The Statesboro Blues may not be Bulloch County’s most notable baseball squad that competed in a tournament this past weekend, but they could be the most successful.
The Firecracker Classic, held at Mill Creek Park this past weekend, served as host to some of Georgia’s top USSSA (United States Specialty Sports Association) baseball teams, including one of America’s best.
Ranked No. 1 in the state and fifth in the nation, the Blues are no stranger to success. The weekend saw Statesboro continue their winning ways by sweeping all four of its games and claiming their first ever tournament title at home.
The Blues kicked off this year’s Classic with an offensive explosion against the Georgia Sting. The talented youngsters won their first game by a 19-4 margin, including a 10-run first, highlighted by shortstop Brandon Cook’s two-run double.
The Sting, also from Statesboro, had no answer for the onslaught and fell victim to the hot-hitting Blues. The victory saw Cook bat 4-for-4 with two doubles and 5 RBI’s, while infielder Jacob Deal went 3-for-3 with 3 RBIs.
The great start set the stage for Saturday’s thrilling game, as the Blues battled the Sharon Springs Silver Spartans (Forsyth County) for rights to first place heading into the tournament’s final day.
Cook took the hill in the Blues’ second game and delivered an outstanding performance. With an overpowering fastball and a curve that left hitters frozen, the ace tossed three scoreless innings with struck out five. Second basemen Dylan Marlowe came on in relief and proved just as dominate, striking out four batters in three innings of work.
Despite two-hit efforts from both Cook and left fielder Andrew Murphee, the Blues were held scoreless through five innings, and the score remained tied at 0-0 heading into the final inning.
The top of the sixth saw the game’s first run, as an errand pick off attempt by Statesboro allowed for the Spartans to move a runner to third, where he was driven home on a groundout to short.
Down 1-0 with three outs left, the Blues faced relegation to the loser’s bracket and a failed defense of their home turf if they could not score.
The boys in blue and black did not disappoint.
Three consecutive singles by Blues batters loaded the bases with no outs in the inning. With the home crowd roaring, catcher Connor Akins delivered a game tying single that rolled just under the third basemen’s glove.
The stage was then set for Blues first baseman Braxton Johns, who promptly delivered the walk-off RBI. Jacob Deal slid home, inciting a roar from the bleachers and a celebration at home plate.
With the win, Statesboro laid claim to the tournament’s top spot entering the final day of competition.
In the third round of tournament play, the Blues squared off against Augusta’s Georgia Bandits. Like the Sting in round one, the Bandits were little match for the boys from Statesboro. A six-run, four-hit first, highlighted by a two run double from Deal, supplied the Blues defense with all the support they would need.
Marlowe led the charge from the mound, striking out seven batters in just three innings. Outfielders Isaac Deal and Bailey Brown also contributed RBIs for the Blues. A two-run fourth inning pushed the score to 10-2 and the game was called in accordance with the USSSA run-rule (an eight-run difference after the fourth inning signals the game’s end).
Two days of baseball featuring teams from across the state culminated Sunday evening as the Statesboro Blues and Effingham County’s Georgia Thunder took to the diamond in a winner take all battle.
The two teams are no strangers to one another, as this was their seventh meeting since the teams formed. Sunday’s championship would be played not only for trophies, but for bragging rights, as both teams entered with perfect 3-0 tournament marks and a 3-3 head-to-head record.
Blues ace Cook took the hill and once again dominated. Cook struck out five and allowed just one run on two hits through five innings. The Blues scored all the runs they would need in the second inning, when Deal was caught in a run-down between third and home, but managed to escape and put the Blues ahead, 1-0. Two batters later, Marlowe laced a line drive over the shortstop’s head to score what became the team’s eventual winning run.
Down to their final out, the Thunder made a charge and found themselves with runners on second and third, one hit away from a title. Once again the Blues looked to their pitching for a clutch play. With nervous parents lining the ballpark fence, Marlowe managed to induce a high pop up to the first base side.
Johns secured the catch and the Statesboro Blues swarmed the mound in celebration of their first Firecracker Classic title.
Marlowe, Deal, Cook, and Connor Akins were rewarded for their excellent play and garnered All-Tournament honors. Cook was awarded Tournament MVP.
The Firecracker win became the latest notch on the team’s record. In their first full year together, the Blues have made a name for themselves in what many consider to be the most challenging youth baseball league in America, the USSSA.
Statesboro has dominated the USSSA’s 11-and-under age bracket all year long. Because of their impressive performances against top teams from Georgia, Florida, New York and South Carolina, the team has already clinched a bid to the USSSA World Series in July.
Blues coach Dale Deal attributes his team’s success to chemistry.
“We don’t just focus on playing baseball with the boys,” he said. “We go camping, and paint-balling, and we have pool parties. We (as coaches) make sure they have fun. We are like a family.”
With an appearance in this year’s World Series already clinched, Deal said it is important for the Blues to not look too far ahead.
“We really don’t talk about that. We focus on one game at a time,” said Deal. “We are trying to get them to be better and better. That’s our goal. The World Series and all that will come later.”
The Blues will now take a couple of weeks away from competition to rest and prepare for the sub-state qualifier, June 12-14 in Statesboro. Deal believes his team has what it takes to do well in the upcoming State (Monroe, Ga.) and World Series (Charlotte, N. C.) tournaments.
“I feel pretty confident. Any given day, we can beat any team,” he said. “We have played in Dublin, we have played in Atlanta and Augusta. We have a great team and we know we can compete.”
Despite all of the success, coach Deal and his staff insist that the purpose of this program goes beyond wins and losses.
“All of these guys may not grow up to be major league ball players,” he said. “But they will all grow up to be men. We want to ensure that these boys grow to be successful people and gain characteristics that will ready them for everything that lies ahead.”