SPRING HILL — The Nationals had high expectations coming into the 2008 spring season.
All indications pointed toward lofty goals after coming off of a season where it won the league title. The team fielded seven of the 11 players on the Spring Hill Dixie League All-Stars and inherited a top-notch infielder: 6-foot-2, 200-pound newcomer Julian Perez, who ended up hitting a league-leading .605.
Even with all of those things going for it, the most realistic goals were another league crown and control of the All-Star squad yet again. Not many would have ventured to say the Nationals could have gone undefeated at 19-0 to demolish the Dixie Boys standings.
"Coming into the season, we all knew that the only thing that could beat us was ourselves," manager Mike Sollazzo said.
"It is much harder getting these 14-year-old kids up for every game mentally than for them to go out and do it on the field."
The top-half of the Nationals' order was anchored by Perez, shortstop J.T. Simpson, third baseman Dante Sollazzo, starting pitcher Jon Gaffney, catcher Lewis Coliaicomo, first baseman Anthony Fiocca and center fielder Joey Asquith.
These players were selected to the All-Star roster at season's end and contributed to a league-high 29 homers as a team. Throughout the season, these players' leadership led the Nationals to three one-run victories.
"We never took any of the teams we played for granted," Coliaicomo said. "About seven of us have been playing together for a long time now, so we really felt comfortable out there
Much of this team has been playing together for more than fifty games between last season, the All-Stars and this season, so the chemistry was a key component to their success. The chemistry not only exists on the field and in the dugout with the youths, but also in the stands with the parents.
"The parents get along so well also, and I think that might be even more important," Mike Sollazzo said. "All of that gives us a family-like atmosphere around here — something you really like to be around."
After the season the Nationals had, opponents never rule out their determination. That was evidenced in the final game of the season.
Although the league-title was already clinched, the Nationals were playing a tough Rays squad. The Rays, despite going 9-10, played the Nationals close all season, accounting for two of the three one-run games the team played.
The Rays jumped out to a 3-0 lead early in the game before the Nationals stormed back to take a 5-3 lead in the bottom of the fifth inning. In the top of the seventh, the Rays hammered a three-run homer to take a 6-5 lead and put the undefeated Nationals on the ropes.
In the next inning, there was no quit in the Nationals' body language. After one run was scored and the bases were loaded, light-hitting leftfielder Zane Blackburn hit a game-winning sacrifice fly for the 7-6 win, securing the perfect 19-0 season. After the game, the mood was confirmed by coach Sollazzo.
"The kids came back into the dugout, looked at me and said, 'Don't worry, coach, we're going to win this game."
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