FORT MYERS, Fla. - Team Florida is an organization based in Panama City that has put together an elite 13u team that is here this week to participate in the Perfect Game 13u BCS Finals. It's the first 13u BCS Finals PG has presented since 2006 and it's the first PG tournament of any kind for the Team Florida 13u squad.
Fully aware of the level of competition the 20-team 13u BCS Finals would offer, Team Florida head coach Chris Cullen hooked up with Mike Beasley from the Southern Ball Academy in Tallahassee to make sure the youngsters on the Team Florida roster - all in the high school classes of 2016 or 2017 - would be able to handle what they were about to be served.
"Southern Ball Academy has been a tremendous help to us in this tournament," Cullen said from Terry Park after Team Florida won its sixth straight game at the Finals, 7-6 over the Academy Select Sun Devils from Dallas Texas. The win gave Team Florida an automatic berth in the playoffs, which begin Thursday.
"We needed their help, they were more than willing to help, they've worked with a lot of our boys before and they've been a tremendous help with getting us to where we are right now," Cullen said of Southern Ball Academy's involvement.
Beasley is the director and head instructor at Southern Ball Academy, and is genuinely thrilled to be involved with Team Florida this week.
"Some of them are our kids, and this is the first chance we've had to be with them at a tournament all week long, and we're really having a blast," Beasley said. "Chris does a fantastic job with them and right now they're finding ways to win even when they don't show up. That's a good sign."
Team Florida breezed through its first round of pool-play by outscoring its first three opponents by a combined 36-7. In the second and decisive round of pool play, it beat the Pembroke Lakes Bulldogs, 9-1; Team Mizuno of Puerto Rico 13u, 6-3; and finally the Academy Select Sun Devils.
"The bats have really been coming through for us; the offense has been pretty strong," Cullen said. "It has been all year, but this tournament in particular it's really been hitting on just about all cylinders, I'd say, with the exception of about two games."
No one has been hitting like Donnie Gleneski (2016, Orange Park, Fla.). After six games, Gleneski was 11-for-16 (.688) with three doubles, a triple, three home runs, 16 RBI and 10 runs scored. Brendan Fox (2017, Panama City, Fla.) has tried to keep pace, hitting 11-for-17 (.647) with three doubles, seven RBI and 10 runs scored.
Cullen also said his pitching been "pretty solid" and he's pleased his staff and defense allowed just 17 runs in six games against many of the top 13u units from seven states and Puerto Rico.
"This is absolutely a solid field. I think some of the best (13u) talent in the nation is here and I think everybody realizes that," Cullen said. "We have expectations of winning this tournament; we haven't lost a 13u game since mid-March, We've been on quite a good run ... and so absolutely we expected to be doing what we're doing here.
"We're familiar with a lot of the top teams here and we've played a lot of them; we feel we're right in there with the big dogs."
As 13-year-olds, these players still need to develop and improve their games, and find an identity and a reason for being on the field. It needs to be fun, of course, especially for these early teens, as they learn to appreciate the game and nurture a love for it. But that doesn't mean they are allowed many do-overs.
"Absolutely we expect them to execute," Cullen said. "This team in particular has been put together with kids not necessarily from Panama City, Fla., but they're spread out from a big area and it's some of the best players from some elite programs. They've been taught well, so when they get here ... we absolutely expect them to perform well and do all the little things that are necessary to win."
Performance isn't the biggest challenge facing the Team Florida coaching staff, not on this particular trip, anyway. Outside forces are trying to influence the young teenagers, as Cullen explained Wednesday afternoon.
"We've been talking and dealing with the biggest challenge of all," he said, offering a knowing smile. "Normally, through all of our tournaments we stay in hotels, and (the players') parents are with their own boys. They make sure they get to sleep on time and we meet at the ballpark, and they're well-rested and their well-fed.
"This time they're all staying in one house, they rode in a van here together, and they're near a beach and pretty girls and all that, and that's been the biggest challenge - keeping them well-rested and not having too much fun besides baseball."