Okeechobee travel team wins championship

APOPKA — The Okeechobee 9U Dirtbags have capped off two back-to-back second place tournament finishes with a championship trophy on July 28 in Apopka.

The Dirtbags are a travel baseball team that is composed of many of the same players and coaches from last year’s 8U Okeechobee All-Stars team that went all the way to the World Series. Head coach Ruben Guerrero decided to keep his squad together following the World Series trip and decided to see if the team could compete against teams from all around the state of Florida.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Okeechobee Dirtbags
The Okeechobee Dirtbags hold up the first place championship trophy after winning it on July 28.

“We’ve already been able to beat the teams around us like Avon Park and Sebring, so we wanted to see if we could compete with teams from places like Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville,” said Guerrero. “We wanted to see how good we really are.”

So far they’ve been able to stand toe to toe with some of the best teams in the state. The Dirtbags have been able to turn heads with not only their great play, but with their unconventional name as well.

While the term dirtbag might have a negative connotation in day-to-day life, in baseball terminology it’s one of the highest compliments you can give a player.

“In the baseball world, a dirtbag is someone who plays the game hard and has a lot of grit, passion and fire about the game,” explained Guerrero. “We just thought it’d be a unique and different name. We didn’t want to go with another animal or something. I want our kids to play the game hard and have some confidence in what they’re doing.”

The term “dirtbag” was first coined for those players whose uniform would be full of dirt after every game from how hard they were playing.

The Dirtbags took home second place in the first tournament in Daytona Beach, losing the championship game to the Lakeland Tigers. The Tigers were able to beat Okeechobee thanks in part to their starting pitcher who was throwing fastballs that were reaching speeds of over 50 mph, which is the fastest any of the Dirtbag players had seen in the batters box.

Two weeks later the Dirtbags traveled to Plant City to compete in another tournament where they again were able to take second place. But on the way to that second place finish Okeechobee had to face the Lakeland Tigers and their ace pitcher once more. This time, however, Okeechobee batters dominated the game and the Dirtbags won 17-2.

“Our kids came out and surprised everybody,” said Guerrero. “They listened to their coaching and adjusted well. Their pitcher went from striking out 14 of our players in the first game to not being able to strike out any of us. That right there just shows the improvement the players made. I was super proud of our kids.”

After two second player finishes in a row, the Okeechobee players were ready to take home a first place trophy. And they accomplished that goal in a tournament in Apopka on July 28.

The Dirtbags opened the tournament with wins over the Kissimmee and Winter Springs which let them advance to the championship game where they faced Winter Haven Elite.

A double-digit 13-2 win over Winter Haven ensured the Dirtbags would bring a first place trophy home to Okeechobee.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Okeechobee Dirtbags
The Okeechobee Dirtbags pose with the second place trophy following a tournament in Plant City on July 14.

One of the more long-term goals that Guerrero has with his Dirtbag team is to help the Okeechobee High School baseball program. He’s hopeful that when his Dirtbag players enter high school and start playing for the Brahmans, it’ll help put Okeechobee on a path to a state championship.

“I want to make the high school baseball coach’s life easier,” Guerrero said. “When these kids get up there, we’re going to make sure they know what to do. They can do a run down, they can do a first and third defense and they can do bunt defense really well. We practice all of that. When I was at the high school level coaching, I would think we were spending too much time teaching things that kids should already know. We’re making sure they’re ready and passionate about baseball. A big part of that is keeping the game fun for the kids.”

Guerrero also gave credit to his assistant coaches Bobby Koedam, James Beville, Kyle Buckner and Lance Richards for their work in getting the team ready this year.

The Dirtbags will hit the road again on Aug. 10-11 to compete in another tournament in Sanford. You can keep up with what the Dirtbags are up to by following their Facebook group at www.facebook.com/groups/376707489716991/.

Richard Marion is a staff writer and photographer at Lake Okeechobee News and can be reached at rmarion@newszap.com.

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