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Tournaments  | Story  | 7/10/2012

'Fear the Fin'

Jeff Dahn     
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. - As Jimmy Buffett is so fond of singing, there were "fins to the left, fins to the right" and just about any other direction you turned at Terry Park Tuesday morning.

The fin sightings were courtesy of the Columbus Sharks, a 15u team based in Columbus, Ohio, that through their first four pool-play games were looking to make a mockery of the field at the Perfect Game 15u BCS Finals.

The Sharks, with a roster stocked with a nice assemblage of 2014s and 2015s from Ohio - and one, Roman Millem, from Prospect, Ky. - bounced their first four opponents at the 15u BCS Finals by a combined 52-6. They inflicted the ultimate humiliation on the Lehigh A's Tuesday morning, winning 21-0 in three innings.

They did have to go seven innings in their 7-1 win over the So Cal National Travel Team to open the Finals on Sunday, then needed just five innings apiece in a 13-2 win over the South Florida Breakers and an 11-3 triumph over the Atlanta Blue Jays.

"Our team has handled themselves pretty professionally," head coach Bill Kegler said after the demolition of the Lehigh A's. "They come out, they get their work in, they play and they go back in. If we only play one game in a day, we practice just to stay fine-tuned, and for the most part everybody's done everything that I've asked out of them."

It must be difficult for 15-year-olds to maintain their concentration when they're controlling a game like they were Tuesday morning - Columbus scored 10 runs in the first inning and 11 in the third to salt away the win. The Sharks managed to accumulate 35 plate appearances in those three innings.

Nick Conner, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound 2015 at Dublin (Ohio) Scioto High School, was phenomenal against the out-gunned A's. He was 3-for-3 with a home run and four RBI at the plate and also pitched two perfect innings, striking out four of the six batters he faced with a fastball that touched 84 mph. Darryl Wilson (2015, Canton, Ohio) hit a pair of triples and drove in three runs.

But even while the onslaught was ongoing, the Sharks kept their concentration intact.

"Today, we were able to get a lot of guys in, get a lot of work in," Kegler said. "It's easy to lose focus when you start a game out like we did this one, but they all did their jobs and I was very proud of them."

Later Tuesday afternoon, the Sharks topped Team Mizuno of Puerto Rico 15u, 7-1, to run their record to 5-0. If they can beat Home Plate Chili Dogs-Maldonado in their final pool-play game on Wednesday, they will earn an automatic berth into the 15u BCS Finals 16-team playoffs, which begin Thursday.

Through the first five games, Conner batted 8-for-12 (.667) with a double, home run and 10 RBI; Wilson was 9-for-15 (.600) with a double, four triples, seven RBI and nine runs scored; and Hayden Ballog (2014, Columbus) was 4-for-10 (.400) with a double, six RBI and five runs. As a team, the Sharks hit .405 (47-for-116) with 16 extra-base hits.

They traveled just about as far as anyone to get down here this week, although there is one team here from California and other northern states like Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.

The travel doesn't seem to bother the Sharks.

"It's very worthwhile. We do this every year, though; we travel all over the country," Kegler said. "The thing is, if you do the little things and play defense, you win. That's why we always travel all over the place to find the best competition."

This is the Sharks first Perfect Game event this year. They had originally planned to play at last month's PG WWBA 2015 grads or 15u National Championship in Marietta, Ga., but just couldn't fit it into their travel plans.

Most of the youngsters on the Sharks roster here this week have been playing together for two or three years, and their camaraderie and familiarity with one another is evident watching them play.

Another group that doesn't seem to mind the travel and also seems to enjoy each other's company is the Columbus players' parents, siblings and other assorted followers. At least 25 Sharks fans - some wearing T-shirts that read "Fear the Fin" - were seated in the bleachers along the third base line at Terry Park's Clemente Field Tuesday, enthusiastically cheering on the young Sharks.

"I've said before that you're only as good as your parents," Kegler said. "Our parents have made a big commitment, and not just money-wise, but also getting the kids to these places on time - they know if they don't get here on time they're not going to start, so we don't have any issues there. They're good, good parents; I wouldn't trade them for anything."

As far as qualifying for the playoffs here this week, Kegler likes the way the 15u BCS Finals are formatted. Each of the 60 teams in attendance opens with an initial three games of pool-play, after which every team is reseeded and placed in second pool with three different teams for three more games.

The 15 champions of the second round of pool-play earn automatic berths into the playoffs and the final spot will be filled by an at-large entrant based on the results of all six of a team's pool-play games. It gives every team the opportunity to play at least six games, and lets the coaches play and pitch a lot of young prospects over the course of four days.

"I think this is really the way the format should be,"  Kegler said. "In some (non-PG) tournaments, they'll just put teams together, and then all of sudden you've got three of the best five or six teams in one pool. This is very beneficial the way it's set up. You still want to take care of business in your pool because you still want to get a lot of kids in the games and get a lot of work in."

The Columbus Sharks organization fields teams from 8u all the way up to 18u and has been around for about 20 years; Kegler has been involved for the past 15. There are five 15u teams in the organization with the group here being the premier team in the pecking order.

And because this is the program's premier 15u team, this group of 15u Columbus Sharks won't be backing down from anyone as the tournament moves into its final three days.

"We're not afraid," Kegler said with a chuckle. "These guys know what it's going to take and they've played against the best and we'll hopefully be able to take care of business down here. I think you only get better by playing better (competition) and they know that. There are only so many teams in Ohio that we can really play that push us to any kind of limit, so this is very beneficial to these guys."