Ravens fall short in 14U title game
3-2 loss in 9 innings to Forest Flames ends national championship bid, receive sportsmanship award
With each passing day, it became more clear that the New England Ravens 14 and under AAU baseball team’s goal of winning a national championship was a real possibility.
After earning the top seed in the Gold Division single elimination bracket at the AAU 14U National Tournament and a first round bye that guaranteed them a spot in the national semifinals, the Ravens only needed two wins to achieve their ultimate dream.
A 5-2 victory over the Florida 3H Spartans in the Final Four on Wednesday put the Ravens into the finals on Thursday. And the Virginia Forest Flames, the Gold Division’s No. 2 seed, were the only thing that stood in the way of bringing home a national championship.
With the top two teams playing, it was only fitting that it took extra innings to decide who would be labeled the best in the country. Unfortunately for the Ravens, a 3-2 loss in nine innings at City of Palms Stadium in Fort Myers, Fla. saw their goal of being crowned national champions come up one step short.
“We fell a little bit short,” said coach Jim Coppo. “But it’s not a bad finish for a bunch of guys from New Hampshire and Massachusetts. National runner-up has a nice ring to it.”
While the Ravens did not bring home the big trophy, they were recognized for their play on the field with the tournament’s sportsmanship award, voted on by each team, umpires and tournament personnel.
“I’ve never played to win a sportsmanship award and I don’t remember ever getting one, but I was humbled by it,” said Coppo.
It was a one-out double in the top of the ninth that was the difference in the championship game. The Flames’ No. 5 batter Carmen Parker drove a shot into the left-center gap to score the eventual game-winner, as the Ravens went down in order in the last of the ninth.
“It was the only hard hit ball of the day and it went to the fence,” said Coppo. “It was a battle that we knew was going to come down to one pitch or one play.”
The Ravens took a 1-0 lead in the first when Chance Kirby’s squeeze bunt scored Drew Marro. It would stay that way until the fourth, when the Flames plated two runs to put the Ravens behind by one.
The local squad finally got something going in the sixth to tie the game at two. Danny Allen got hit, stole second and scored on Sam Cooper’s RBI single. The Ravens would eventually load the bases in the inning with one out, but could not push across the go-ahead run.
“We left the bases loaded. It was a pretty tough pill to swallow,” said Coppo. “We just couldn’t get one more.”
Cooper, who took the mound in the fourth, got out of a jam in the seventh when the Flames got the leadoff batter to third with no outs. Coppo had confidence his team would end the game in their next at bat.
“When we got to the bottom of the seventh tied, I thought for sure we were going to win it,” said Coppo.
While it was disappointing to get that far and come home with only the 14U runner-up trophy, in no way are the Ravens upset with how this season went.
“I hadn’t prepared a speech for if we lost because of what they had done this season, I thought we’d win,” said Coppo. “I really, truly believed that.”
The team finished with an overall record of 49-9, with four of those losses coming at the national tournament. And they did it all with the original roster that began practicing back in January.
“It was one heck of a ride for a bunch of 14-year-old kids,” said Coppo.
Many of the teams in Fort Myers last week were put together with the purpose of winning a championship. The Ravens, though, had good team chemistry and obviously had done quite well over the course of the first 50 games, so there was no need to add players. They were confident they could get it done with the team they began the season with.
“This was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Coppo. “And the best feeling is that we did it with our own team and our own guys.”
In the initial round of pool play, the Ravens were up against some strong competition. After winning their first game of the national tournament, they dropped three straight to teams that would qualify for Diamond Division pool play. One of those losses was a 6-2 decision to the Miami Suns, who went on to capture the Diamond Division title.
As one of six teams in the Gold Division, each squad played two pool games to decide their seeding for the single elimination bracket. The Ravens and Flames were the only two teams to go 2-0, guaranteeing both a first round bye. It came down to a tiebreaker for the top seed and by allowing four fewer runs, the Ravens earned home team advantage for the remainder of the tournament.
After the victory of the Spartans, the Ravens were assured of a nice trophy to bring home.
A number of the players took the field together last year on the Ravens’ 13U team, which led to an invitation from AAU for this year’s 14U nationals.
“We talked about this trip a year ago,” said Coppo.
But even with a spot in last week’s tournament decided well in advance, the Ravens made a commitment this spring to prove they belong among the best teams in the country.
To start the season, the Ravens won 19 straight games and finished 11-1 in the New England AAU Open Division III. They won the annual Bobcat Classic in April and captured the inaugural Ravens Bash Invitational in June.
While widely considered one of the best open division teams in New England, the Ravens lost out on a tiebreaker that would have sent them to the Final Four.
But while the games are now over until the Ravens begin their fall schedule, they will still be quite busy over the next few weeks.
They have been invited back to the State House by Gov. Maggie Hassan. They will also be honored by the Boston Red Sox and NH Fisher Cats, who had a send off for the team on July 15.
Not a bad way to cap off an impressive summer of baseball.