Tournaments : : Story
Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Burn seek 16u PGWS encore

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It was exactly a year ago this week that the Florida Burn 16u began their incredible Perfect Game championship run, a series of triumphs that was unprecedented on the 2012 PG calendar.

After a couple of top-three finishes early in the summer, the Burn won the inaugural 16u Perfect Game World Series National Championship in Marietta, Ga., just as July turned into August. A little over two months later, they won a second PG national championship by snagging the title at the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship; a week after that, the scrappy Burn won the PG WWBA Florida Qualifier championship, earning a paid invitation to the PG WWBA World Championship in the process.

This year's Florida Burn 16u squad, an almost entirely different group from the one that won those titles a year ago, has returned to the tournament where that championship run first found its footing: the 2nd annual 16u PG World Series, moved this year to Southwest Florida from north Georgia.

The elite 16-team event began Tuesday, will continue with pool-play games at four Fort Myers venues through Friday, and conclude Saturday with semifinal and championship games. The 14-team 14u PG World Series and 16-team 15u PGWS are running concurrently with the 16u event and follow the same schedule.

Only two spots on this year's Burn 16u roster are filled by players who were part of the three PG championships in 2012. But those two -- 2015 shortstop Deacon Liput from Oviedo, Fla., and 2014 right-hander Chris Hopkins out of Deland, Fla., -- give Burn head coach Mark Guthrie the intangibles of championship experience and winning attitudes.

"We're always here to try to develop players, and that comes first," Guthrie said Tuesday morning from steamy City of Palms Park. "We try to get them the best exposure that we can -- that's why we play in these events -- and they do provide great exposure. The competition makes them better, but we're also here to win.

"We told them we're going to try to play it like a college or professional team and some guys might have roles they're not used to, but they're all on board and they're all a good bunch of kids and that's what makes it a whole lot of fun."

Not only were Liput and Hopkins members of the Burn championship teams from a year ago, they were also on the Florida Burn team that advanced to the final four at last week's 17u Perfect Game World Series in Goodyear, Ariz. The Burn finished second in their pool to advance and then were beaten by the South Florida Elite Squad-Louisville Slugger in one semifinal to finish the elite event with a 4-2-2 record.

"It was a lot of fun and it was very good to be able to play all the great teams and great competition out there," said Liput, the No. 174-ranked national prospect (2015) and a University of Florida commit. "We didn't play as well as we could have but we played pretty well as a team and it was a lot of fun getting to play all those other teams that you don't normally get to see.

"I love playing up an age group," he added. "It gives you a chance to play with a lot better talent and a lot of kids who are more mature, and it gives you a chance to mature as a player."

Hopkins, the Burn's starting pitcher in the 16u PGWS opener Tuesday morning and a Florida Gulf Coast University recruit, called the 17u PGWS opportunity "awesome."

"That was a once in a lifetime experience," he said. "Staying with a group of guys that I played with the whole summer. and we really go along the whole time; it was really a lot of fun. After the first two games EvoShield (Canes) and the Houston Banditos we kind of got rolling and a lot of kids started stepping up.

"These (PG World Series) events are the best that any kid could play in, and I'm excited about playing in another (PG) world series this week."

Two other Florida Burn prospects have joined Liput and Hopkins in already having made college commitments: catcher/third baseman Bret Maxwell (2014, St. Petersburg, Fla.) to Florida State and third baseman/right-hander Ryan Thomas (2016, Winter Garden, Fla.) to Central Florida.

The Florida Burn organization combined its two 17u teams into one for last week's 17u PG World Series and this week combined its four 16u teams into one powerhouse group for the 16u PGWS. With 16 of the top teams from across the country here this week, no team can afford to come in undermanned.

The Burn's four 16u teams have done pretty well for themselves this summer. The Florida Burn Silver -- arguably the program's top 16u squad -- reached the semifinals at the PG WWBA 16u East Memorial Day Classic; the four Burn 16u teams combined for a 17-10-1 record at the PG WWBA 16u National Championship; and two Burn squads went 9-2-1 at the 16u PG BCS Finals.

Guthrie explained that the Burn organization generally puts its teams together in December, which means by the time Aug. 1 rolls around on the calendar the players have had seven or eight months to develop and learn their roles. In assembling a team for a PG World Series, it's the more fundamentally sound prospect that gets the most consideration.

"Talent-wise, we might be a little deeper (than at the previous 16u tournaments)," Guthrie said. "All four of our teams competed pretty well all summer long, so we're probably a little bit stronger for this event and maybe a little bit deeper with our pitching staff. But in these kinds of events with such good pitching, it just depends on who executes, who gets their bunts down, who can run the bases. When good baseball happens it's the little things that decide the winners.

 "Basically by the end of the summer we try to put ... a team together with the kind of guys that can fill roles and do things to win an event like this. If you try to play showcase baseball in an event like this you're not going to make it."

The Florida Burn leadership has proved it can push the right buttons to get the desired results, and the players have not questioned the plan of attack. Why should they? Winning is too much fun.

"We like to come out here and have fun," Liput said. "We enjoy being out here on the baseball field and we enjoy playing baseball; we kind of come out here and just have fun. But we always come in here looking to do something special and I feel like this is another tournament where we can do something special."

Sort of like what happened a year ago this week.

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