FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Early Sunday morning and afternoon at this weekend's PG WWBA 16u East Memorial Day Classic had a bit of the feeling of the old "Bump Day" leading up to the Indianapolis 500. That was the day the cars that had not yet qualified for the Indy field took last-chance qualifying laps in an effort to knock cars already at the back at the field out of the starting grid.
There were many instances Sunday where teams sitting in the top three spots in their respective five-team pools were given the opportunity to bump their way into the 16-team playoff field at the 80-team 16u Memorial Day Classic. And, as we all know, winner-take-all situations can be white-knuckle affairs, especially when there is a pool championship in play.
The Florida Hardballers 16u Red did a lot of bumping on Sunday. On the other side of the track, the South Florida Breakers 16u Royal basically needed only to suit-up in order to qualify for Sunday afternoon's first round of the playoffs. It was a tale of two teams with decidedly different outcomes once the playoffs did get under way late Sunday afternoon.
THE SCHEDULE HAD THE HARDBALLERS 16U RED, coached by Randy Maris, playing its final two pool-play games on Sunday while their closest competitors in Pool MM -- SCORE International 16u and the CRFS Royals -- had single pool-plays game remaining only with the Hardballers. The Hardballers were 2-0 when they woke up Sunday morning and SCORE International and the CRFS Royals were both 2-1.
The Hardballers 16u Royal started their day by holding off SCORE, 9-4, after building a 6-0, third inning lead in an 8 a.m. game at the jetBlue Player Development Complex.
"This has been great," Maris said after the victory. "The kids are playing real hard and hustling all the time. We've had good pitching ... and they've been doing good. We're excited about this squad."
The Hardballers then waxed the Royals, 10-0 in five innings, to win the pool championship with a 4-0 record. A loss in either of Sunday's pool-play games would have eliminated them from the playoffs, but instead they wound up outscoring their four opponents by a combined 39-4.
"I thought we had a chance," Maris said. "We've really got a good squad that can hit and run, and I think our pitching is probably as good as it's been at this level for awhile. You never try to get overly expectant with these teams but I think they've done really well so far."
The Florida Hardballers 16u Red rolled into the playoffs with a head of a steam, and behind a combined three-hit, seven-strikeout shutout from right-handers Fletcher Simmons and Harrison Shubert, edged Team IMPACT 16u, 1-0, in the first round of the playoffs; they advanced to Monday morning's quarterfinals at the Player Development 5-Plex in north Fort Myers.
2015 prospects Tyler Barron, Brooks Brasher, Benjamin Koff and Shubert batted in all five games for the Hardballers and all hit .400 or better. 2016 first basemen Phillip Felicien smacked a sixth inning RBI single following a triple from Simmons that produced the only run in the first-round playoff win over Team IMPACT 16u.
Right-hander Drayden Williams, a 2015 from Durant High School and Valrico, Fla., pitched in two of the Hardballers' first five games and allowed no runs on three hits in eight innings, with 11 strikeouts and one walk.
Maris, the son of the late Yankees slugger and two-time American League Most Valuable Player (1960-61) Roger Maris, has a son, Blaise Maris, playing with the Hardballers.
"It's nice to be able to coach him," Randy said. "He's a catcher and he's a real good hitter, and it's a lot of fun having him on the team."
THE SOUTH FLORIDA BREAKERS 16U ROYAL took care of business efficiently enough on Friday and Saturday that they really didn't need to concern themselves all that much with their final Pool KK game early Sunday afternoon. The Breakers won their first three pool-play games and their three wins couldn't be matched by any other team in the pool.
They took care of business anyway, and improved to 4-0 after beating the Gamewear Nationals, 6-2, in the pool-play finale. The Breakers outscored their four pool-play opponents, 23-9. It proved to be an eye-opening experience for new coach Nick Criaris.
"This is my first summer coaching with the Breakers, and when you start the summer you don't really know what's going on," he said Sunday from jetBlue. "I didn't really know any of these guys and I've been pleasantly surprised. There are five to seven of them that probably played on the same 15-and-under team last year and a lot of them have gotten a lot better.
”A lot of them have significantly improved in one year .. and the Breakers are all about instruction, development and practice. These guys practice and they work with instructors who can get them better."
The Breakers 16u Royal advanced to the first round of the playoffs where the magic disappeared in a 5-1 loss to FTB Ozzie. There was plenty to be optimistic about, however.
Highly regarded 2015s Marcos Villanueva, Chase Reyes and Anthony Gutierrez enjoyed an outstanding three days of play -- each of them hit .417 or better. Villanueva was 6-for-13 (.462) with a double three RBI and three runs scored. Plantation, Fla., right-hander Nicholas Marchese pitched six innings of one-hit ball with seven strikeouts in the Breakers' 3-0 win over the Florida Burn 16u in the tournament-opener Friday night.
"I'm learning just as much about them as they're learning about themselves," said Criaris, who previously did some coaching with the South Florida Elite Squad. "Little by little, if they keep doing things the way they're doing them now, they're going to be even better by the end of the summer."
In a few short weeks, Criaris has learned a lot about his young squad. He didn't know how well they would perform in their first tournament playing together, but after a 4-0 showing during pool-play in one of the most challenging 16u early summer tournaments in the country, his expectations have risen. Simply put, he just likes the way these guys go about their business.
"I think a lot of young kids play with the wrong intentions," Criaris said. "(The Breakers) just want to play and play hard and that's more rare now than it used to be. There's a lot of talent but I think the way they way they approach every game is what makes them who they are.
"I tell them all the time, 'Bryce Harper works harder than any of you, and that's a problem,'" he continued. "You work hard and get better and then you see what happens; you don't worry about what's happening, you worry about what you can do to make things happen; this group seems to exemplify that."