FORT MYERS, Fla. -- As the 16-team playoff field began to fall into place early Sunday afternoon at the PG WWBA Florida Qualifier, the players from Boca Thunder Baseball had already had a couple of hours to relax back at their hotel rooms knowing they were good to go.
Their seeding? That was of little consequence for a young Thunder team that won its pool and already knew it would be one of the 16 teams still standing at the 56-team Florida Qualifier that still had a shot at securing a paid invitation to the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla. in less than two weeks.
This Boca Thunder Baseball 10-man roster consists of one senior, and nine juniors and sophomores. It is an underclass team competing against teams that are more often than not senior dominated.
"We just came for the experience and the competition," Thunder head coach Peter Graffeo said after his team won its third and final pool-play game of the tournament Sunday morning at the jetBlue Player Development Complex. "At these Perfect Game tournaments, you always see some of the best players out there, and we're just trying to make better ballplayers and get better as we go along."
Graffeo is the head coach at Pope John Paul II High School in Boca Raton, Fla., and six of the 10 players he has here play for him Pope John Paul II. Graffeo said he has coached the core of this team since they were 9-year-olds, and a couple of those core guys are among the four here who attend Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
This is essentially the same group of underclassmen that are coming off a terrific run at last week's PG WWBA Underclass World Championship where they skipped through pool-play unbeaten and earned the No. 4 playoff seed at the 168-team tournament. They received a first-round bye but were upset by 29th-seeded Gravel Baseball in the second round.
Catcher Cale Brader (2014, Boca Raton, Fla.), outfielder Stephen Gogreve (2015, Boca Raton, Fla.) and right-hander Alex Bialakis (2015, Boca Raton, Fla.) represented the Thunder on the WWBA Underclass World all-tournament team. Gogreve is the only one of the three here this weekend.
"My Thunder team has always fared well in all the Perfect Game tournaments ... and I don't bring a big roster -- usually about 11 guys -- but everybody pitches and they're all interchangeable," Graffeo said. "I'd rather have the guys out here playing then a guy just getting a couple of innings. What we're trying to do is develop players, and to me that's the best way to do it; you can't get the experience anywhere but on the field."
The Thunder were one of 10 teams that opened play here on Friday night, and they got off on the right foot with a 6-5 win over the Ontario Blue Jays. They then blanked Ostingers Baseball Academy Select, 4-0, on Saturday before outlasting Fonza Travel Team, 3-1, Sunday morning.
Pitching was the key. Right-handers Joshua Parker (2015, Boca Raton) and Adam Saks (2015, Delray Beach, Fla.) combined on a two-hit, 13 strikeout shutout against Ostingers, and righty Matt Rothenberg (2014, Boca Raton) threw five innings of one-run, five-hit ball with six strikeouts against Fonza. Boca Thunder Baseball managed just one hit against Fonza, but were able to capitalize on 10 walks.
The Thunder were offensively challenged throughout their 3-0 run through pool-play; nine batters hit a collective .164 (11-for-67) with three doubles and eight singles. Rothenberg hit .667 (4-6, 4 singles) and Carlos Leon (2015, Boca Raton, Fla.) doubled in nine at-bats and drove in three runs to provide the lone offensive highlights.
Rothenberg, one of the four players from Pine Crest, might be the most intriguing prospect on the Boca Thunder roster, although he is unranked and uncommitted. A 6-foot-1, 180-pound third baseman and right-handed pitcher, he received all-tournament honors at this summer's PG WWBA 16u National Championship and at the 16u PG WWBA East Memorial Day Classic while playing with Xtreme Baseball.
He carries a 4.6 GPA and also participated in the Perfect Game National Academic Showcase here in Fort Myers in early June.
"Matt is a student of the game," Graffeo said. "He's in every play talking to the other guys about what's going on, just a real bright kid with great baseball intelligence."
Graffeo doesn't think Rothenberg will remain uncommitted to a school, although as a high school junior, he has plenty of time to wait for offers.
"I would expect him (to get offers) and whoever gets him is going to be very lucky," Graffeo said. "He's a good enough student to play Ivy League baseball ... and if I was a coach at an Ivy League school, he's the kind of kid I'd want. He's going to leave it out on the field for you, he's going to be knowledgeable and know the situations, and you can't ask for anything more than that."
The Thunder eventually learned they had earned the No. 5 seed in the playoffs and were set to play No. 12 Palm Beach Select in the first round. Mathematically, they were still in the running for that paid invitation to PG WWBA World Championship, the premier high school-level travel team tournament in the world.
"That's why we came, and we knew we'd be a young team out here trying to do that, but I have a bunch of kids that love to play to the game and that's half the battle -- when somebody wants to be out here and come out and play the game," Graffeo said. "It would be a great experience for us and it's kind of what we're shooting for. The odds are stacked against us, but hey, anything can happen, right?"
Win or lose here over the next 24 hours -- the quarterfinals are scheduled for late Sunday afternoon and the semifinal and championships games Monday morning -- it's been a worthwhile trip for the guys from Boca Raton.
"The game is played quicker, you see your best players out here, and it's only making these guys better," Graffeo said. "The competition level here is something we can't match (at home). To me, Perfect Game baseball is a lot better than high school baseball."