The inaugural ‘Team UK’ came home as Yellow Cup winners and received high praise for a number of individual performances.
As first-time entrants into the tournament, Team UK were seeded bottom out of the 24 teams, and placed in a very difficult first-round group including previous SuperCup champions Trebic Nuclears and Draci Brno.
The opening game was against another strong Czech team, Klasik Fydek Mistek, who proved to be a tough test, with Team UK players, coaches and parents all very nervous at the start of the day.
While UK players put bat on ball regularly, it didn’t convert to runs. Defensively, the UK matched Klasik for much of the game apart from one bad inning. However, Klasik ran out 10-0 winners in the end.
The players were a bit down after such a disappointing loss, but spirits were raised by a wonderful tournament Opening Ceremony that was scheduled between their first and second games.
Next up were Trebic Nuclears, defending champions from last year’s SuperCup. Again, the UK players made good contact and did even better defensively, shutting out Trebic for multiple innings.
UK thought they had made a scoring breakthrough when Harry Walsh-Black came home from third on a Ryan Gulliver base hit. However, despite the home plate umpire declaring Walsh-Black safe at home, the first base umpire appeared to change his call at first from safe to a third out to eliminate the run. This led to some confusion on the part of Team UK’s bench and fans, and subsequent video footage suggests we were a little hard done by.
Heads dropped after that and Trebic rode out 9-0 winners, which was perhaps an unfair reflection on how close these two teams were for long parts of the game.
Team UK took a lot of heart from closely matching last year’s winners for long periods, but the lack of runs was a growing concern for Head Coach Joshua Mills-Knutsen, who re-jigged his line up in the third game of the day against Belarus.
The changes worked instantly, and UK produced their first-ever SuperCup run in the top of the opening inning. The remaining game was a defensive classic, with each side retired in order over multiple innings. Team UK stuck to their task and went 5-4 ahead in the top of the fifth inning. Unfortunately, Belarus then found their bats when it mattered, piling on five runs in reply and they were rewarded with a 9-5 win when time was called at the end of the inning.
While Team UK had lost their opening three games, they had gained a lot of belief by the end of Day One, with steady improvement in each game. They looked to take that momentum into the second day in search of their first win.
Day Two opened with Team UK’s turn in the parallel Masters Skills Tournament, where each team submitted players for disciplines including throwing, hitting, baserunning and fielding.
Although this wasn’t known until the Masters Closing Ceremony later that day, Team UK did very well in this completion, coming 12th out 24 teams overall, helped by the personal achievement of Arnav Rai from the Leicester Blue Sox, who came seventh out of 72 players in the hitting discipline.
Next up was another tough game, this time against Draci Brno, who were hotly tipped for this year’s SuperCup and were already unbeaten after their opening three group games.
Buoyed by their improved performance against Belarus, Team UK did not look out of place for long periods, holding Draci to a two-run lead over the first three innings, which started to induce looks of worry from the local fans. Again, it was a case of ‘one bad inning’, and the Draci bats then steamed their team ahead to a 13-4 victory.
This wasn’t a must-win game for UK, as it would have no effect on their final ranking, but to remain close to Draci for such a long time gave them even more confidence going into their final group game against S G Kortlaka, a team who were also in search of their first win of the tournament.
With the teams very evenly matched, the game remained at 0-0 for the first three innings. Runs were hard to come by as defenses remained on top, and the score was still tied at 3-3 going into the bottom of the final inning.
As Team UK were the away team, the best they could hope for was a draw on the timed game rule. Unfortunately, Kortlaka had other ideas and rallied to bring home a walk-off win. This was perhaps the toughest loss the team had to swallow, as they were so close to getting something from the game.
The SuperCup tournament has a unique knockout competition that follows the group stages. Teams that finish first and second in the group stage progress to a double elimination bracket to determine the SuperCup coach-pitch finalists. The teams finishing lower in their groups are placed into four different minor Cup competitions.
Team UK were placed into the Yellow Cup competition, with their third game of the day being the Yellow Cup semi-final against Pao Tongshu of China. The team knew going into this game that a place in the Yellow Cup final against Lithuania was up for grabs, as they had earlier had beaten Moldova in the other semi-final.
