we’ve been able to get some big hits, some two-out hits with runners on base.”

They do have some hitters. Middle-infielder Nathan Camp (2018, Ringgold, Ga.) was 6-for-10 (.600) with a double, three RBI, 10 runs scored, a .714 on-base percentage and four stolen bases through four games. Right-hander/utility man Bailey Gaines (2018, Ringgold, Ga.) had five singles in nine trips (.556) with two RBI and three runs, and third baseman Bobby Spencer (2020, Atlanta) was 5-for-11 (.455) with two doubles, three knocked-in and six scored.

And then there is Grayson Panter, a 5-foot-10, 175-pound 2018 first baseman/catcher from Hixon, Tenn., who was 4-for-12 (.333) with two doubles and a grand slam, eight RBI, three runs scored and a .750 slugging percentage.

Tucker knew he was going to be working with a roster that was capable of scoring a lot of runs, but only if the youngsters played smart baseball and kept within their established style of play.

“We’ve got to understand what we are at the plate,” he said. “We have some guys, they can drive the ball really well; we have some guys that have high on-base percentages and we’ve got other guys in between. Everybody needs to (fill) their role for us to execute and put that many runs up.”

Like so many teams at a 13u tournament, Georgia Jackets National is playing on a regulation-size field for one of the first times, trying to adjust to a pitching distance of 60-feet, 6-inches pitching and 90-foot base paths.

The increased dimensions effects the pitching and defense the most but hitters need to adjust, as well. Tucker tries to impress upon his players the importance of “letting the ball travel” when playing on the bigger fields.

“Let the ball get there and try to stay within our framework; hit the ball where it’s pitched, of course, use the whole field, but just stay within yourself and don’t try to do too much,” he said. “You get in these big tournaments and guys want to really, really impress and get out of their comfort zone, and we just tell them to stay relaxed, stay loose and be themselves.”

This 13u Georgia Jackets National team is remarkable in that it has as many as seven or eight roster spots filled with players that have been playing together since they were 6 and 7 years old – more than half their lives. It started as a local rec-ball team and evolved into what it is today.

This is the first year the group has played under the Georgia Jackets umbrella; it was formerly known as Tigers Baseball, using the same name as the Ringgold High School mascot. Six of the 12 players on the roster call Ringgold home and all the others come from within about a 15-mile radius of the town.

“It’s a tight group and they’ve all grown up together,” Tucker said. “You develop a bond with the parents and the boys develop a bond with each other. My son (Holden Tucker), with the assistant coaches and other parents, he’ll walk up to them and ask them something just like he would walk up to me. He’s spent so much time with them, and you definitely have that bond together and that trust together with everybody.”

Tucker just completed his eighth year as head coach at Ringgold High School, which enjoys a rich and, at one point three years ago, tragic history. His reasons for bringing the young players to an event such as the 13u PG BCS Finals are pretty straightforward.

“We’re wanting to get the boys as many experiences in the game as we can,” he said. “Putting them in uncomfortable situations and letting them develop with that, and letting them adjust to different situations. Some of the teams with their talent around here are just unbelievable, so you know coming into this tournament you better be ready to play.”

Quite a few of these kids were put in not only an uncomfortable situation but a potentially deadly one in April 2011 when Ringgold (approx. pop. 2,800) was devastated by a tornado that packed reported wind speeds of 195 mph. Eight Ringgold residents lost their lives in the killer storm, including two Ringgold High School students.

The high school and middle school buildings were badly damaged and the school district’s athletic venues were essentially wiped out. That included the baseball field, which had been known as “Little Wrigley” because of its distinctive red-brick wall. But hope was not lost.

“This community has always supported Ringgold baseball – the community, the parents, the faculty – (and) we’ve got a lot of parents that worked on the stadium from years ago,” RHS assistant principal J.R. Jones told Perfect Game in an article published in February 2012. “The stadium now, it’s immaculate; it’s going to be a sight to see for people who come to Ringgold.”

That has definitely come to pass, according to Tucker: “(The community) rebuilt the (baseball) field, rebuilt the football stadium; rebuilt the school. Everything looks just tremendous now,” he said Sunday.

The 12- and 13-year-olds playing on this Georgia Jackets National team were in grade school when the devastating twister struck. Over the last three years they’ve been able to enjoy the new RHS field with its state-of-the-art indoor facility, but they are not ignorant of, nor do they hide from history.

 “Seven of these players went through that with us,” Tucker said. “I heard one of them say something about it the other day – they were talking about it – so, yeah, they’re aware of it. A lot of them are at Ringgold Middle School now and they’re starting to put that ‘Ringgold’ name on their chest, and they’re very proud of it.”

A Perfect Game national championship tournament like the 13u PG BCS Finals is all about making new memories. It’s also about gathering background information for stories these young players will one day share among themselves and with new high school and college friends – maybe even a son of their own.

On Friday, the first day of the tournament, the Jackets were forced to endure a rain delay that due to a lot of starting and stopping lasted more than five hours. Tucker could imagine a scenario when these guys got together in the future and someone would certainly say, “Remember that time we were in Fort Myers and we played a 5 ½ game,” or something to that effect. And that’s not all.

 “We had them out there earlier looking for alligators,” Tucker said, pointing to a small pond on the east edge of the 5-Plex, “so we want not only the baseball experience but just that family atmosphere experience with them so they’ll have some stories to tell while they’re growing up.”

The best way for this story to end as far as the Jackets are concerned would be not only earning a berth in Tuesday’s first round of the playoffs but making a charge into Wednesday when the semifinal and championship games are scheduled.

“We’ve had a blast down here; the facilities are unbelievable,” Tucker said. “I think they’re ready (to make a run), I just don’t know if we have enough pitching down here – but they’re ready. We got here at 7 o’clock this morning; nobody was late. I think everybody was probably about 10 minutes early, so they’re ready.”

Cue-up the music and let the dugout chatter begin. It’s time to enter the world of Georgia Jackets National baseball.

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