FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It doesn't seem like there is ever a letup at the Houston Banditos Baseball Club, but as far as younger age groups go, this might be as heady of a time as ever.
The Houston Banditos program had as big of a presence as any other at the 13u PG BCS Finals national championship tournament that will conclude six-day run on Wednesday. The group entered three teams in the 13u PG BCS Finals -- the Banditos, Banditos North and Banditos-Black -- and the Banditos and Banditos-Black not only made the first round of the playoffs but both advanced to the round of eight.
While the top-seeded Banditos-Black were dusting off the No. 8 St. Pete Saints, 15-7, the fifth-seeded Banditos were losing to the No. FTB 55 Sports Elite, 9-5, at an adjacent field at the jetBlue Player Development Complex. The Banditos-Black will be playing in one of the two semifinal games Wednesday morning at the Lee County Sports Complex, the spring training home of the Minnesota Twins.
Ray DeLeon, the founder of the Houston Banditos Baseball Club and the head coach of what seems like just about every team under the organization's umbrella, was feeling pretty good about the program when he spoke to PG before the Banditos-Black quarterfinal game against the St. Pete Saints at the Boston Red Sox's jetBlue Player Development Complex in the southeastern Fort Myers metropolitan area.
"This just shows that the program's building; we always reload with great young athletes," DeLeon said. "It's good for them to get a taste of this stuff early so when they do get here, (when they're older) they're ready for the grease."
After a complete, rain-free day of playoff action was completed by late Tuesday afternoon, the semifinal pairings were set in both the 13u PG BCS Finals and the 18u PG BCS Finals. All four semifinal games will be played at 9 a.m. Wednesday at the Lee County Sports Complex with the championship games to follow at 11:30 a.m. (18u BCS) and 2 p.m. (13u BCS) at Hammond Stadium. The tournament brackets can be found here.
The Banditos-Black earned the No. 1 seed in the 13u PG BCS Finals' playoffs by whipping its first three pool-play opponents by combined scores of 43-7, and then knocking off its next three foes by a combined 28-4. Over six games, that's an average outcome of roughly 12-2.
These are young players, still in middle school and still learning the game and what their place is in it. That's not written to infer they don't know their way around a baseball field a little bit.
First baseman/left-hander Thomas Burbank (2017, Beaumont, Texas), catcher Alec Soularie (2017, Houston), third baseman Hunter Townsend (2018, Carthage, Texas), outfielder Michael Cooper (2017, Missouri City, Texas) and shortstop Hunter Watson (2018, Denison, Texas) are among the most highly regarded prospects on the roster.
Burbank and Soularie have had the most defining tournaments among the half-dozen players that played in all eight games: Burbank hit .588 (10-for-17) with two doubles, a home run, 16 RBI and seven runs scored, with a 1.473 OPS; Soularie (2017, Houston) has been his equal, hitting .524 (11-for-21) with five doubles, two triples, a home run, 13 RBI and nine runs scored with a 1.679 OPS.
A lot of attention has been paid to Hunter Watson (2018, Denison, Texas) a 6-foot-2, 180-pound 13-year-old that blasted two doubles and two home runs and accounted for seven RBI and 10 runs scored in eight games; he boasts a 1.320 OPS, and DeLeon made a point of calling him the "next Bryce Harper."
A Perfect Game scouting report from a game earlier in the week made note of his long opposite-field home run the first day of the tournament and said officials "could put him with kids in the 16u (BCS) tournament and you wouldn't know he was a seventh-grader."
The majority of this Banditos-Black roster were part of the team that won the National Youth Baseball Conference (NYBC) championship last year, and DeLeon wasn't shy about declaring that this group of 12- and 13-year-olds could one day reach the heights of the great Banditos-Black team from the summer of 2011 that included Courtney Hawkins, CJ Hinojosa and Billy "Nick" Williams.
And then, in completely comedic fashion, DeLeon feigned complete paranoia about showcasing this Texas talent in southwest Florida.
"There are some good kids here and if you don't protect them, people will steal them," he said, nearly busting a gut while trying to suppress his laughter. "I'm in Florida and if you don't watch out, they'll get stolen right away; you've got take care of the youth. The vultures are hanging around ... and if you turn your back on this young talent, they've got 'em."
DeLeon quickly switched into his serious mode again:
"This is one of the more talented groups in the organization," he said. "They've been together since they were about 9 years old and they know how to win at an early age. When you get kids that know their roles at an early age, that's the key for any high school program, college program, pro program. When you get these kids that know their roles at an early age it makes coaching a lot easier."
Speaking of coaching, DeLeon handles just about every age group within his Banditos organization. His hands-on approach has worked quite well at every level, with PG national championship banners adorning the Banditos headquarters at every turn. Working with 13-year-olds is certainly no hill for this veteran climber.
"I love coaching talented kids; I don't care if it's 10 years old or 18 years old, I just love good baseball," DeLeon said. "I hate crappy baseball, and this group I brought in ... and I've stuck with them. I take a couple of weeks out of my schedule to coach these guys, and I know they're my future so I want to take care of them."
To his way of thinking, it comes down to getting a simple message across: learn the game early and continue to learn each following year you plan to stay with it.
"There are a lot of good athletes out there," DeLeon said. "There are guys that are bigger and stronger out here, but you've got to teach them how to play a little bit. Just as an example: You've got a guy on third base with one out and guys are trying to hit home runs; hit the ball on the ground and get the run in. We're teaching them how to play the game and they're babies; 13 years old and they're still learning and they're growing and this is a big part of the development."
DeLeon said this group will most likely try to find one more big 13u national tournament to play in this summer and then play four or five Houston-area tournaments before calling it a summer. Right now, there is no mistaking the job at hand, and he has made that mission quite clear to his young charges.
"Anything less than winning this championship is unacceptable," DeLeon said. "If we don't win this championship it's wasted time, a wasted trip, wasted money, wasted everything. You set the bar for them and you make them accountable."