When the Bradford Storm’s 13U AA team entered the playoffs, nobody was expecting a championship run from the underdogs.
But the team that went 3-12 in the regular season managed to pull off a magical run on their way to being crowned York Simcoe Baseball Association Champions last week.
“We didn’t have a great regular season because we weren’t afraid to throw everybody in different spots,” said coach Jeff Nazzer. “Even in those losses we’d see glimpses. We lost one tough game 7-6 after giving up six runs in the first inning and allowing just one over the last six innings.
“We knew it was there, it was just flashes every game and then we got into the playoffs, and everything clicked. There were some heart breakers during the season, but we’d always be positive after games. We told them things were coming and that they’d be something special when everything clicked, and they just kept buying in to it. As a coaching staff we never gave up hope on them because we knew this group had a skill set that was there and they just had to get it together at the right time. They built towards it and got it together at the right time.”
On the playoff run, the Storm managed to beat the number three team, whom Nazzer notes they always struggle with, before losing to the number two team but bounced back knocking off the four seed. They then drew the number one seed, who they beat twice.
“Everyone was shocked, but we knew we could do it,” said Nazzer. “The kids were up for it and in all those games—except for the final game—we had to come from behind. It was phenomenal.”
The core of the team has been together for four years under Nazzer, slowly moving their way up from select to A and for the first time this year playing AA. The Storm took a different approach though, rather than focus just on winning, the staff opted to emphasize development.
“Throughout the season the coaches had a philosophy that we were going to develop all the players through most the positions to get some more well-rounded baseball players—it’s still a year or two early to dedicate them to one position,” said Nazzer. “The biggest key for us was that we treated our regular season like training. Of the 11 kids we had, we had everybody but one pitch.
“We got our parents to buy-in and our kids to buy-in that our regular season really didn’t mean anything to us. We just wanted everyone to get experience at positions versus other teams had just three or four stud pitchers, and that’s all they pitched.”
With the coaching staff putting their efforts towards development and ensuring the vast majority of players spent time at most positions, they knew once the playoffs rolled around the kids would be better off for it.
“We knew going into the season that we were going to change our philosophy come tournament time and playoffs, and that’s what we did,” said Nazzer. “We ended up developing enough players because you had to go four or five rounds deep to win a tournament or go deep in the playoffs. With pitch counts in play, if we pitch a kid out to their maximum (85) they can’t pitch for four days, and on a three-day tournament that’s tough.”
Using the philosophy of having players play all over the diamond—and most importantly, pitch—the Storm found success in their tournaments.
“We ended up in the finals in our first tournament and in the next tournament we got to the semi-finals and faced our nemesis Collingwood and got knocked out in a battle,” Nazzer explained. “Then in the playoffs, that’s how we rolled, and we just managed our pitch counts properly and put kids in spots that we developed appropriately, and we had pitchers left where other teams didn’t.”
Four years ago, this journey began when the team came together as a U9 squad and Nazzer and VP of rep Donnie Censori came up with a plan.
“We both sat down and said we think we have something special here but it’s going to take a while to develop but let’s work on a four-year plan,” said Nazzer. “Let’s work on developing these kids from the age of nine and get them to learn the infield positions and get them to learn outfield. To start, we got our parents to buy-in too. We told them we’re going through this process, and it is a process. The core that’s been with us for four years has seen their skills develop and have watched themselves go from being just a traditional outfielder to being comfortable playing first and second and pitch.”
Having the kids trust them in their development plan was one of the biggest keys to the philosophy and that’s why it was so important to continually have that conversation with them while showing them that focusing on the little things is making them better ball players.
“Let’s have that conversation with the kids often and frequently—especially during the offseason—and we tell them we’re building skill sets and tools for them to put in their toolbox,” he said. “Right now, you might be the fastest runner, which gears towards outfield, but maybe you have a set of silky hands that we can develop even better on the infield. Or maybe you’re a hard thrower primed for pitcher or outfield, but what about third base? Let’s try it. So, for our offseason training we rotate through every single position, every skill, and we break it down so all the kids get that exposure.”
When coaching young kids at a competitive level, Nazzer explains that confidence is everything, especially when moving them to positions they aren’t yet comfortable in.
“They start to see how their confidence gets better, a lot of it is confidence building,” he said. “These kids are young, and the balls get hit hard, especially when you jump up to the AA level.
“Some of these kids aren’t comfortable in the infield quite yet, but you work on it in the offseason, and you develop from that micro skill set—off their knees to standing to a proper fielding position. Then, all of a sudden you can see the lightbulb when it clicks. It’s the constant repetition from the coaches in the offseason and then moving into the regular season and giving it a try just to see what it’s like.”
Using the philosophy of playing all their players at each position, pitching was the hardest spot to have each kid build confidence at, but it paid off in the playoffs
“The biggest one is pitching, there’s a lot of fear going on the mound and pitching,” said Nazzer. “I can think of two young fellas who weren’t confident on the mound, but you give them a little bit of hope and a trial against a weaker team and all of a sudden, they can get it over the plate and get the ball into the strike zone.
“It’s about just putting the ball over the plate and into play so your defence can shine and build your confidence. They did, to the point we relied on those two kids in our last two games to get us through some tough innings with the number one team. It worked and that’s how we looked at it as a coaching staff. We were really lucky with the parents, coaches, and players trusting it.”
Although finding success on the field through the development of the players has been exciting, it’s Nazzer and his staff's hope that it helps the kids grow.
“My coaching staff’s goal isn’t to build athletes; our goal is to build good citizens. We’re trying to use sports as a conduit to do that and teach them about respect, integrity, commitment, teamwork, and winning with class and losing with grace. That’s what we want to build out of this, and I think that message is coming through.”
Going forward, as an organization, the Bradford Storm hope this can be another catalyst in helping baseball grow in the area.
“We’re always trying to grow, we want Bradford to be a destination kids want to come to,” said Nazzer. “Last year we started with a single 16U AA team that couldn’t be an Elite team because of the rules but low and behold because of the organization’s success and the success of building from the 9U level up and focusing on the youngest kids while making baseball a priority in Bradford, we now potentially have a 15U Elite team and an 18U Elite team. We want local kids to stay local. Our biggest problem as an organization was that we didn’t have enough teams, so our local kids left. The program is getting better and developing, it’s putting us in a position to allow kids to succeed and be challenged.”
“There’s a lot of associations out there that have watched what we’ve done over the last number of years and have reached out over the last week and a half to congratulate us and tell us we run a great program,” added John McBeth, president of the Bradford Storm. “There’s a lot of talented staff here developing kids the right way and there’s a lot of eyes on us right now. We’ve got the backing of the town and the support all the way around. It’s really exciting.”