GULFPORT — The Citrus Park major (ages 11-12) baseball team vying for the Southeast Regional crown enters today's opening round having waltzed through the sectional tournament, allowing three runs in three games and scoring 29.
Last week at the Little League state championship in East Boynton Beach, it was 12 runs allowed and 41 scored in a five-game sweep to the title.
Citrus Park hasn't lost in 26 games if you count back to last season's 11-and-under squad that ended the year undefeated.
So when manager Joe McGuire claims his squad isn't performing to its potential, it is difficult to decipher whether the good-natured McGuire is serious or just having a little fun.
McGuire insists it's the former.
"We really haven't hit that well yet," said McGuire, who was a coach on the Citrus Park 10U team that won a regional championship two years ago and managed last year's 11U state champ. Six of the 12 players suiting up today for Citrus Park have played all three seasons under McGuire. "This year hasn't been as easy as the past two years."
Perhaps then, McGuire can find comfort in Citrus Park's latest victory in the state championship against Fort Myers. With the game tied 1-1 in the third inning, four big swings — Mike McGuire and Wyatt Reid hit back-to-back homers, Kevin Merrell smashed a grand slam and Levi Gilcrease blasted a three-run shot — turned a nail-biter into an eventual 12-1 runaway.
"That's how we've always hit," Joe McGuire said. "That's the team I'm used to seeing. I just hope it carries over to regionals."
"People are expecting us to win because of what we've done the last two years," centerfielder Gilcrease added. "We haven't been playing our best, but then the last game we put it together."
Citrus Park has played Gold Glove-caliber defense this postseason, and its rotation includes "six real strong pitchers," according to shortstop Reid.
The coaching staff is experienced. Former major-leaguer Lance McCullers, who pitched seven years with four big-league clubs, handles pitching duties. Infield coach Ken Reid played Double-A ball in the White Sox organization; outfield coach Doug Gilcrease made it to the same level with the Royals.
"And I played a lot of softball," Joe McGuire joked.
With its bats showing signs of igniting, an already well-rounded Citrus Park appears to be one of the favorites to represent the Southeast at Williamsport, Pa., in the World Series (Aug. 15-24).
Standing in its way, however, is defending world champion Warner Robins, Ga., which defeated Tokyo 3-2 last year to give the United States its third straight World Series title.
Two seasons ago, McGuire's 10U team went 4-1 in its regional tournament victory. Its only blemish was a loss to Warner Robins.
"We'll see a lot of the same kids that played for Warner Robins as 9- to 10-year-olds," McGuire said. "They know who we are. If I had to venture a guess, I would say it would be the two of us playing Friday night (for the title)."