by Thomas Hoffman
After taking in some of the fun festivities during US Club Nationals kick-off day at the Battery Atlanta on Tuesday, the 14u squad from SBA Canes had almost all of Wednesday to think about its opening matchup against Five Star National. Falling behind early, the Canes revved up the intensity, scoring eight unanswered runs to start their 2018 campaign off with a win, 8-3.
“The key for us today was focus,” said head coach Rafael Mendez. “Focus has been the common denominator for us this year. When we lose focus, we lose at-bats. From pitch one, we were locked in from the start and that took us to the next level.”
Coming off an impressive 9-2 victory over Slammers Asnicar, Five Star National looked to be in the same form, scoring three runs in the top half of the first innings. Tanner Cotton highlighted the frame with a two-RBI triple.
SBA struck back in the bottom of the second inning. With two runners on base and one out, Dylan Little delivered an RBI double to score the Cane’s first run. Two batters later, Luke Holland equaled Little’s effort with an RBI double of his own. In total, SBA rallied to tie the score with three momentum-swinging runs.
“We started off a little slow there,” said Holland. “When that happens, you just have to get on base and help the team out as much as you can.”
The Canes went right back to work in the top of the third, leading off with back-to-back walks. By the time Carson Hegele came to the plate, Bryce Meachem and Carson Dunlap were on second and third base, respectively. Hegele smashed a ball to center field, just deep enough to bring Meachem home for a sacrifice fly. SBA would add a second run in the inning on a balk, giving the Canes a two-run lead, 5-0.
Sensing a turning point in the game, Mendez turned to Donovan Henkel to control things on the mound.
“He’s been solid all year for us,” said Mendez. “It was the perfect time to show Five Star a different look.”
Henkel was dominant from the moment he stepped on the rubber. He kicked his appearance off with four consecutive strikeouts. In three innings of work, Henkel gobbled up seven strikeouts and gave up just one hit and one walk.
“Right away, I liked how I could throw a breaking ball for a first-pitch strike,” said Henkel. “When I didn’t have to rely on just a fastball, I was able to keep them off balance.”
Directing everything from behind the plate was catcher Dylan Little. Little began the day guiding Andrew Setlinger through the first three innings before seeing Henkel on the bump.
“All of our pitchers are great to work with,” said Little. “Donovan and I have that pitch-catcher connection. It’s one of the best relationships I have. We read off of each other extremely well.”
It was Little who came the plate in the sixth inning, still leading 5-3 with a chance to break the game open. Little added to his RBI double from back in the second with a 2-RBI single. Three batters later, Little would trot home on a bases-loaded walk right before the two-hour time limit took effect, ending the contest, 8-3.
SBA will face two more pool play matchups before the Championship Bracket begins in Friday. Opening with a win, puts the Canes in prime position in a talent-filled pool for a high seed.
“I have been here before and the heat is definitely something we’ll have to deal with,” said Mendez. “We have to keep everyone fresh. Everyone is ready to play and as long as they are ready to play, when I call their name, we should be in good shape.”