Poa Tongshi had also been winless in their group games, and though their losses seemed to be by much bigger margins, Team UK were not going to take things for granted in their quest for their first-ever tournament win. However, UK quickly cruised to a 19-0 victory, which again increased the growing belief that our players were quite a lot better than some of those earlier group game results had suggested.
After a fun Masters Closing Ceremony to round off Day Two, the team went back to their hotel dreaming of the possibility of bringing a trophy back home. Team UK would play Lithunia in the Yellow Cup final the next day.
The final day of the tournament brought much excitement, with five different Cup finals and then the SuperCup Closing Ceremony to round off the day.
The atmosphere around the baseball complex was electric, enhanced by big crowds and local Czech television cameras filming a documentary of the tournament.
Team UK were handed home advantage on the coin toss, putting Lithuania in to bat first. While UK yielded four base hits in the opening inning, their defense remained composed and limited Lithuania’s scoring to just two runs.
In reply, UK batted with precision, breaking out with seven base hits and batting through their entire line-up to bring home an inning maximum of five runs. While the UK bench and fans were jumping at this point, the coaches knew there was a lot of baseball left in this game and that Lithuania were not going to lie down.
The UK slightly increased their lead to 7-3 in the bottom of the second inning, but Lithuania came back hard in the top of the third with a five-run maximum to take an 8-7 lead. Their lead was extended in the fifth inning by two more runs, although UK quickly replied with two of their own, meaning the game went into the final inning with Team UK trailing 10-9.
Team UK knew their defense had to be at its best, and while the Lithuanian lead-off hitter reached on an error, there was no mistake with the next three batters, who were retired in order.
So this was it: UK needed to score two runs to secure the Yellow Cup trophy. But things didn’t start well, with Sam Yates and Ben Fox being retired on a routine groundout and pop-up respectively. Next up was the top of the order, with Benny Doleman already 3-for-3 on the day. Could he start a two-out rally?
Doleman reached first on a base hit, as did Toshi Kaneyama and they each moved into scoring position on a subsequent fielding error by the Lithuanian shortstop.
With the tying and go-ahead runs on base, up came Benjamin Mills-Knutsen in a classic clutch situation. Nerves were jangling across both benches but it soon gave away to pure elation on the UK side when Mills-Knutsen slammed a hard base hit to bring home Doleman and Kaneyama to secure the walk-off win.
It was a ‘tears of joy’ moment for the players, coaches and fans alike, and a crowning achievement for the huge development curve that Team UK had followed over three days of glorious baseball. The agony of those hard-to-swallow defeats in the group stages had been well and truly erased. Team UK were going to be coming home with a trophy from their first-ever tournament!
The remainder of the finals day had a carnival-like feel, despite the onset of rain. The SuperCup coach-pitch final was a classic. Scheduled for six innings, it went into multiple extras, with Sant Boi of Spain eventually taking the game in the 10th inning with a 6-3 win over the local favourites Hrosi Brno.
During the Closing Ceremony, the final tournament standings were announced, which was an aggregate of the coach-pitch game results and the Masters skills rankings. In addition to the Yellow Cup presentation, Team UK’s slugger Benny Doleman was presented with a batting commendation award for one of the highest batting averages in the tournament and UK ranked 17th overall out of 24 teams, which will help their seeding in the group stages when they return to Prague next year for SuperCup 2018.
Although Hrosi Brno lost the coach-pitch final, they were top in the Masters tournament and were crowned overall SuperCup champions based on their aggregate performance across the two competitions.
Reflecting on a very successful first-ever SuperCup tournament for the UK U10 team, General Manager Matt Crawshaw said, “Our ethos going into this tournament was to have fun, play good baseball and improve with every game. The kids were absolutely fantastic and achieved this in bucket loads! To be coming home with a trophy on top of this is the icing on the cake.”
“I want to thank the parents for all the support they have given to this tournament,” Crawshaw added. “They have been instrumental to the success of this project and we are already looking forward to the future, with a possible Fall Cup coach-pitch tournament in Austria later this year. We have established a talented group of players, though sadly some of them will be aging out next year, so it is important to maintain the momentum that has been created by adding younger replacements to the squad but also working closely with the Great Britain National Team programme to help achieve our goal of feeding into the re-establishment of an U12 National Team.
“The future for the youngest players in our country looks very bright!”