FORT MYERS, Fla. – There was a short story behind how the team came to acquire its unusual name, just as should have been expected. It’s not often that a squad walks out on the field at a Perfect Game tournament wearing T-shirts that identify the players as members of a team called “Gotta Eat.” In fact, it’s unprecedented.
But before talking about the origin of his team’s name, Gotta Eat head coach Josh Jackson was more eager to talk about the team itself, a squad he knows very well. Jackson is the second-year head coach at Dixie M. Hollins High School in St. Petersburg, Fla., and the team he has here this weekend for the 3rd annual PG WWBA 18u Labor Day Classic is the Hollins High team he will put on field in the spring of 2014.
Gotta Eat’s game against Team IMPACT at the former Boston Red Sox Player Development 5-Plex Friday evening was among the first of seven games played Friday to kickoff the PG WWBA 18u Labor Day Classic. Six games were also played on opening night for the PG WWBA 16u Labor Day Classic, which runs concurrently with the 18u tournament.
It’s unusual, but not unprecedented, for a high school team to compete in its entirety at a PG tournament that features some travel ball powerhouses, like the Orlando Scorpions or the South Florida Elite Squad. Those teams will often include a handful of players on their roster from the same high school but they are generally built with the top players from around a particular city or region within a state; some go out-of-state to find their players.
Gotta Eat (aka the Dixie Hollins High Rebels) is a young team – there are four seniors, four juniors, four sophomores and seven freshmen on the roster Jackson brought here this weekend. Most of the other teams at the 18u Labor Day Classic are senior and junior dominated but Jackson, a Hollins High grad himself, never considered beefing up the roster with players from other schools.
“I think we have enough talent to be just fine where we’re at right now,” he said Friday. “I think we have a very aggressive team – we’re going to take the extra base when it’s given and if the pitcher’s throwing strikes we’re going to hit him. Our pitchers are going to attack the zone, pitch to contact and the defenders are going to play well. In one word, I think we’re an ‘aggressive’ team.”
Jackson expects his young team to be competitive in this ultra-competitive situation. He said it was important to get his squad in the environment a PG WWBA tournament offers instead of just shipping them off to a weeklong camp someplace.
And he also believes his top two seniors – catcher/right-hander Devin Reyes (2014, Spring Hill, Fla.) and shortstop/right-hander Joey Simmons (2014, Pinellas Park, Fla.) are capable of playing college baseball at some level, as are some of the younger members of the team.
“This is the best venue for them to come to and play in front of the scouts that (Perfect Game) attracts to these types of tournaments,” Jackson said. “Then they get to play against some guys on the other teams that have already committed and they see that, and our boys do well thinking that somebody is going to have an eye on them.”
Reyes, a solidly built 6-foot-1, 190-pounder, and the diminutive Simmons (5-7, 130-pounds) are the most experienced of the Gotta Eat players.
Reyes is ranked as a “high follow” nationally and the No. 212 Florida prospect in his class and previously played in the PG WWBA 16u East Memorial Day Classic here in May. He hit .418 (23-for-55) with four home runs, two doubles and two triples with 14 RBI and 14 runs scored for Hollins in the spring, and was 1-2 with a 4.79 ERA with 20 strikeouts in 19 innings on the mound.
Simmons, who was wearing a distinctive Florida Burn cap on Friday, played with the SBC Elite at the PG WWBA 18u National Championship in Marietta, Ga., in July and with the Burn at the 2012 PG WWBA 16u East Memorial Day Classic.
“I have done quite a few Perfect Game tournaments but this one is more exciting,” Simmons said Friday. “Usually I’m here with other teams and it’s not as exciting and I don’t get to bond with my teammates as much. I like being here with this team and starting to look forward to the spring.”
The origin of the “Gotta Eat” team name was the subject of several off-field conversations on Friday, so PG asked Jackson to explain how it came to be.
“When I was in high school (at Dixie Hollins), one of the sayings that we had was ‘You gotta eat,’” he recalled. “I carried that saying into my personal life – I have to work and I have to work hard to make a paycheck, and when I make that paycheck then I’m able to eat. It’s the same concept. If they really want to do well at this game and if they want to get to the next level, they’ve got to work, and in order to eat, they’ve got to work hard. So they’ve got to put work into baseball and they gotta eat.”
Jackson, who is in his early 20s, is enjoying working with his high school-age players. The Dixie Hollins Rebels finished a modest 10-14 last spring playing in Florida High School Association Class 6A but he feels like the team is coming together.
“Sometimes it will be one of those days when you want to pull your hair out,” Jackson said, “but other days it’s pretty good, especially with the different types of personalities that you have out there. I find them pretty receptive. They listen sometimes when they want to, depending on what happened during the day, but most of the time we have a team that’s pretty receptive to criticism, pretty receptive to critiques on getting better.”
Gotta Eat’s 18u Labor Day Classic debut against Team IMPACT on Friday didn’t go well – the Eaters were pummeled 15-0 in just three innings. They have two more pool-play game remaining Saturday and Sunday against the South Florida Elite Squad TPX Underclass and BPA-Baseball Pros Academy, respectively, and will be in decided underdogs in both.
Jackson only wants the Eaters to stay hungry.
“Come here, get yourself out there and make a name for yourself,” he said he told his players. “I encourage them to do as much as they possibly can to get to the next level. I tell them all the time that for me to get them into college is about five percent of the work, but 95 percent of the work is on them. How hard to they work out here, how much do they really want it, how much are you willing to travel on the weekend to play in this tournament and give up spending time with a girlfriend or any of that kind of stuff.”
Simmons, the team’s 130-pound shortstop who will be Gotta Eat’s starting pitcher against BPA on Sunday, doesn’t run away from his team’s underdog status.
“We’re probably mostly the underdog but we’re probably the team with the most bonding,” he said. “I think since we’re together as a high school team we’ll probably have some pretty good luck. We’re loose, but we mean business. We’re here to play and we’re here to do well.”