For the second year in a row, the best of the Little League minor leaguers faced off for the Southwest Florida Invitational championship, May 17 at Golden Gate Community Park. In the pinnacle of an increasingly popular tournament, the Greater Naples Rockies knocked off the defending champion Tigers of North Naples, 15-9.
What ended up being a resounding victory by the Rockies, was for the most part a classic blow-for-blow battle. Entering the sixth inning, the two teams found themselves locked up at eight runs apiece. As the visiting team, the inning's first nine batters for the Rockies put seven hits and nine runs on the board, and held off a bottom of the sixth burst by the defending champs to take the crown.
For Rockies' coach Jimmy Nocera, the late heroics were par for the course.
"These kids have been doing that all year," Nocera said. "It seemed like that in every game. They get behind and then they come back. It was just like them to do that." Despite the loss, Tigers' coach Dan O'Dea couldn't think more highly of his young crew.
"These kids have worked hard all year long," O'Dea said. "They accomplished their goals and finished with their heads held high (despite a couple teary eyes). Everyone, coaches, parents and grandparents could not be more proud of them – win or lose." A highlight midway through the contest for the Tigers came in the bottom of the third when Skylard Mercer drove one to deep center field for a two-run homer, tying the game at five runs each.
After shutting down the Rockies in the top of the fourth, the Tigers tacked on three more in the bottom half of the inning on hits by Michael Murray, Nick Smith, Michael O'Dea and Zach Jones.
The Rockies responded in the top of the fifth, scoring three runs on hits by Joe Guelfi and Jordan Gross, setting up the final inning onrush.
The Invitational is hosted by Golden Gate National Little League and included 37 teams from Collier and Lee County, an increase of 10 from last year, more than pleasing to tournament director George Tracy.
"Everything has gone just great and we have had no problems," said Tracy who already is expecting the number of teams to grow to fifty for next year. "Once the word got around, a lot of teams regretted that they didn't sign-up." The intent of the tournament, which ran from May 5-17, was to provide minor leaguers a few more innings on the diamond.
"Some of these kids don't see a tournament after the end of the regular season," Tracy said. "That is why we do this and the response has been great." Greater Naples Rockies include Joe Guelfi, Jordan Gross, sage Nocera, Connor Hunt, Ryan Williams, Jack Henning, Gabe Corso, Grant Ashmore, Jared Walker, Logan Langham, Reid Sanders, Kyle Henning and Alex Ramos.
North Naples Tigers are Michael Murray, Ryan Frost, Nick Smith, Michael O'Dea, Zach Jones, Dylan Pence, Holland Bibas, Matthew McHugh, Skylard Mercer, Wayne Stanton, Caleb Rigsby, Will Hanley and Zach Crowbridge.