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Tournaments | Story | 1/16/2015

Failure OK, but Titans only win

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Santa Ynez (Calif.) Titans may have arrived at the 14u Perfect Game MLK Championship on Friday as a bit of an unknown to many in the PG family, but this group – recognized near and far as the SY Titans – has spent at least the past four years establishing its reputation on the national youth baseball circuit.

They’ve won national age-group championships playing in non-PG tournaments which, of course, does nothing to diminish those achievements. This same group of players, primarily from the Bakersfield, Calif., area but with team members from Las Vegas, Nev., and Tempe, Ariz., is making its Perfect Game debut as one of the favorites to win the 4th annual 14u PG MLK Championship title.

This SY Titans team – the only one program founder and head coach David Lawrence has ever fielded – played pretty much non-stop for the last three or four years, often up to as many as 100 games a year. They decided to take a little break before playing in the 14u PG MLK, having last played together in September.

The majority of the players on the roster have been playing for Lawrence since they were 8-years-old, perhaps as many as nine of the 14 that are here. They’re kids that have known each other and have been playing together for a long time – if there is such a thing as a “long time” for young guys that are either in eighth or ninth grade.

The freshmen (class of 2018) include outfielder Gavin Haimovitz from Santa Clara, Calif., and right-hander Alejandro Murillo from Bakersfield, Calif. Guys like left-hander/first baseman/outfielder Cooper Benson from San Luis Obispo, Calif., left-hander/outfielder Kai Murphy from Tempe, Ariz., and shortstop/third baseman Brandon Lawrence – head coach David Lawrence’s son – are eighth-graders who have been playing together for a while.

New faces at this tournament include right-hander Javier Felix from Watsonville, Calif., catcher Chase Adkison from Costa Mesa, Calif., and left-hander Daylen Xavier Carter from West Sacramento, Calif., all 2019s.

Lawrence tries to approach his responsibilities as the adult leader of this team as you might expect a combination coach/father to proceed. He emphasizes teamwork, stresses the importance of being a good teammate and playing the game the right way; respecting the game.

Several of the players receive their own individual instruction so when Lawrence brings them together with the Titans he works with them on team defense and other team strategies. He wants to make sure they are respectful of their teammates and their opponent while also be respected themselves.

“You won’t see us yelling at our kids – never,” Lawrence told PG Friday afternoon. “It’s OK to fail; in fact, failing is good sometimes, whether it be the individual failing or the team not succeeding. Winning every time is not always good because you don’t tend to learn a lot when you win, or you don’t want to push yourself harder.”

That whole spiel about failure possibly being transformed into something positive may ring hollow to many, but it’s impossible to not see the sincerity in Lawrence’s eyes and hear it in his voice when he speaks those words.

Taken literally, it would be easy to reach the conclusion that the SY Titans players didn’t learn anything from their first two games at the 14u PG MLK Championship Friday: dominant 7-0 and 5-0 wins over Team Northwest 14u and the San Diego Show Blue, respectively. That, of course, would be a foolish leap of faith.

Felix was 4-for-6 (.667) with a double, triple and four runs scored in the two wins. Benson, Haimovitz and Brooks Lee each drove in two runs and four pitchers combined to throw 14 shutout innings while allowing five hits and striking out 21. Benson struck out six in two innings of work and Murphy six in four innings.

It would appear that after a three month layoff, the Titans had found their championship mojo for at least a couple of hours on a warm mid-January day in the desert. It was, perhaps, reminiscent of past glories won and past glories that just escaped their reach.

Many of these players were on the SY Titans team that won the 2013 12u NYBC National Championship in Memphis, Tenn., beating California nemesis BPA DeMarini in the championship game. The next year they reached the championship game at a 13u USSSA national tournament, again played in Memphis, but this time they lost.

“It was good to fail in that instance,” Lawrence said. “It was good for those kids to know that they’re not going to win every time and to see them deal with adversity at the same time.”

Lawrence doesn’t see any difference between playing in a national tournament’s championship game as opposed to trying to win a pool-play game at the 14u PG MLK. He recognizes that his youngsters are going to see the highest level of competition at this event, perhaps even a higher level during pool-play than in other tournament’s playoff rounds.

“To me, it’s all about who you’re playing and who you’re competing against,” he said. “We play BPA (DeMarini) a lot – they’re a solid squad – and we always enjoy that competition. … It’s all about going to where the competition is and competing against the best because that’s what the kids need to keep going. That’s why we come to events like this because it’s a matter of who’s going to be there and who you get to play against.”

And that requires a lot of travel. During that memorable 12u season – memorable even though Lawrence admitted that much of it was a blur – the Titans traveled to tournaments in Florida, Arizona, Nevada, Tennessee and Kentucky, in addition to their regular play throughout California.

“It’s a passion,” he said. “I wish I would have the opportunities that these kids have when I was playing – although I wasn’t as good as these kids – and it’s good to be able to give them these opportunities (and) it never gets old as long as it’s still fun and the kids are respectful and respecting their parents and are appreciative of what’s going on.”

Lawrence runs a berry growing operation in Oxnard, Calif., called Red Blossom that produces about 10 million boxes of strawberries and five million boxes of blackberries annually. He receives sponsorship money to make all of this travel ball stuff happen and he said he’s never turned a kid away for financial reasons – a he’ll find a way to get that kid on board because he doesn’t want anyone missing out because they can’t afford it.

Armed with an easy-going demeanor that would seem impossible to maintain when dealing with freshly minted teenagers, Lawrence brought this team of 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds to the west Phoenix suburbs hoping they can learn from both victory and defeat while playing against some of the best 14-and-under competition 22 teams from seven states and Canada can offer.

As the kids – including his own son – get older, Lawrence is not sure how long he will keep doing this. He would like to keep the core together through their high school years, possibly entering them as teams in PG showcases while watching them develop into players that move onto the collegiate or professional ranks.

“I hope they learn how to compete, to learn how to fail and deal with it; to learn how to be good teammates,” Lawrence said when asked what he hopes his young guys take away from the 14u PG MLK experience. “There are a lot of life lessons to be learned here out on the sports field, which is good for them.

“I hope that someday I get to see them playing in college or in the pros … and maybe someday I’ll see maybe one or two of them and I’ll walk up to them and they’ll remember me. I mean, who knows?”

Who knows, indeed?

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