Tournaments : : Story
Friday, July 04, 2014

'Co-champs' doesn't quite cut it

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – It’s been noted many times that you win some, you lose some and some get rained out, and an important rain-out is exactly what happened a year ago at the 2013 13u Perfect Game BCS Finals.

After the semifinal games were completed at the Lee County Sports Complex on June 26 last year, a thunderstorm forced the cancelation of the championship game between the Houston Banditos Black and the Chain Stealth; the two teams were named co-champions of the PG national championship tournament.

The outcome didn’t really feel like much of an outcome to either team – it was kind of like nothing was settled and no one could claim they had been proven to be right along after a six-day argument that involved more than a few pushes and shoves.

But with nine players from that 13u roster back in uniform here this week, the Banditos Black (they’ve dropped the “Houston” from their name) think they can take care of what they consider unfinished business at this year’s 14u PG BCS Finals, which began on Friday and conclude on Wednesday.

“We wanted to finish it last year but we got rained out; I think we’ll do it this year,” soft-spoken 2018 outfielder/infielder Hunter Townsend said Friday morning. “We usually set our goals at the top and we want to win. We all get along pretty well and (when we’re on the field) it’s just like everyone knows what’s going on and it makes it a lot easier” to go out and win.

The Banditos Black sure made it look easy in their tournament-opener Friday morning when they skated to a 12-0, four inning victory over the Busty Bulls-Black 14u from Wellington, Fla., at the Player Development 5-Plex.

The Banditos Black – based in Tomball, Texas – needed only eight hits to plate their 12 runs with 2018 third baseman Nicholas Northcut contributing a pair of doubles with two RBI and two runs scored. 2017 right-hander Drew Minter and 2018 righty Richard Diaz both worked two innings, faced 10 batters apiece and combined on a four-inning one-hitter, with seven strikeouts and two walks.

It was a good way to begin a trip that everyone involved with the team feels should end with an undisputed PG championship, not a shared one.

“Since the beginning of the season pretty much, our goal was to come back and try to (get one step further) here at the 14u then what we did in the 13u,” Banditos Black head coach Steve Hoffart said. “That’s kind of what we’ve been working towards as far as getting back out here; Fort Myers was good to us last year so hopefully Fort Myers is good to us again this year.”

Seven Banditos Black prospects were named to the all-tournament team at the 2013 13u PG BCS Finals, including outfielder/first baseman Michael Cooper, outfielder Dakota More and catcher/middle-infielder Alerick Soularie, all 2017s; Townsend, shortstop/right-hander Hunter Watson and left-hander/first baseman Kelan Foster, all 2018s.

Additionally, 2018 first baseman/left-hander Thomas Burbank, a 6-foot-2, 180-pounder from Beaumont, Texas, was named the Most Valuable Player after hitting .588 (10-for-17) with two doubles, a home run, 16 RBI and seven runs scored.

“At the beginning of the (2013) season I was worried about getting use to the big fields and by the end of it, I looked back on it and I was like, ‘Hey, I did something good,’” Burbank said Friday. “The only thing I could think to myself a month later was, ‘How can I repeat it next year?’”

A little over a month after picking up the MVP Award at the 13u PG BCS Finals, Burbank was named the co-MVP playing up at the 14u Perfect Game World Series here in Fort Myers. The Houston Banditos won the PG national championship at that tournament, too.

It is this current 14u Banditos Black roster that is grabbing a lot of attention. Organization founder and owner Ray DeLeon, who is with his teams at the PG WWBA 17u National Championship in Emerson, Ga., this week, identified last year’s 13-year-olds as a team to be reckoned with over the next several years if they can stay together.

“Top to bottom, these are just good, solid, fundamental baseball players,” Hoffart said. “They are legit hitters top to bottom; we can run five (pitchers) out there and be pretty confident that there’s a good chance they’re going to get you a win. The defense is solid – as far as that goes there are really no holes defensively – and if you go out and throw strikes and play defense, you’ve got a pretty good chance of winning games.”

This Banditos Black 14u team sharpened its teeth in anticipation of this tournament by playing in five Perfect Game Super25 tournaments since the end of last year, and won three of them – the 14u South Super Regional, the 14u North Texas Regional and the 14u South Texas Regional.

“That really has been a good experience,” Hoffart said. “We’ve won three of those Super25 events and it’s kind of nice to have Perfect Game down in our area so we don’t have to travel so far. They’ve been in good places with nice facilities so it’s been good to be involved in those tournaments under the Perfect Game mantra.”

Added Burbank: “I thought it was a good experience playing in the Perfect Game Super25 because you get to be in the same atmosphere of Perfect Game (tournaments) and you get be around the people who run it. I feel like that’s going to help us in these tournaments.”

These youngsters benefit from being a part of the Banditos Baseball Club program in many ways, not the least of which is their access to camps put on by various college programs and offered at a very young age. By the time the prospects reach 14 years old, colleges have already seen them enough to know who they may want to pursue.

“It’s changed my life completely. … Ever since I was 11 it has had the biggest influence on my life and Coach Ray (DeLeon) has been like a second dad to me; the organization is like a family,” Burbank said of his experiences with the Banditos.

“Just having that Banditos name, one, it’s a good thing for the kids because they get that recognition and, two, it’s good for picking up kids coming in that want to showcase their skills as they get older,” Hoffart said of the organization. “There are kids on this team that are real leaders, there’s no doubt about it. There are kids on this team that are going to go on and play baseball at the next level, and with this group there are at least four or five kids like that I can tell you, even at 14, they’re legit ballplayers.”

Hoffart describes it as team that eagerly accepts the high expectations place on them, and not just from Hoffart, DeLeon or a strong parental support system but from themselves more than anyone. Excuses are unacceptable and won’t be tolerated.

“Our team has a real strong bond together,” Burbank said. “Most of us have been together since were 12-years-old but we’ve added some other kids, and those kids make the bond even stronger. We all come together as one team and that’s what makes us the team we are – we have such a strong bond. We all hang out together, we all have a good time and that’s just the way we are.”

It is certainly worth noting that even before the Banditos Black had taken the field for their 14u PG BCS Finals opener on the Fourth of July holiday that resulted in that 12-0 win, the Chain Stealth – the team the Banditos Black were co-champions with at last year’s 13u PG BCS Finals – had already posted an 11-1 win in their tournament opener.

Yes, the Chain Stealth are in this field of 88 teams and it’s certain they, too, feel like they have a little unfinished business to take care of.

 “I’ve been looking forward to this for months and I’ve been working for it pretty hard; the whole team has,” Burbank said. “We feel like we want to come in here and finish the job and we also feel like we have a target on our back and people are after us. But we’re ready for it and, yeah, we want to finish up what we did last season.”

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