FORT MYERS, Fla. – It was just past noon on Monday and still raining lightly at the JetBlue Park Player Development Complex; the Texas Sun Devils, an elite team from Beaumont playing in the 15u Perfect Game BCS Finals had a decision to make.
Heavy rain Sunday night and most of Monday morning had rendered all the beautifully maintained playing fields spread out across Lee County basically unplayable by lunchtime on Monday. PG tournament officials decided to scrap the second set of three pool-play games and open up the playoffs to every team in the 15u PG BCS Finals and 14u PG BCS Finals, a single-elimination format with five-inning games that would begin Tuesday morning.
The Sun Devils and head coach Matt Thompson didn’t have to think twice about joining in on the wild playoff scenario that awaits the teams Tuesday morning, but Thompson did have another decision to make.
PG officials gave teams the option of playing their regularly scheduled pool-play game – in the Sun Devils’ case, one against the Carrollwood Gators – even though it wouldn’t count toward anything. It was a scrimmage, an exhibition, and teams could forego it if they wanted to save some pitching arms for the real deal.
“We didn’t have to play this game but I didn’t even have to ask them if they wanted to play in a scrimmage game; they would have been disappointed if I would said no,” Thompson said of his team shortly before the Sun Devils took the field.
“I really wanted to play this game,” echoed 2017 Sun Devils’ second baseman Logan Lejeune from Port Neches, Texas. “We might meet up with them later and we can see what they have. Or maybe their coach might want to sub in some guys and they can show their talent out there that they usually don’t get a chance to show, and we can see that, too.”
That’s the competitive nature coming through front and center in this group of Sun Devils. They opened the tournament with four straight pool-play wins although now only the results of the first three will matter. They outscored those three opponents by a combined 24-3 so they should be in good shape when it comes to the playoff seedings.
“We’ve all played baseball long enough to know that the weather is part of our game,” Thompson said. “You just sit and wait, whether it’s in the hotel or in your car. You wait until they call your name and then you go out and play and strap it on.”
The majority of this group played with the 14u Texas Sun Devils team a year ago and has stuck together for at least another year. They added some arms this year but have managed to stay close to their roots with most of the players coming from Lake Charles, La., and smaller Texas towns nearby. Six of the players attend Alfred M. Barbe High School in Lake Charles.
Thompson calls this group “the best 15-year-old team the Sun Devils have ever had” which is saying a lot considering he also coached a Sun Devils team that won the 2011 17u BCS Finals and had played together as 15-year-olds. That team featured future professionals and NCAA D-I prospects like Gavin Cecchini, Ty Hensley, Stryker Trahan, Kolby Copeland and Taylor Butler.
“Athletically, this team is better than that team,” Thompson said, “so we’re excited.”
The team hit nearly .350 in its first four games with 2017s Kirkland Banks, Andrew Sheridan, Chase Kemp, Michael Mott and Lejeune swinging the loudest bats. The pitching staff has an ERA under 0.80 and 2017 right-hander Hunter Hebert pitched six scoreless innings in three appearances, allowing just four hits.
“It’s definitely been a good experience, seeing how many good teams are here and stuff like that,” said Banks, a 5-foot-7, 157-pound sparkplug of a shortstop who attends Barbe High School. “I like meeting all these new teams and meeting new friends and just playing the game of baseball. We came in to win this tournament and not play around; we want to take care of business.”
Thompson usually coaches the Sun Devils’ program’s 17u players but has obviously taken a special interest in this group. He enjoys the athleticism they display while going straight-up against many of the other top 15u teams in the country and he enjoys watching them raise their level of play.
He paused for moment trying to come up with the right word or combination of words when asked to describe the team’s personality.
“I would say strong; tough; high energy,” he finally said. “They make the mistakes like anyone else, but they make those mistakes doing everything they can to try and succeed; they make mistakes trying to win the ballgame.”
There is a social side to a PG national championship tournament that the pre-high school guys playing in the 13u, 14u and 15u events are just starting to experience. They genuinely enjoy meeting kids their own age with the same dreams and aspirations from other parts of the country, proving once again that it is a very small world, indeed.
“I like playing teams from different states because where we’re from we have a lot of competition but we usually play (the same teams) a lot,” Lejeune said. “Playing this different competition from different states shows us something different from what we have.
“We have kids from different baseball teams at our hotel and we just hang out with them. It’s just fun having somebody around that maybe can teach you a little something that we don’t have.”
At 15 years of age, these players are reaching an important time in their development as baseball players, just like they are reaching an important time in their development as a person. Skills are learned, concepts are embraced and ideas are shared, all for the betterment of the collective.
“These guys are sponges,” Thompson said. “The nice thing with this team is that with most of them having played with us last year they already have 12 months under their belts of what we expect as far as pitching, hitting, defense and base-running.
“Like anything else, once they start to grasp what we’re teaching, that’s when you’ve got them – just the acceleration of retaining that information happens so much faster.”
At the most basic level, the revised playoff format for the 15u and 14u PG BCS Finals gives everyone an equal opportunity to win and play on. As Thompson pointed out, no one practices for a five inning game and no coach manages a pitching staff in anticipation of a five inning game, so some unique strategies might rise to the surface on Tuesday.
At the end of the day, Thompson said, everyone will benefit.
“Any Perfect Game tournament is a beneficial tournament,” he concluded. “With all this rain, no one can figure out how to make all these moving parts work like Perfect Game and you know Perfect Game is going to bring in quality teams; quality competition. Now the three expectations we have is to play hard, get better and win. I’m excited for this team – where they’re currently at and how far they’ve come, and where they’re going to be is going to be even more exciting.”