FORT MYERS, Fla. -- A very young girl approached East Cobb Stars head coach Kent Amburn after his team played its final pool game at the 13u PG BCS Finals Monday afternoon, and sweetly asked, "Does this mean we're going to the brackets?"
"Yes," Amburn answered gently, "we're going to the brackets."
"The brackets" in this case are the 16-team playoffs at the 13u PG BCS Finals, which wrapped up two sets of pool-play games -- six games in all -- Monday evening. The East Cobb Stars had just routed SWFL Canes Baseball, 14-4, in what proved to be the championship game in Pool D.
Only the 12 champions from the pools that were refigured after the first set of pool games were played Friday and Saturday earned automatic playoff berths; four at-large entries will also be added.
The East Cobb Stars and the SWFL Canes arrived at the Pool D championship game on decidedly different tracks. SWFL came in looking like a hefty locomotive, scoring runs at will; East Cobb entered more closely resembling the "Little Engine that Could."
"The format of the tournament worked out fine for us," Amburn said Monday. "We had really tough competition the way our (first) pool just happened to work out, and that just got us better. Playing the better competition got us better for this (second) pool."
THE EAST COBB STARS LOOKED LOST and out of place during the first two days of pool-play, a set of three games whose results are considered only when determining the four at-large berths. Put in the most polite terms possible, the Stars stunk it up in those first three games, losing by combined scores of 37-10, including losses of 13-1 to the San Diego Show and 13-2 the Richmond Braves National.
The Stars, based in Woodstock, Ga., were adjusting on the fly -- adjustments needed because they were playing on regulation fields with a 60-foot, 6-inch distance from the pitching rubber to home plate and 90-foot base paths for only the second time.
"The biggest change for all our kids is (the field)," Amburn said before his team took the field against the SWFL Canes. "We play 54-80 (feet) in Atlanta and the biggest adjustment was the bigger outfield ... and our kids had to get their arms use to the pitching distance. We played one tournament (on the bigger field) before we came and it's just taken us a few more games to get back in our groove here."
They found their groove just when it mattered most during the second set of pool-play that began Sunday. It didn't happen all at once, but happen it did. In a dramatic Pool D opener on Sunday, the Stars faced the EvoShield Canes and eventually came out on top in a back-and-forth affair by pushing across the winning run in the bottom of the sixth inning.
The Stars were down 2-1 after 2 1/2 innings; up 4-2 after 3; tied at 4 after 3 1/2; up 5-4 after 5; and tied at 5 after 5 1/2. Dejuan Van Dyke (2017, Fayetteville, Ga.) led off the bottom of the sixth with a double and eventually crossed with the winning run when Billy Zinnershine (2018, Marietta) was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded.
That win provided a boost into what promised to be a demanding and some might say grueling Monday at the Player Development 5-Plex when they had to play back-to-back games.
The Stars finally clicked in most areas when they disposed of the West Florida Elite Baseball Club, 11-3, first-thing Monday morning behind an 11-hit attack. Jarrett Ford (2018, Decatur, Ga.) was 3-for-4 with three runs scored; Sean Cheely (2018, Autstell, Ga.) was 2-for-4 with three RBI; and right-hander Dalton Amburn (2017, Hiram, Ga.) threw 4 2/3 innings of three-hit ball, allowing two earned runs and striking out five.
"They're getting better," Coach Amburn said. "The first couple of losses were rough and then we got better the third game. We're getting better game by game, and this game right holds our destiny as far as the brackets."
The Stars are a first-year team that was put together by Amburn at the request of a couple of fathers of 12 and 13 year old boys. They got in underneath the East Cobb umbrella and it's Amburn's hope that he can keep this group together so they can really build something special in the next two or three years.
"We're working on their baseball IQ, is what I call it," Amburn said. "The game's gotten bigger ... and we can't micro-manage; they've got to know it by now."
THE SWFL CANES TOOK A MORE CONVENTIONAL ROUTE to the pool championship game then did the Stars although they, too, had to play back-to-back games Monday morning. They finished their first set of pool-play games 2-1, outscoring their opponents 16-7 with their only loss a 3-1 setback to the highly regarded Houston Banditos Black. It was when they opened their second set of three pool games that the Canes really flexed their offensive muscles.
It started on Sunday when they banged out 15 hits while dropping the West Florida Elite Baseball Club, 11-6. They kept it up Monday morning when they used 18 hits to out-slug the EvoShield Canes in a wild affair that ended with SWFL on top, 20-11.
"It's actually a good feeling to see the boys hit the ball well and play well, but obviously it comes down to whoever makes the least mistakes," SWFL Canes head coach Hector Rivera said before the game against the East Cobb Stars. "Hopefully we make the least (amount of) mistakes and get into the playoffs, because I really want to get there for these kids."
The SWFL Canes 13u team that played here this week fills its roster spots with young guys who come from all around the Fort Myers area. This group has been playing together since they were 9-year-olds and have become best of friends.
"All the boys obviously are all local here and they stay over at each others' houses and have pool parties and stuff like that," Rivera said. "It's been really fun watching them grow up as a group."
One of those young players is Noah Rivera, a 2018 catcher who also happens to be Hector's son. "It's tough coaching your own son but it's kind of impressive at the same time," Hector said with a smile. He was actually enjoying the entire experience the 13u PG BCS Finals provided all of his young players.
"It's been phenomenal; I can't complain at all," Rivera said. "These boys have been playing real hard and that's all I ask of them. They just show up and play, and whoever makes the last out, that's just the way it is," Rivera said. "Honestly, I guess they just go with the emotions of the game so where ever the game takes them, that's where they go."
And then he reiterated something that Amburn touched on:
"We never stop teaching. You can never learn enough in this game; you've got to be real humble and you have to take everything into consideration. Whoever tells you something, you should think about it and try to apply it."
THE EAST COBB STARS USED AN EIGHT-RUN second inning to take control of the pool championship game early then tacked on five more in the fourth on their way to the 14-4, five inning win over SWFL. Andrew Shaw (2018, Woodstock, Ga.) had three hits and three RBI, and Cheely, Zinnershine and Logan Cooper (2018, Knoxville, Tenn.) each drove in a pair of runs apiece.
Amburn was especially pleased with his team's ability to gut-out two big wins in back-to-back games Monday.
"That's character, especially being down here in Florida and playing in the heat that we're not used to yet," he said. "Back-to- back games -- our pitchers, both our starting guys and our middle relief guys gave us a lot of innings that kept us in the ballgames. Pitching was key today and our bats came alive like they hadn't in the whole tournament."
After pounding out 33 hits in their previous two games, the Canes managed only four against the Stars. They ended up outscoring their final three pool-play opponents, but by the somewhat unusual margin of 35-31.
They hit .358 as a team and averaged 8.5 runs per game, but had only two hitters -- Giovany Lorenzo (2017, Fort Myers, Fla.) and Chris Schrowe (2017, Cape Coral, Fla.) hit .400 or better -- Lorenzo at . 500 (6-for-12 with a triple, seven RBI and six runs scored) and Schrowe at .400 (6-for-15).
It was, in the end, a remarkable turnaround for the East Cobb Stars.
"They came through adversity, learning the 60-90 (distances)," Amburn said. "We got 10 run-ruled twice, but we came back and we're playing well with 12 players. We hope to make it another couple of games in the (playoffs) and go from there. This was a major accomplishment for us."