Tournaments : : Story
Friday, May 24, 2013

SWFL looks to recapture magic

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It was exactly a year ago this Memorial Day Weekend that the 2012 SWFL Baseball 16u team began its own version of the summer of love. Can there be a sequel in the summer of 2013?

That 2012 SWFL Baseball 16u team began its summer season by winning the championship at the Perfect Game WWBA 16u East Memorial Day Classic here in Fort Myers. Just a little over a month later, SWFL 16u won the 16u PG BCS Finals national championship, again right here in Fort Myers, where the organization is based.

"That was one of those unique teams that you probably only get once in a lifetime," shortstop Drew Freedman said Friday. "Everyone just seemed to get along and play well and everybody just did their job when they needed to. It's a team that I'll always remember."

The SWFL boys are back in town again this weekend, this time for the Perfect Game WWBA 18u Memorial Day Classic and renamed SWFL Baseball 17u. The 18u Memorial Day Classic runs concurrently with the PG WWBA 16u Memorial Day Classic with games being played at MLB spring training complexes and stadiums and high school fields all around Fort Myers and Cape Coral. Both championship games will be played Monday afternoon at the Boston Red Sox's magnificent jetBlue Park.

Six spots on the SWFL 17u roster are filled by prospects who were part of those two PG tournament championship teams from 2012, including Freedman. The others are third baseman/first baseman Kevin Buckley (from Tampa, Fla.); right-hander Tristan DeLuna (Tampa); left-hander Jonah Owenby (Fort Myers); catcher Matthew Richey (Cape Coral); and right-hander/outfielder Matt Zino (Naples, Fla.)

The 2012 16u team was coached by Clint Montgomery. This 17u team is being coached by Ryan Horton, another longtime staffer with SWFL Baseball.

"We've kind of pieced this team together with practices here and there, but this is really the first day we're starting it off," Horton said Friday. "And we're starting off with a double-header, so we'll see how the boys hit the ground running."

They ran with it pretty well in their tournament-opener at the Player Development 5-Plex, a 1-0 win over the Miami Suns 17u in which both teams totaled just two hits and the only run was scored when Seth Dehaven (2014, Fort Myers) stole home in the bottom of the third inning. SWFL's Zino and Cole Nelson combined on a seven strikeout two-hitter. SWFL 17u had a second game scheduled late Friday against Suncoast Select 18u at Estero (Fla.) High School.

All of the SWFL players are from southwest Florida, with the exception of Tampa's Buckley and DeLuna.

"We try to keep as much talent as possible from this area on our SWFL teams, and I think we've done a pretty good job of that so far," Horton said."We brought a lot of these kids back from of 16-and-under team, and a lot of these guys that we have here have been together in SWFL for about three years now -- it's nice to have that core group.

"We actually went to Tampa ... and got some kids out of there, so we're expanding our horizons a little bit; I'm real excited to see these kids play."

The SWFL 17u roster includes 11 players who played deep into their respective Florida state baseball tournaments this month, some of them right up until Thursday night. They attend Clearwater (Fla.) Central High School, Estero (Fla.) High School, Fort Myers Bishop Verot High School and Tampa King High School.

"I think it helped to have all those kids playing in the state (tournament) finals," Horton said. "It helped us for them to be carrying that momentum and keep on going. Hopefully that will lead us to win this first tournament that we're in (this summer)."

Freedman, a junior at Gulf Coast High School in Naples, Fla., and a Wake Forest commit, was named the 2012 PG 16u East Memorial Day Classic Most Valuable Player last year. He went 10-for-24 (.417) and scored nine runs, including a 2-for-4 performance with a pair of runs scored in a 5-4 win over the Florida Burn in the championship game.

"I was doing a lot of bunting, too -- just doing the stuff that we needed to do to win," Freedman said Friday. "I was trying to play more for the team and do whatever the team needed in order to get the 'W'."

Owenby, Richey and Zino were among the several SWFL 16u players named to the All-Tournament Team at last year's 16u PG BCS Finals. It was a special group.

"We actually won four of six tournaments we played last year, and you can't really complain about that at all," Horton said. "These kids have been together and they know how to win, and that makes my job a little bit easier."

This year's SWFL squad could be special, as well. Owenby, a junior at Bishop Verot, has committed to South Florida and middle-infielder Bobby Brennan, another junior at Bishop Verot from Cape Coral, has committed to Maine. There appears to be considerable talent up and down the roster.

"This is definitely a different team -- we lost a lot of kids -- but we definitely have a different mindset with the kids that know how to win," Freedman said. "We might not be the most talented team out here, but we definitely have a mindset that a lot of other people don't."

It's that mindset that Horton is most appreciative of.

"They have an extreme passion for the game," he said of his young players. "It's more of a self-will that I've seen as I've been here longer and longer -- these kids don't take a day off. They'll call me and text me, 'He Coach, can we swing, can we do this, can we get together an hour earlier?' It's awesome to see that because it's getting harder and harder to get into the next level and these kids really drive to get there. It's really nice to see that these days."

Whether or not that will be enough to win a championship this holiday weekend is a question that will be answered by late Monday afternoon. Some of the very best 17u and 18u teams primarily from Florida -- only four of the 80 tournament entrants came from outside of Florida, including two from New York -- are on hand at the 18u Memorial Day, and it would be a reach to call SWFL 17u a favorite. That does nothing to diminish the bite in its bark, however.

"Every tournament we come in with very high expectations; we always want to make it to the last day," Horton said. "But this tournament is a guidance to see really where we're at, and put kids in different situations and see  the way they react when it comes to that area."

Even if SWFL can't match the two PG championships it won in 2012, this summer season promised to be very rewarding, both on and off the field.

"I've only been around these guys for, like, 5 minutes and I'm already laughing harder than I probably have in months," Freedman said. "I think this season is going to be a lot of fun."

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