Nine months ago, the Buckeye Tigers had work to do. This much their two coaches — head coach Jason Procunier and assistant Ryan Fridrich — knew already.
The Tigers, a club baseball team comprised of 11-year-olds spanning the West Valley, had just capped off their first tournament together in September of 2018. In the eyes of the coaching staff, there was a glaring need to break the game down in its simplest form, and drill the fundamentals of the game into the minds of the boys who were getting their first taste of travel baseball.
“We just wanted to teach them the fundamentals,” Fridrich said. “We want to let these boys play, let them have fun, let them learn. Our first tournament was eye-opening to me, seeing the talent of club ball kids, and there was no way we were there yet. We had a lot of work to do.
“The kids had talent, but it was just about putting it all together.”
Far sooner than Fridrich or Procunier could have anticipated, the Tigers began to click. They polished their game — instead of a handful of errors they’d make per game, Fridrich said, they now might make just one or two — and found their identity as a group of 11-year-old sluggers.
The night-and-day transformation of this young baseball team, in such short time, has been incredibly fulfilling to everyone associated with the club — from coach to player to parent. But perhaps even more gratifying is the Tigers’ qualification to the USSSA Global World Series in Las Cruces, New Mexico, held from July 3 through July 7, a tournament featuring top teams in the Southwest region.
The path to Las Cruces hinged on the Tigers’ ability to qualify for the prominent tournament. As a club team, they play through the United States Specialty Sports Association, an organization that runs tournaments across the country.
While the USSSA runs tournaments, assigns schedules and more, it also tracks the wins — and strength of wins — of participating clubs. The Tigers had accumulated enough wins, and quality wins, to cement their spot in the Global World Series.
As cool a feat as any 11-year-old team can achieve, but one that nobody saw coming.
“Nope,” Fridrich said, asked if the Global World Series was ever on their agenda for this year. “It was just, let’s grow this season and maybe next year we can start competing a little bit more and look for bigger and better things.”
The Tigers are 12-16-2 in 2019, per USSSA.com, but rank sixth in the state in power points, a metric that measures the strength of a team’s wins. They had a third-place finish at the USSSA State Championships in early June.
In New Mexico, the Tigers are guaranteed six games. Four will come in the initial pool play round, with the double-elimination round beginning Saturday, July 6.
Nerves are to be expected playing in a tournament of this magnitude. Fridrich and Procunier have come to expect this, but they’re one step ahead of it, already plotting a game plan to ensure the Tigers tame their emotions and play to their level.
“We just tell them to have fun,” Fridrich said. “Smile. If they’re feeling it and we can tell they’re feeling it, some of the visits to the mound are like, ‘Hey, guys, come here. Smile. Just smile. Laugh. We’re having fun, right? Look around. We all get to be on this field playing baseball. Let’s have some fun.’ Those are huge. It wipes that stress away.”
Coupled with their revamped on-field play, Fridrich has also noticed an uptick in team chemistry over the last few months. To the coaching staff, that directly coincides with how they perform on the field.
“The chemistry now is incredible. The on-field communication is one of the biggest things that helped them get better. We have barbeques, car washes. Some of our tournaments are in Gilbert, so we stay in hotels, hanging out in the pool. Obviously, winning games is fun. But the off-field stuff, too. That has become huge, along with the fundamentals.”
It’s hard to pinpoint any kind of projections for the Global World Series when the club’s qualification was as unforeseen as it was. The goal is to simply see how the Tigers match up against some of the Southwest’s most elite clubs.
But, regardless, a team can dream, can’t it? Fridrich spoke of the impact it would make on these kids if they were able to depart from Las Cruces with a first-place trophy.
“Holy moly,” he said. “These kids would be on top of the world. To win this thing, it’d be their Super Bowl. It’d be their actual Major League World Series. They’d jump out of their shoes.”
And the coaching staff?
“We’d be proud. I’d have trouble holding back the tears. To see these kids accomplish this humongous task in such a short time, it’d be awesome.”