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Coaches say nature, nurture fuel success of youth baseball, softball in Hillsborough

A team of 11-year-old boys from North Tampa won the Pony Bronco World Series in Virginia last month.

A squad of South Tampa teenage girls will be in Kirkland, Wash., next week for their own Little League World Series.

A group of Palma Ceia and South Tampa teen boys on Tuesday punched yet another World Series ticket to Taylor, Mich.

That's not all. Teams from the Wellswood area and Plant City have dominated state and regional competitions.

By and large, area coaches acknowledge that this youth baseball season has seen an unusual haul of trophies for local teams. Still, they say, such success is not atypical in a region nationally known for success.

The reasons, coaches say, are simple:

Nature and nurture.

In sunny Florida, youth baseball and softball seasons run year-round — months longer than in the frigid North.

"It's a great atmosphere for it," says Jay Recher, head coach of the North Tampa Pony Bronco 11-year-old All-Star Team that won the World Series. "There's a lot of fields. There's a lot of tournaments."

The heat helps with training, too.

"We were better conditioned than half the teams out there," Recher said of his team's championship performance. "We were used to running in 100-degree weather."

More playing and practice time equates to better developed skills, added Mark Sakalosky, the president of the Palma Ceia Little League.

"You have a lot more chance of having 10,000 at-bats down here in Florida than anywhere else," he said, alluding to author Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 hour rule" in the bestselling Outliers. The book claims that the key to success in any field is practicing a skill for about 10,000 hours.

Sakalosky's league has a boys team on the cusp of getting into a World Series and a girls team that has already made it to the big game. For the Palma Ceia girls, success comes consistently. In 2008, the team finished fifth nationally. In 2009, the girls finished third. And last year, a West Tampa team that included Palma Ceia girls were runnersup.

"I think it's unusual for that much excellence," said Cindy Bristow, a standout college and professional softball player and coach, "but I think it does show the uptick in talent for softball here this year."

She said fast-pitch softball is finally gaining momentum in the Southeast, and that it has lagged behind the West, where the fast-paced version of the game has been played for decades.

Now, said Bristow, who runs Softball Excellence, a Tampa-based online instructional clinic, local girls grow up watching Florida colleges play fast-pitch softball on ESPN networks.

"It helps," she said. "It's on TV."

Sakalosky also attributed the success of local youth teams to a strong base of parents who promote the games just as their parents did.

That's where sports allegiances come into play. Professional football arrived in Tampa Bay in the 1970s. Pro hockey made its Tampa debut in 1992. But baseball has been around here for generations.

Besides the Rays, Tampa Bay is home to three minor league teams and spring training stops for the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies. George Steinbrenner, the late owner of the Yankees, made Tampa his home and contributed to several local youth charities. Yankees star shortstop Derek Jeter lives in Tampa and puts on local leadership conferences for youth through his own foundation.

The West Tampa Little League, which has sent seven teams to the World Series, was where major leaguers Luis Gonzalez, Tino Martinez, Dave Magadan and Fred McGriff got their starts. Dwight Gooden, Gary Sheffield, Carl Everett and other top professionals spent their formative years with the Belmont Heights Little League.

Many former major league stars, including Martinez, have retired in Tampa or kept close to their roots. Their influence can be felt at charity events and even at Little League games.

When Martinez's daughter played for the Palma Ceia Little League, he volunteered in the concession stands, just as all Palma Ceia parents are required to do.

Sakalosky, who grew up playing ball just outside Philadelphia, never had such interaction with pros in his childhood.

"I never had a major leaguer or former major leaguer come out here and give me instruction," he said.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough champions

Several youth baseball and softball teams in and around Tampa recently have won state, regional and national championships. Some playoff games are being played this month, so not all final season results are available. Here's the score for a sampling of area teams.

. South Tampa Junior League All-Stars: The 13- and 14-year-old girls from Palma Ceia and West Tampa won a regional tournament and advanced to the Junior Softball World Series, starting Sunday in Kirkland, Wash.

. New Tampa Little League: The 11- and 12-year-old boys beat Coral Gables for the state championship and played this week in the Southeastern Regional Tournament in Georgia for an opportunity to advance to Williamsport, Pa., and the Little League World Series. (Results were not available by press time.)

. Palma Ceia-Bayshore Junior Baseball All-Star Team: The 13- and 14-year-old boys won the state championship and the Southeastern Regional Tournament in South Carolina, advancing to the Junior Baseball World Series in Taylor, Mich., this Sunday.

. Plant City Little League: The 9- and 10-year-old boys had a perfect 18-0 season, winning the Tournament of State Champions for the Southeast. The 10-11 Plant City team won a state title and advanced to the Tournament of Champions for its division.

. Wellswood All-Stars: The team of 11-year-old boys won the Dizzy Dean State Tournament in Pinellas County and finished ninth among 27 teams in the Dizzy Dean World Series in Jackson County, Ga. They also won the Cal Ripken State Tournament in Sarasota.

. North Tampa Pony Broncos: The 11-year-old All-Star Team won the World Series in Chesterfield, Va., on July 30.

Coaches say nature, nurture fuel success of youth baseball, softball in Hillsborough 08/11/11 [Last modified: Thursday, August 11, 2011 4:30am]
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