FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When Hurricane Isaac punched New Orleans and the Louisiana Delta squarely in the gut early last week, the players, families and coaches from Nola Baseball understandably felt like their plans for the Labor Day holiday weekend were forever altered.
As it turned out, those plans weren't affected as much as they first feared.
The Nola Baseball Monsters are here this weekend competing in the 20-team Perfect Game WWBA 18u Labor Day Classic, and won their first two games by shutout on Saturday and advanced to the eight-team playoffs despite a loss Sunday morning.
The Monsters are one of only three teams that came to the tournament from outside the state of Florida, and the Coastal Georgia Hooks and Puerto Rico Mets weren't affected by Isaac. That made Nola Baseball's trip to southwest Florida the most precarious of any.
The Nola Baseball Monsters usually boast a 30-man travel squad, but 13 of those players were unable to make the trip because of the havoc created by Isaac. Those who did come drove here on Friday and didn't arrive until 1 a.m. Saturday, with their first game at the Classic just hours away.
"Most of these kids have no power (at home), and their parents are all back home but there's still water in their houses," Nola Baseball founder and Monsters head coach Todd Buster said Sunday morning from one of the dugouts at the JetBlue Player Development Complex.
"It was one of those things where we were just going to 'X-out' coming here but the parents wanted them to get away from what they'd experienced seven years ago (with Hurricane Katrina)."
The Nola Baseball Monsters' players endured evacuation and being uprooted for three or four days until trying to find some semblance of order by playing baseball in southwest Florida, which was ironically spared by Isaac when the tropical storm veered west.
"This one was probably a little more aggressive than the last one because people didn't think with it being a Category 1 ... how could they get 10 feet of water in people's living rooms?" Buster explained. "It was pretty tough, but the kids are here and they're excited and they're off to a good start. This is a pretty good club and these guys are excited to get their legs stretched and get out on the field and just kind of do what boys do."
Nola Baseball advanced to the tournament quarterfinals as the No. 7 seed after finishing pool-play 2-1. It blanked Suncoast Reebok, 8-0, in its opener and then shutout the playoffs' No. 3 seed, the PR Mets, 2-0. The Monsters fell to FTB Royal, 5-2, in their final pool-play game Sunday morning at JetBlue.
They were scheduled to play the No. 2-seeded Tampa Bay Warriors (2-0-1) in the quarterfinals Sunday afternoon. The semifinals are later Sunday and the championship game is scheduled for 9 a.m. on Monday at JetBlue Stadium. The PG WWBA 16u Labor Day Classic playoffs also kicked off Sunday afternoon at Terry Park.
Monsters' left-hander Evan Kissinger (2013, Baton Rouge, La.), and right-handers Chandler Elvir (2013, Mandeville, La.) and Dylan Manichia (2013, Mandeville, La.) combined on a seven inning, five strikeout three-hitter in the win over Suncoast. Right-hander Chase Martin (2013, Baker, La.) pitched a complete game six-hitter against the Mets, a game in which the Monsters turned six infield double-plays.
The top hitters in the first two games were Dylan Weston (2013, Mandeville, La.) and Manichia, both of whom went 3-for-7 (.429). Weston also drove in three runs.
"These guys are competitors; they've got a lot of heart," Buster said. "Most of them have been around the club for five or six years."
Buster said there are more than 300 players in the Nola Baseball program in age groups from 8u to 18u. In the older group that's here this weekend -- or more correctly, if the entire 30 man roster was here -- there are 20 New Orleans-area high schools represented from about a the 250-mile radius.
The organization uses the University of New Orleans as their base of operations and also have an indoor facility it can utilize.
"We've got a lot of different options, and it's a beautiful system when you've got the young guys looking up to the older guys," Buster said. "These guys will be thrust out and become alumni, and they stayed involved. It's a great family and that's kind of the environment that we set; we want these kids to be great fathers, great husbands, great community people, and that's what we set for here."
This is the eighth year Nola Baseball has been in operation and Buster said there is a core group on this Monsters team that has been together the entire eight years. He calls it a "pretty salty group" that has compiled a 95-11-3 record over the past several seasons.
This is, however, the first time the Monsters have played in a Perfect Game event, choosing to stay local instead. With only 20 teams in the 18u Labor Day Classic field -- 17 from Florida -- they're not attending a truly representative national PG event, but it promised to be a great experience regardless.
"We felt like we were going to be competitive this year, and we wanted to come see what everybody has to offer," Buster said. "Fortunately, Perfect Game puts a great product out there and we want to be a part of that in the next couple years."
Buster is proud of the number of Nola Baseball alumni that go on to play collegiately. He said the majority of his alumni end up at LSU, Tulane, U. of New Orleans and Southern Miss -- all fine and respectable baseball schools, to be sure -- but he wants to widen their horizons.
"Perfect Game allows us another alternative ... to get these kids noticed and get the chance to be seen throughout the country," Buster said. "We're looking to branch out and see what's out there for these kids, and even while we're here we're fraternizing with other teams and inviting them to come into Louisiana and help each other out collectively."
When speaking Sunday morning, it was evident Buster felt his young players would remain resilient enough to make a strong push through the playoffs. He fully expected to be walking onto the field at JetBlue Stadium Monday morning with a group of players who have already proved they can survive the most ferocious of storms.
"We just got hit with a bomb of a hurricane and our mission was to come here and play solid baseball and let the chips fall where they may," Buster said. "But I'd be remiss if I didn't say that the focus of these guys is to be here at 9 o'clock (Monday) morning playing for the championship."