They might be young, but the players on the Sarasota National All-Star baseball team practice like grizzled veterans.
The 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds are all business in the batter's box. They field ground balls cleanly and put away pop ups like they're nothing. The players are loose and having fun, but they work hard. It's a recipe that has landed the team in the Little League Florida State Tournament, coming up Friday-Sunday in Palm Coast, after winning its sectional tournament on July 10.
The team stamped its sectional tournament win with a 5-2 victory over LaBelle Little League. Earlier in the day, the team defeated Bonita Springs Little League 2-1. The sectional tournament win was made possible because of the team's District 16 championship win over local rival Sarasota American.
Coach Matt Snelson didn't think about reaching this point when he agreed to manage the team. Snelson said he volunteered to make sure his son, 12-year-old Chase Snelson, had a good All-Star experience, the same reason he coached Chase's regular season team — and won the regular-season league title. It just so happens, Matt Snelson said, that this All-Star team is chock-full of talent, and his assistant coaches are helping being that talent to the surface.
"I just pull the strings," Snelson said. "I got lucky. I deal with the parents and the district administrators. It's been fun to watch these kids. We have a good team. It's funny, when this all started I said, 'I just want to win a game,' because you don't know what you have. We only had three weeks of practice before our first district game. Now we're going to states."
The team's road has not been easy, not only because of strong opposition but also because of scheduling conflicts. Many of the team's players are on travel teams with events happening all summer long. At Monday's practice, Sarasota National had nine of its 13 players on hand. It could have been fewer — Snelson said he had Chase Snelson skip an event to remain with the All-Star team. The missing players will be flying back for the state tournament, though one player, Braedon MacKay, would be forced to miss the state championship game Sunday — if the team advances that far — as he's competing in the Little League Home Run Derby East Regional at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri that day.
The schedules are a lot for coaches to manage, but the players don't seem to mind, or even notice. The players available are the players who will play, and the team is confident that whoever is playing will be able to produce.
"The district championship game was fun," RJ Shields, 12, said. "They (Sarasota American) beat us the game before, but then we crushed them. That showed us a lot. I think we can go all the way."
Shields is one of the team's top pitchers and hit a home run in the team's district championship win. Shields said his favorite pitch is his breaking ball, a "slurve," because of how much it moves and fools hitters. Shields said as long as the team's pitchers do their job, he's confident the team can keep winning.
Chase Snelson said the team never doubted itself after dropping the game against Sarasota American, instead relishing the chance to face them again. Sarasota National knew it had more depth, Snelson said, and they proved it. It is that depth that makes Snelson think the team has a chance to go far.
Caden Armstrong, 12, said the team's practices normally focus on defensive skills, both infield and outfield drills, though Monday's practice also included batting practice. This year is Armstrong's first time playing All-Star baseball, he said, and he didn't know what to expect. He thought the practices might be more intense but he warmed to their level quickly, he said. The experience has been a fun one. Armstrong was on the mound to close out the win against LaBelle.
"I was just trying not to walk anyone," Armstrong said. "Thankfully I can throw my curveball for strikes."
Olivia Lockhart, 12, was absent from Monday's practice for travel ball obligations, but has been one of the team's most potent weapons in the hitter's box and on the mound. Bill Lockhart, Olivia's father and an assistant coach with the team, said his daughter has never played softball, only baseball. She'd rather compete with the boys and pitch overhand and get dirty sliding into second base, Bill Lockhart said.
Sarasota will play its first state tournament game at 7 p.m. Friday against Northeast Little League (St. Petersburg) in Palm Coast. The tournament will span the weekend, with the championship game being held 10 a.m. Sunday. The winner of the tournament will advance to the Southeast Regional Tournament, held Aug. 6-11 in Warner Robbins, Georgia, the last hurdle before the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.