FORT MYERS, Fla. – The words coming out of the third base dugout on Field 4 at the Lee County Player Development 5-Plex Friday morning could have been considered commands, but in fact they were more like a forceful yet friendly reminder.
“Water! Drink lots of water!,” an adult coach shouted out to his 14u ballplayers as they ran off the field and into the dugout to take their turn at bat. “Sunscreen! Come on guys, let’s screen up!”
It was only 8 a.m. but the temperature had already climbed into the low 80s and the blazing sun and 82 percent humidity made it feel like it was already in the low 90s.
It was opening day at the Perfect Game BCS 14u National Championship and you couldn’t blame the players, coaches and family members from the Premier Baseball Club 14u squad if they were starting to feel the heat a little bit more than everyone else who had gathered at the 5-Plex.
Sorry folks, but you’re not in Battle Ground, Wash., anymore.
This 14u team, the core of which has been together for three years now, has done some traveling from its home in the Great Northwest before, heading to venues in California, Colorado and Utah, among other states.
But making a 3,200-mile trip from Southwest Washington – Battle Ground is about 40 miles north of Portland, Ore. – to Southwest Florida is quite a haul. And despite the heat and humidity, these guys are feeling right at home.
“We did this mainly for the kids so they can start to get some recognition,” PBC 14u head coach Alex Peru told PG in between games of their double-header at the 5-Plex on Friday. “They’re at the age now where they’re all starting to look at high school and college (baseball) and they wanted to start getting to some good events. At this point, it gets some good (experiences) under their belts.”
Tyler Long is the team’s general manager/manager and both he and Peru have sons playing on the team: catcher Trevin Long and first baseman Andrew Peru. Putting on the “Dad” cap for a moment, Tyler Long thinks this experience will be nothing but beneficial not only to his son but to all the other dad’s sons as well.
“You don’t ever want your kids to be overwhelmed in competition, but we’ve proven we won’t be overwhelmed,” he said. “We may lose to a better team but I want them to see the best. They’ve proven they can step on the field with any team, so my son and the rest of my boys who are like my sons, they’ll just come home more confident.
“We’ve traveled before … but there’s a whole other breed of ballplayer down here in the Southeast. I wanted my boys to see the best around.”
This is a pretty seasoned team for its age, it’s just that this is the first Perfect Game tournament in which its played. The PBC 14u’s won three tournaments at the 13u level in 2018, including a championship at the Triple Crown World Series played in Steamboat Springs, Colo.
The one thing that might work against them here is depth. There are only 11 players on the roster and all 11 will play in every game. If a team advances to the championship, it will have played 10 games in just a little over a week, but these guys seem not only loose and confident but also undaunted.
The players, all from the class of 2023, hail from cities and towns such at Battle Ground, Vancouver, Chehalis, Brush Prairie, Ridgefield, Longview and Kelso in Washington, and Lake Oswego and Beaverton in Oregon; the starting lineup PBC 14u put out there in their second game Friday looked like this:
Shortstop Dawson Santana, second baseman Jayden Rippelmeyer, third baseman Gavin Fugate, centerfielder Stephen Hammergren, first baseman Andrew Peru, catcher Trevin Long, extra-hitter Logan Wall, right fielder Jarod Oldham, left fielder Langston Bartell and right-handers Dillon Kirksey and Carson Gantz.
It was basically the same in the opener with just a few of the guys being moved around depending on who did the pitching. And that’s the entire roster.
“We have a few new guys this year but they fit right in,” Rippelmeyer told PG on Friday. “It’s nice to play with them and they all belong here; we all treat each other as a family. … You can really feel each other’s energy out there. When you’re batting or you’re in the dugout or even out on the field, you just hear them talking and you know they have your back.”
And what a PG debut it was. Premier Baseball Club 14u was thrown right into the fire with games against teams from two of the country’s most prominent travel ball programs, the FTB Rockets and the Scorpions 2023 Select Black. All the PBC 14u’s did was beat the Rockets 5-0 and the Scorpions Select Black 11-1.
Rippelmeyer, a 5-foot-10, 140-pound right-hander, threw a complete-game, eight-strikeout (no walks) three-hitter in the opener; Santana singled twice and drove in a run, Oldham singled twice and scored a run.
The team produced 14 hits – all singles – in the five-inning victory over the Scorps Select Black, a game in which it pushed across seven runs in the top of the fifth. Rippelmeyer was 3-for-3 with three RBI and two runs scored and Peru also drove in three. Did PBC 14u make a statement on Day 1?
“We try to research the teams to get an idea of who we’re up against but no matter what, you’re at a Perfect Game event and every team is going to bring it,” Coach Peru said.
Many of the players’ families have joined them on this Florida adventure and Peru said that’s not unusual because these families have always been very involved with the team. These young guys are pretty darn good ballplayers with aspirations to play beyond high school and the parents are all-in.
“We have a real good following and great group of families,” he said. “These kids themselves have been playing together for a while so they’ve jelled really well and they like to travel together. So, it’s a little bit of vacation and a lot of baseball.”
The PG BCS 14u National Championship tournament format has teams playing six games in the first four days leading up to the playoffs on the fifth day. That means double-headers on two days and single games on the other two days, so there’s plenty of time for PBC 14u’s extended family to experience everything Southwest Florida has to offer; their hotel, in fact, is right on a beach.
“If you’re going to spend that much money you should have a little bit of fun outside of baseball and bond with the boys,” Long said.
Andrew Peru, Coach Peru’s son, added: “You can treat it like a vacation to an extent but you also have to focus on the games at the same time. You have to focus on what you’re doing and know what you’re here for.”
Long has noticed that this team always seems to pick things up a notch when it travels to destination tournaments, and that’s something he’s proud of. Sometimes, he said, motivation can really drive a 14-year-old, and it can be hard to get motivated when you’re back home playing the same teams day after day, night after night.
“This is a chance at this age to come down here and let the kids show what they can do,” Coach Peru said. “Experience some different teams, different weather and let them challenge and then also be able to go far in the tournament. We want to try to test these kids and they’re up for the challenge.”
After two games against teams from a pair of nationally prominent programs, Rippelmeyer told PG he saw a lot of competitiveness that he’s sure is the result of hard work from all those Florida kids.
That said, both he and his teammate Peru firmly believe that if this team can keep its composure while playing in the high heat and humidity and it continues to put its trust in its pitchers, it can be a squad that the rest of the field will have to reckon with sooner rather than later.
“First off, I want to win (a championship),” Rippelmeyer said. “Second off, I just hope our team grows together and instead of getting frustrated because of the hot weather and the wet conditions, we can grow together and use this as a bonding experience.”
The younger Peru already sees that happening: “Personally, I just love being around my teammates but coming down here, I love the hot weather,” Andrew said. “But it is really hot here and it gets to you really quick if you don’t drink a lot of water. Just playing baseball is super fun down here.”