FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It's a totally different team from the one that won the PG WWBA Florida Qualifier here last year that walked into Terry Park Friday evening, but the players were proudly displaying the name that will forever be linked to that 2011 championship: SWFL 18u.
Southwest Florida (SWFL) 18u claimed the championship at the PG WWBA Florida Qualifier in mid-September of 2011, and secured the coveted paid invitation to the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., that goes with the title.
SWFL 18u has its eyes on that same prize again this year, albeit with a totally different roster from the team that won last year's title.
"It's always a good time being back at (a) Perfect Game (event)," SWFL 18u head coach Ryan Horton said Friday at Terry Park on an incredibly beautiful fall evening in southwest Florida. "We've finally got the whole team together; this is probably our fifth tournament (this fall) and we finally got everybody together, so we're really excited to strap it on and get going."
This team was assembled at the end of the summer and first played together at the PG WWBA 18u Labor Day Classic where it went winless in three pool-play games. It's been playing in weekend tournaments since that less than desirable showing in preparation for this tournament.
There were only five games played Friday night, as the 56-team PG WWBA Florida Qualifier rolls out in full force Saturday morning. Full days of pool-play and early round playoff games are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, with the semifinals and championship game scheduled to be played Monday at the Boston Red Sox's jetBlue Player Development Complex.
MBL scouts and college recruiters should be reminded that the forecast for the entire weekend is dry and extremely pleasant temperature-wise.
SWFL 18u got its title defense off to an acceptable start on Friday thanks to the work of 2013 left-hander Sean Labsan, a Florida Atlantic commit. Labsan, who is from Sarasota, Fla., and arguably Horton's staff ace, pitched six innings of three-hit, shutout ball and left after the sixth with a 1-0 lead over the Ontario Blue Jays White.
The Jays tied the game in the top of the seventh and it ultimately ended in a 1-1 tie. Blue Jays' right-hander Joseph Rositano (2013, Richmond Hill, Ont.) was as good as Labsan, throwing a complete game, seven inning three-hitter, and the only run SWFL scored was unearned.
The SWFL organization has long been known for its homegrown talent, bringing in young players from the Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Naples and Port Charlotte communities, and that hasn't changed. But there are a couple of prospects on the 18u roster from Tampa this year, and the 16u and 17u rosters have players from the Florida's Atlantic Coast.
Joining Labsan as a few of SWFL 18u's top players are catcher Hayden Platt (2013, Naples, Fla.), a Central Florida commit; catcher Michael Mann (2013, Seminole, Fla.), a South Florida commit; and right-hander Mario Leon (2013, Naples), a Florida Gulf Coast recruit.
"Every time we start out in a tournament, we always try to win (it), and it's the same thing here," Horton said. "We've finally got everybody back together, so we're going to try out different things and see what works. Our ultimate goal is to win this and to get better when we go down to Jupiter."
SWFL 18u's drive to the 2011 PG WWBA Florida Qualifier championship was somewhat unlikely after it lost its second pool-play game of the tournament to Orlando Baseball Academy. But the guys knuckled-down and won their next five games -- including a 6-0 win over FTB Mizuno 17u in the championship game -- to claim the title.
"It was just an unreal experience for us, and it just showed myself and the whole SWFL organization what type of kids we bring in. They're a bunch of fighters and bunch of scrappers," Horton said. "Sometimes we don't have the biggest names you'll ever see out there, but every time we pick a team we try to bring them together as a group.
"There was a bunch of good kids last year, and I think it's the same thing this year," he continued. "We have the same goals of coming in and trying to repeat and keep the crown and go down to Jupiter and have some fun."
The 2011 SWFL 18u roster that won this event consisted entirely of prospects from the class of 2012, so none are back this year. One of the top prospects, right-hander Jose Mesa, Jr., was drafted in the 24th round of the 2012 amateur draft by the Yankees but did not sign. Despite the lack of returnees, there are players on the roster with championship experience.
Third baseman Kevin Buckley (2014, Tampa) and right-hander Luke Rolland (2013, Cape Coral, Fla.) were both members of the SWFL 16u team that won championships this summer at the 16u PG WWBA East Memorial Day Classic in late May and at the 16u PG BCS Finals in mid-July, both in Fort Myers.
Three other prominent members of those PG championship teams are on the other two SWFL teams here this weekend. Right-hander/first baseman Kyle Kemp (2014, Port Charlotte, Fla.), a Florida commit, and left-hander Luke Spangler (2014, Cape Coral), a Miami recruit, are both on the SWFL 17u squad. Outfielder/left-hander Donovan Petrey (2015, Arcadia, Fla.), a Florida State commit who was the MVP at the 16u PG BCS Finals, is on the SWFL 16u roster.
"It was a great summer for our organization, especially for our 16-and-under team. That really got our names out there and was something we've been trying to do for a long time," Horton said. "We've got 14s through 18s now, and what we try to do is get them right as freshmen in high school and mold them and put them into our system so they're there from 14 all the way until they're 18; then hopefully we can get them a scholarship at the end."
Receiving the paid invitation to the Big Show in Jupiter last year meant everything to the SWFL 18u squad. SWFL Baseball has been a prominent player in southwest Florida for many years and counts more than 50 alumni among those who have gone on to play professionally. But in these sometimes trying times, every little bit helps.
"For an organization like (SWFL) where we've got to pretty much count every dollar to make sure that everything works out, to be able to save on that entry fee really helps us down the line," Horton said.
To pull it off two straight years would be an even bigger accomplishment, and don't forget there are two other SWFL teams competing for the same prize.
"It would be unreal for us," Horton said. "SWFL has never really repeated as a champion in any event, so to be the first to do that and to have these kids feel what it's like to win a Perfect Game championship would be really fun for us."