Winter Garden Little League claim 8-9-year-old District 14 Tournament of Champions crown

In the 8- to 9-year-old age group, the All-Star collection of Winter Garden Little Leaguers went undefeated to claim the Tournament of Champions crown.

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The idea of bringing together a collection of a league’s best players into one cohesive team in a matter of weeks to play for the top honor those players can compete for seems like a daunting task. 

Now consider the fact that the players that make up this All-Star group are 8- and 9-years-olds, and all of a sudden, “daunting” seems a bit of an understatement.

However, Anthony Luisi — manager of Winter Garden Little League’s Tournament of Champions team — and his assistant coaches Michael Medina and Terence Curran tackled the test with amazing results.

Quick chemistry

The team’s ability to develop chemistry was one of the main reasons it captured the District 14 TOC championship. 

“The team was made up of kids from different regular-season teams within Winter Garden Little League, so they weren’t playing together all season,” Luisi said. “When we got the group together, you could just feel immediately when they came in that we were going to be a cohesive team. They just all became friends really quickly, and they all trusted each other. It was honestly really cool to see from my perspective. But I think that the chemistry they built was a lot of the reason for their success. … They were all positive; they listened. Through all of our practices and games, they were just a really great group of kids.” 

Parents — and their commitment to the process — also were critical to the team’s success.

“They were practicing for what felt like every single day for two straight weeks,” said Rebecca Fusaro, a mom of one of the Winter Garden TOC players. “We could see these kids were putting in the work. … It was really exciting to watch the team come together over such a short time, because individually they’re all really good little ballplayers, but together they just gelled into something great.”

Beyond the commitment from the players, Fusaro points to the All-Star coaching staff’s influence as another aspect of the team’s success.

“A lot of the success had to do with our coaches,” Fusaro said. “They did an amazing job. All three really brought something different to the team, and that was cool to watch. One was more level-headed and really good with strategy, the other was really good with teaching defense and really just teaching the game of baseball, and the other one was more of a motivator who could get the kids’ energy up when they needed to.”

Not only was this group great for Luisi and his coaches to deal with, but also their talent on the field was able to shine because of the quick chemistry they developed. The result: Winter Garden LL’s 8-9 All-Star team ran the table in the Tournament of Champions, winning all five of its games over District 14’s other All-Star teams from Dr. Phillips Little League, Windermere Little League and South Lake Little League. 

“It was really cool to win, because it’s a one-out-of-five chance that we win the entire thing,” WGLL All-Star Jackson Fusaro said. “I had a lot of confidence in our team, because from the start, we really clicked, and we could see that we were really good.”

Road to victory

Although the group of All-Stars came together quickly leading up to the tournament, they had to navigate a shaky start. 

“Our first game was probably our scariest,” Luisi said. “It felt like everyone was a little nervous and didn’t know what to expect. But our pitching really got us through that one.”

On Day Two, Winter Garden have to deal with a doubleheader, with the hosts as the opponent in the first game. 

“The first game of the two was against Dr. Phillips, who are kind of like the big boys; they’re playing at home on their new fields,” Luisi said. “But we ended up beating them, and that was just a huge win for the boys. Their baseball IQ really showed, because that game was a battle. It really gave them confidence and kind of propelled them the rest of the way.” 

After winning the next two games, Winter Garden’s All-Star team again faced DP — this time it was for the championship. Led by its defense, and contributions from throughout the batting order, Winter Garden Little League topped Dr. Phillips in the final, 7-3. 

“It was just great showing all around for us,” Luisi said. “We kept saying that our defense was unmatched through the whole tournament. …  It was really such a team effort, and it felt like every single player made a significant contribution to our run and that was amazing to see.”

Time to celebrate

“It was really cool,” Jackson said of the championship win. “I just remember everybody running onto the field, and we took a victory lap with that banner, that was just really cool.”

From the dugout, Luisi knew it was in the hands of his players and until the final out was made, he and his staff felt the nerves.

“We were nervous as coaches because it’s the players who are the ones out there executing,” Luisi said. “But our kids went out there and executed, and we couldn’t be prouder of what they accomplished.” 

Although this win ends the team’s season, Luisi and his staff know that this win isn’t the end for these kids’ love of the game of baseball. 

“I feel like this experience is just going to help set them up for success going forward,” Luisi said. “As they get older, this experience is going to be with them forever, and they can hopefully carry it on to the next levels when they’re 10, 11, 12 and so on. They just played so well and they were able to handle the pressure — and like it was a lot of pressure. So hopefully, that just kind of prepared them for more situations like that throughout their baseball careers. But ultimately, we just want them to love baseball and at the very least these moments are going to help them grow in that. And that’s really the goal of all of this.”



Sam Albuquerque

A native of João Pessoa, Brazil, Sam Albuquerque moved in 1997 to Central Florida as a kid. After earning a communications degree in 2016 from the University of Central Florida, he started his career covering sports as a producer for a local radio station, ESPN 580 Orlando. He went on to earn a master’s degree in editorial journalism from Northwestern University, before moving to South Carolina to cover local sports for the USA Today Network’s Spartanburg Herald-Journal. When he’s not working, you can find him spending time with his lovely wife, Sarah, newborn son, Noah, and dog named Skulí.

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