FORT MYERS, Fla. -- SWFL Baseball 16u head coach Clint Montgomery wasn't buying it. When the thought was cast his way Friday morning while he was getting his team ready to open play at the 2013 16u PG BCS Finals national championship at the former Boston Red Sox Player Development Complex, Montgomery wouldn't take the bait.
Never mind that his 2012 SWFL 16u team won both the 16u PG WWBA East Memorial Day Classic championship and the 16u PG BCS Finals national title last summer. Never mind that this very group won the 2013 16u PG WWBA East Memorial Championship here exactly one month ago. Montgomery refused to accept the idea that his championship-caliber team was playing with a target on its back.
"I don't know if you can say that because there are so many good teams up and down (the schedule) throughout this thing; I don't think anyone can just sit there and pick one team and say that's the team we want or need to beat," Montgomery said. "So I wouldn't think there's a target on our back, no."
The 8th annual 16u PG BCS Finals kicked off Friday morning on fields spread across Fort Myers and Cape Coral with 64 highly regarded teams from 15 states and Puerto Rico set to challenge for the title. Two three-game sets of pool-play Friday through Monday will lead into Tuesday's opening round of the 16-team playoffs; the semifinals and championship are scheduled for Wednesday at City of Palms Park.
A target on its back or no, SWFL 16u made sure it found its target in the opener Friday, disposing of Tennessee Dores Gold, 8-0, at the 5-Plex. First baseman Chris Berry (2015, Seminole, Fla.), third baseman Joey Dalton (2015, Naples, Fla.) and catcher Tyler Koser (2015, Lutz, Fla.) led a 12-hit attack with two hits apiece, and Berry and Koser each drove in a pair of runs.
Left-handers Shane McClanahan (2015, Cape Coral, Fla.) and Austin Dury, and righty Thaddeus Ward (2015, Fort Myers, Fla.) combined on a seven inning five-hit shutout with 10 strikeouts.
SWFL 16u played in three tournaments in the month of June after winning the PG East Memorial Day Classic, which gave Montgomery ample opportunity to get a feel for this team.
"We've been playing pretty good ball trying to get ready for this tournament and then Georgia (PG WWBA 16u National Championship)," Montgomery said. "The difference between now and Memorial Day is that we've had a couple of injuries and we have a few different guys, but now I think they understand our coaching style a little better and we've been playing pretty good ball."
The championship at the 16u PG WWBA East Memorial Day Classic really set a nice tone for this group. McClanahan pitched five innings -- allowing no runs on three hits and striking out five -- in the championship game victory over South Florida Elite Squad Louisville Slugger, and another rising star, shortstop Zuriel Collins (2015, Seminole, Fla.), burst upon the scene at that event.
Playing in his first Perfect Game event, Collins won the tournament Most Valuable Player award after batting 8-for-15 (.533) with three RBI, three runs scored, a .611 on-base percentage and 1.211 OPS.
"We felt pretty good," Collins said of SWFL's run to the East Memorial title. "We didn't know each other that well but as the days went by we came together as a team. I feel like I've known these kids for a long time ... and in the dugout we were all together as one, all of us cheering."
The 16u PG BCS Finals -- like all the other PG BCS Finals -- feature a unique format in which a team can gain automatic entry into the playoffs only by winning the championship in its second round of pool-play; results of the first three games are used only to reconfigure the pools for the second set of three games. A team can go 0-3 in the first set and still advance to the playoffs if it wins its second pool, something that happens more often than one might think.
"I don't really know if I like it or don't like it -- I don't really feel either direction on it; it is what it is and you've got to play by that set of rules," Montgomery said of the format. "It's good for us this week because we just got done playing our last tournament on Wednesday so it gives us a couple of extra days of rest for some of our pitchers instead of trying to force kids out on the bump too quick.
"We expect to have a good showing here but it's just so tough with so many good teams; it just takes one slip-up and you're out," he continued. "It's hard to say in these things what's going to happen, but the main objective is to come out and do the best we can in the six games that we know we're going to have and if we get any bonus games, that's awesome."
Montgomery is in his seventh summer of coaching for Fort Myers-based SWFL Baseball and organization founder John Cedarburg. With three PG championships already won in the last 13 months, it's obviously been a good fit.
"Coach Cedarburg has been very good to me," he said. "I started out as low man on the pole here and worked my way up, and now I get to pick my own team and everything. It's going good for us. One thing that I've always said when people ask if I want to move up (an age group) is that I love 16-and-under baseball. The kids are still willing to listen and learn and stuff, and once they turn 17 and 18 and they're committed to colleges it becomes more 'me'. Here we can still get some coaching done, so that's why I stick with this age group."
Montgomery enjoys working with the age group because he can still coach and teach the players. He won't change a pitcher's mechanics or do any major overhaul on a player's technique but only try to help them play the game smarter and understand the mental side of the game a little better.
"We're not going to try to change people's swings or step on their high school coach's toes and stuff like that, but if we see little things like how to attack hitters and how to run the bases, little things like that that will help our team," he said.
Montgomery just completed his eighth season as head coach at Island Coast High School in nearby Cape Coral, and one of his players, top 2016 outfield prospect Andy Churlin from Cape Coral, is on the SWFL 16u roster.
"I've always said coming in that this isn't for my high school, this is a totally different thing," Montgomery said. "If my kids (at Island Coast) are good enough to make it, they do; I don't try to put them on (this roster) if they're not ready just to help my high school team. We have a summer league for them, too, so I can get my guys better through that."
Winning the 16u PG BCS Finals national championship is SWFL Baseball 16u's focus over the next six days. Its next challenge will arrive July 12-19 when it hopes to contend for the title at the PG WWBA 2015 Grads or 16u National Championship in Marietta, Ga.
"These are the two events that you circle on your calendar," Montgomery said. "We are definitely looking forward to them ... and the recruiting is really going to pick up these next two weeks with the colleges getting out of their world series. These are big events for the kids so, yeah, we're looking forward to it."