Fresh off their No. 2 finish at last month's AAU Grand National Championship, the West Florida Young Guns are heading to the granddaddy of all youth baseball tournaments.
The 9 and under team, which includes players from Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, will be one of 32 teams competing in the USSSA Elite World Series at the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Kissimmee. The games start Saturday and run through Aug. 7.
"This tournament that we're going to will be the true top 32 teams in the country," Young Guns coach Chris Brennan, of Hudson, whose son, Ezra, plays on the team. "It's exciting to see where we are truly at. This will be the test of how the boys have developed and really give us a better measuring stick than the teams we play locally can provide."
The USSSA Elite 32 tournament breaks the teams into groups for pool play, after which bracket play will determine the winner. The tournament is designed to determine the No. 1 team in the country.
The investment of parent time, whether driving or spending weekends away from home, is a crucial piece of what has made the West Florida Young Guns so successful.
"You have to dedicate your Saturdays and Sundays as a parent," said John O'Brien, of Pinellas Park, whose son, Logan, plays on the team. "You're cutting the grass when you come home on Sunday evenings, leaving work early on Friday to get to a tournament or working extra hours during the week to help pay for some of this stuff. It's a commitment, and the kids put long hours in, but the reward is when you see the kids jell as a team. They'll do anything for each other and the coaches and parents get along around here. There's a respect factor."
Jared Stearns and Dawson Place, who both live in Land O'Lakes, don't mind the drive to Tampa's Skyway Park to play with the Young Guns.
"I used to play with two different teams closer to home, but when you play with these guys you win games," Dawson said. "Teamwork and working hard is part of what makes this team so good. We have excellent focus and great coaching. I've been here a few months and I can see the difference."
The players and parents believe in the coaching staff and the sense of community that Brennan and others in the organization have created.
"It's not just baseball skills, they're teaching them life skills," said Dawson's dad, Jim Brant. "The coaches don't treat these kids like babies. It's a driving force around here that they want to build prosperous individuals."
Contact David Rice at firstname.lastname@example.org.