SEFFNER — Think the Tony Saladino Tournament is just a string of meaningless midseason baseball to occupy the high school spring break?
"All the kids have been on me for the past few weeks, 'When does the (Saladino) schedule come out?' They actually got it before me and beat me to the punch," Armwood coach Mike Wrenn said. "They've definitely been looking forward to it."
Armwood is one of the 26 Hillsborough County public high schools (in addition to Wesley Chapel and Tampa Catholic) that open play today in the prestigious 29th annual tournament at sites across the county.
"Hillsborough County is one of the biggest areas for baseball in the country, so we're lucky to have a tournament like this," Wrenn said. "Everyone is excited to prove who is the best."
While the playoffs and state championship remain the ultimate objective of every team before the season, winning the Saladino tournament ranks right up there for local teams.
"It all started in fall (practice) when we listed our goals," Wrenn said. "Every team wants to win districts and make it to states, but winning Saladino was the third thing they listed."
A number of kids at competing high schools grew up playing summer ball with each other, so the countywide tournament gives these players a chance at big-time bragging rights.
The tournament also provides a central location for college and Major League scouts. With four games at all four sites each of the first three days, exposure is afforded not only to the top-tier players, but the lesser-known ones as well.
"And all the kids know (the scouts) will be there," Wrenn said. "They know they'll be watched closely."
The tournament often proves to be a stepping stone to postseason success.
"Winning Saladino and getting deep in the playoffs go hand in hand," Wrenn said.
Just ask Brandon.
Last year the Eagles entered the Saladino Tournament at a pedestrian 6-4. But Brandon put its foot on the gas, capturing the tournament championship on its way to an 18-game winning streak that didn't end until the state semifinals.
"Saladino got us going," Brandon coach Matt Stallbaumer said. "It jump-started our season."
Wrenn joked that "luck" was the key to winning the tournament, but a more solid answer would be depth. Teams that reach the championship play six games in seven days, so pitching staffs are stretched to the max.
"Like any tournament situation, pitching will carry you through these things," Wrenn said. "Kids who haven't had a chance to throw many innings up until this point will get their chance this week."