Tournaments : : Rankings
Monday, September 13, 2010

Florida Bombers Top 18U Rankings

Jeff Dahn        

18U Travel Team Rankings

Armed with a philosophy and mind-set different from most, and an almost single-minded focus on working to be the nation’s best has helped separate the Florida Bombers from many of their top-notch travel-team brethren.

The Florida Bombers is a high school-age program that targets ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th graders. All the teams play under the “Bombers” banner, and in the past several years anywhere between 150 and 180 players are involved during the summer.

Based in Miami, Fla., the Florida Bombers first started as a local team in 1998 when Emilio Fernandez, after a short two-year professional baseball career, decided to put together a team of high school-age players. The team was originally called the Miami Bombers in its first year, but switched to the Florida Bombers in 1999.

The program held tryouts for the first time in 1999 and it was in subsequent years things really took off. Every year this decade, the Bombers have fielded one of the most successful 18U teams in the country, one with 11 national championships to its credit.

“It’s been a pretty exciting ride and it’s come a long way from 1998 to now,” Fernandez said. “It’s been a pattern here over the last few years where early on in the summer we start off a little slow, and then once school’s over and guys are here and you’re able to kind of get into a routine that we started to play really, really good baseball.”

It was in 2002 when the Bombers first stepped onto the national stage and developed their singular focus. They won the inaugural Perfect Game USA WWBA 18U National Championship in Marietta, Ga., that year and were 50-0 at the completion of the tournament.

The Bombers went back to Marietta in 2003 and won again, and the WWBA 18U National Championship had officially become the focus of their summer season. They won back-to-back championships again in 2005-06, and added titles five and six in 2008 and this year. They have played in seven of the nine tournament championship games.

“It’s gotten a lot bigger, a lot more competitive over the years,” Fernandez said of the Perfect Game 18U WWBA Nationals. “That is basically what we pin our hats on. We feel that that’s just the most prestigious, most noteworthy event that goes on in the summer.”

The Bombers finished this summer season with a 43-5 record and at one point enjoyed a 33-game win streak.

The championships are special, of course, but the runner-up finish in 2009 is the event Fernandez can’t wipe from his mind.

The Bombers played in the championship game against the East Cobb (Ga.) Braves and took a 10-1 lead into the final inning, only to lose, 11-10.

“It was one of the most incredible things you’ll ever see in the game of baseball,” Fernandez said. “That was very tough to swallow a year ago. That was not easy and it stayed with us. We had a good core of players coming back in 2010, and all they talked about was getting back to that game and, obviously, winning it.”

The Bombers earned a rematch with Braves in the 2010 championship game and won dramatically when tournament MVP C.T. Bradford smacked an RBI single that scored the winning run in the bottom of the seventh.

“That was very rewarding for all the players and the organization,” Fernandez said. “It felt like it was a year in waiting, but we finally got to where we wanted to be.”

There are also Florida Bomber 17U and 16U teams.

“The 16-and-under team is usually a highly competitive club, and it’s a lot of young guys that we are looking to for the future,” Fernandez said. “We also have a Florida Bombers 17 which is mostly high school juniors that are good players and maybe not at the level of the 18-and-under Florida Bombers, but they are still good enough to have in your program and they’re going to compete very well and do a good job.”

Many of the players in the program are what Fernandez calls “organizational” players who may never be moved up to the elite 18U team.

“They may not be quite as talented, but they want to play and they want to play in an organized environment, they want to play on good fields and go to good tournaments,” Fernandez said. “We call those guys ‘organizational’ guys, guys who are going to be involved. They’re not (NCAA) Division I talent and they’re not even Division II players, but they’re good enough to go out there and participate.”

The Bombers have sent loads of players into the college ranks and dozens have been selected in the Major League Draft. This year alone, four members of the 2003 Bombers’ team made their Major League debuts – J.P. Arencibia with the Blue Jays, Jon Jay with the Cardinals, Mat Latos with the Padres and Danny Valencia with the Twins. Latos won 13 games in his first 23 starts with an ERA of 2.33.

Fernandez is thrilled to be a part of Perfect Game tournaments, where many of those current Major Leaguers first got noticed.

“I’ve had a very good relationship with Perfect Game throughout the years, and it was ’02 since I first became involved with them,” Fernandez said. “I think we have both treated each other with mutual respect.

“They obviously put the best teams on the field in the best environment possible to go after something that is very noteworthy and very prestigious. What they hang their hat on, at least in the summer months, is the (nationals) in Georgia and they do a very good job with that. I think the Florida Bombers are good for them and Perfect Game is good for us.”

Young players become involved with the Bombers through a “hands-on” approach practiced meticulously by Fernandez and the program’s other coaches.

 “I myself like to see the players play. I like to see them with my own eyes,” Fernandez said. “I like to figure out myself how they’re going to fit in with our club. You don’t always need the big name, high profile guy. You need the right guy, which is what I think we’ve been able to do over the last decade or so.

“Year after year we’re not only able to compete with all those high name guys but out-play those guys because we just feel that to be a successful club you need to put the right guys on the field, the guys that are going to buy into what you’re doing, the guys that are going to play hard and the guys that are going to lay it on the line.”

Fernandez will take a team to the Perfect Game WWBA 18U World Championships in Jupiter, Fla., at the end of October, but, but in their typical non-conformist style, the Bombers view that tournament a little differently than most of the other elite squads.

“It’s kind of a tryout period for us,” Fernandez said. “We’ll put together guys now that we’ll see or we’ll hear about or we’ll acquire, and we’ll do some research on them and we’ll put them on the field. We’ll see who we like, who we don’t like, who fits and who doesn’t fit. From there we’ll try to get a commitment from those players for the summer of 2011.”

Despite that approach, the Bombers have finished in the top-eight at Jupiter each of the past three years.


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