Two Sarasota Little League All-Star teams are headed to the biggest stage of their careers this weekend — and if everything breaks right, a trip to Regionals could be in their future.
The Sarasota National 8-9-10 All-Stars will play its state Little League baseball tournament July 8-10 in St. Augustine. The Sarasota National 50/70 team (Intermediate level, ages 11-13) will play its state tournament July 8-10 in Coral Springs.
For the 8-9-10 All-Stars, the name of the game is "Believe."
It's also the name of the team's monkey.
The team's coaching staff wanted to keep the kids motivated through playing in the June and July heat, and perhaps, if they are fortunate, into August.
One of the team's assistant coaches, Danny Snider, thought about giving the kids some kind of reward for their hard work. That's when he thought about using a stuffed monkey.
It is similar to the chain the Baltimore Orioles put around the necks of people who hit home runs, but for the person who hustles the most during a practice or a game. That player gets to keep the monkey for the night and brings it back to practice the next day to give to someone else. It also doubles as a traditional rally monkey in the dugout if the team finds itself trailing during a game.
The team has not been trailing much. The team's coach, Shain Eicher, said that getting out of its district was more difficult than getting out of the sectional tournament.
The team's district consists of Venice, North Port, Englewood and Port Charlotte teams as well as its Sarasota American counterpart; the two Sarasota teams are divided by location because of the league's size, so players who live or go to school in the northern half of Sarasota are assigned to the National player pool, while the southern residents are assigned to the American player pool.
In other words, each Sarasota team only gets approximately half of the area's best players, while other leagues get to select from their entire player pool.
The National team won anyway, beating its American rival twice in the process. The team then swept through the sectional tournament, beating LaBelle 12-10 and Bonita Springs 4-3, to reach the state level, where, according to Eicher, things will hit a whole new level of challenge.
The players do not seem nervous. Like their monkey, they believe.
"We need to play hard, have good base-running and reading (the play), and that's pretty much it," Miles Wilkes said.
Nathanael Leet said the team has developed a "humble type of confidence" from playing its stiff district competition and coming out on top. The team believes it can beat anyone and do anything, he said, but will not let that confidence get in the way of giving maximum effort, nor will the team show up an opponent through taunts.
The All-Stars take care of business quietly — metaphorically speaking, anyway. The dugout can still get raucous, Leet said.
Leet and Wilkes played on the All-Stars team last year, but Jase Baldwin did not. This All-Stars season is his first All-Stars experience. Baldwin said he was excited to play alongside the best athletes in the league, though he also felt like he had to prove himself in the beginning, earning his spot in the eyes of his teammates. He did that, hitting a walk-off double in the district tournament that scored Wilkes. Baldwin and Wilkes both said the hit was their favorite moment of the All-Stars season thus far.
The 50/70 team — named for the classification's pitching distance (50 feet) and base-running distance (70 feet) — had a bit of a different path. It, too, had a tough road through districts like the 8-9-10 team, but did not play in a sectional tournament. Why? Coach Steve Jeantet said no other teams in Section 6 have 50/70 teams, so Sarasota National advanced by default. The classification was introduced by Little League in 2013.
The team skipping through sectionals does not mean it should be taken lightly. In the team's district tournament, Blake Nichols hit three home runs and won two games on the mound, at one point striking out nine in a row. Vincent Hernandez also showed off his power, hitting two home runs. In fact, every player on the team collected a hit during the tournament, showcasing the team's depth.
To connect the two teams even further, Hernandez's brother, Vaughn Hernandez, is on the 8-9-10 team.
This weekend, the brothers will be playing in different cities, but under the same bright All-Star lights, hoping for a chance to represent Florida as the national tournament continues.