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Thursday, Mar 26, 2015

Spring Hill a guinea pig in new Rookies format

Hernando Today correspondent


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Dixie Baseball is unveiling a new state format for its AA Rookies (ages 7-8) and T-Ball (ages 5-6) All-Stars this summer.

Beginning Saturday morning, the ninth annual Rookies State Tourney at the M.E.R.E. Complex in Marianna will debut a sophisticated travel ball style.

Three District 6 teams – champion Bushnell (6-0), runner-up Wesley Chapel American (3-2) and third-place Spring Hill National (3-2) – will be part of Friday night’s blind draw filling out four pools of four teams.

After playing districts with a coach-pitch approach, District 6 teams must adapt quickly to the machine pitch state format.

Pool A and Pool B will make up Group I while Pool C and Pool D will make up Group II.

Each team will play seven opponents across 2½ days in the Jackson County heat to whittle the field down to eight squads.

Those final eight teams (top four from Group I-II) will begin a double-elimination format beginning Monday night to eventually crown a state champion by next Wednesday.

West Volusia is the defending state champion.

The state’s two top finalists will advance to the first-ever Machine Pitch and Coach Pitch World Series on July 17-21 at Texarkana, Arkansas.

This year’s tourney success hinges on the ambitious attempt of scheduling 56 pool play games against the fickle Florida weather.

For Spring Hill National to reach the final eight Monday night, skipper John McMurdo’s team will play three times Saturday, twice Sunday and twice Monday.

Eric Smith, Keith Clearwater and Shane Thompson will assist McMurdo.

In 2012, Smith’s Rookies All-Stars went 2-2 at states at Marianna while Kip Fleming’s squad finished 3-2 at Wildwood in 2013.

This year’s team features: outfielder/pitcher Jacob Barnum, outfielder/catcher Hunter Bishop, shortstop/second baseman/pitcher Ryan Clearwater, third baseman/first baseman/pitcher Carlos Gonzalez, outfielder/third baseman/pitcher Raymond Groetsch, outfielder/catcher/pitcher James “J.J.” Hackett, outfielder/pitcher Brandon Higgins, catcher/first baseman/outfielder/pitcher Zachary Hotop, second baseman/first baseman/pitcher Brady McMurdo, outfielder Hunter Pye, first baseman/third baseman/catcher/pitcher Tanner Smith and pitcher/shortstop Rylan Thompson.

Gonzalez was the offensive catalyst for SH National at districts, going 8-for-11 for a team-leading .727 batting average featuring eight runs scored, three doubles and a team-high 10 runs batted in.

Hitting .500 or better was Groetsch (.625), Thompson (.600), Smith (.500), Hackett (.500) and Brady McMurdo (.500).

Some would call McMurdo’s path a tall order. SH National hasn’t played since the narrow 19-18 loss June 5 to Bushnell at the Kenny Dixon Sports Complex in Sumter County.

“The biggest change for us is hitting off the machine,” stressed Coach McMurdo on the ensuing three weeks since playing. “We’ve practiced 2-3 hours every day since Father’s Day. We’re a pretty good hitting team; once our guys timed the machine out we’ve started to hit the ball much harder.

“I think we’ve adjusted well considering we’re coming from a coach-pitch and kid-pitch league,” added McMurdo. “We understand that the ball is coming out much harder, but if you hit it, it’ll also travel a lot further.”

Health-wise, McMurdo reported no injuries prior to trekking Friday to Marianna.

“We’ve got to be ready,” McMurdo. “I’ve been at Marianna before and it’s a beautiful complex, but there’s no place hotter outside the desert.”

McMurdo realizes his team is part of a guinea pig experiment this weekend.

“This format is new to us and everybody else,” detailed McMurdo. “I’m not a big fan of having 7-8-year-old kids playing three times in one day – but everyone going to Marianna is in the same boat. It affects us all. Anyone who thinks playing seven games in 2½ days will be easy should have his head examined.

“I do think pool play will produce our eight best teams,” he added. “You hope the opening draw comes out fair. Unfortunately, I don’t have the best answer on how to format this tournament.”

McMurdo rests his title hopes on the defense’s shoulders.

“The ball is going to be hit a lot,” he said. “It’s going to boil down to how well will our defense plays. There’s no grass on the Marianna infields, it’s all dirt; so the ball gets on you in a heartbeat.

“I’m excited for the kids and they’re excited for the opportunity,” McMurdo said. “In a tournament like this, the key is we have to hit the ground running after Friday’s opening ceremonies.”

At a Glance

What – 9th annual Dixie Baseball AA Rookies (ages 7-8) All-Stars State Tournament.

Who – Bushnell, Spring Hill National, Wesley Chapel American, South Walton, Paxton, Holmes County, Chipley, Franklin County, Port St Joe, Sneads, East Lakeland White, Hardee, Sebring, West Volusia, West Seminole American and host Marianna. Defending champion is West Volusia.

Where – M.E.R.E. Complex, 3625 Caverns Road, Marianna, 32447.

When – Saturday through Wednesday (weather permitting).

At Stake – State Champion and runner-up will advance to July 17-21 World Series at Texarkana, Arkansas.

2014 Spring Hill National AA Rookies (ages 7-8) All-Stars


00 Tanner Smith 1B/3B/C/P

02 Zachary Hotop* C/1B/OF/P

03 Brady McMurdo* 2B/1B/P

04 Hunter Pye OF

07 Jacob Barnum* OF/P

13 Hunter Bishop OF/C

18 Raymond Groetsch* OF/3B/P

20 Rylan Thompson* P/SS

22 Ryan Clearwater SS/2B/P

33 James “J.J.” Hackett OF/C/P

34 Carlos Gonzalez* 3B/1B/P

99 Brandon Higgins* OF/P

* Denotes returning All-Star

Head Coach – John McMurdo

Asst. Coach – Keith Clearwater

Asst. Coach – Eric Smith

Asst. Coach – Shane Thompson

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