The Top Level 14U Baseball Team made history last week by becoming the first team from Santa Monica and the Westside to ever capture the Easton Elite 14U World Series Championship.
The Top Level team went a perfect 7-0 in Florida, defeating the No. 1 seed, a Texas team (5 Star Performance) in the championship game at the USSSA Space Coast Stadium.
However, the local team came very close to not even going to Florida.
Top Level is a new Developmental Baseball Academy, based out of Santa Monica, which was formed in July 2021 by Santa Monica Crossroads High School Baseball Coaches Eric Beckerman and Zach Smith. (Beckerman played the sport at Palisades High in the mid-1980s.)
Too often, Santa Monica and Westside players travel to the San Fernando Valley, South Bay and Orange County seeking a high level of competition, and Beckerman and Smith hoped to offer that same level of play on the Westside.
This 14U team was formed at the end of last summer, with a goal to win a Super NIT Qualifying Event and go to the Easton Elite Florida World Series. Only teams who win a Qualifying Event are invited to participate in the Series.
Things didn’t start smoothly for the team, which went 1-2 in its first two Super NIT events in October and November and were eliminated early in tournaments.
In February, there was another setback, when the team’s head coach, Steve Hoye, suffered a heart attack.
But coaches saw the team slowly improve, and in March it finished third in a Qualifying Event and advanced to the Super NIT Championship Game in Arizona. There the team went 2-1 and coaches described it as “a tough loss.”
With only one qualifying event left (April 30-May 1 in Chino Hills), the pressure was on, and players responded by going 5-0, which landed them a berth in the World Series.
But by then, many players’ families had already made summer plans and Coach Hoye, who had suffered the earlier heart attack, was scheduled for open heart surgery three days before the World Series was set to start.
“It was not looking good there for a while as there was a lot of uncertainty with being able to field a team, which was a shame because winning a Super NIT and going to the World Series was the goal of this team from when it first formed in September,” Beckerman said. He and Smith had previously taken three teams to the tournament, when they coached with Los Angeles Xtreme, but those teams had never advanced past the quarter finals.
Beckerman and Smith held a meeting in May and explained that if players couldn’t commit, it was time to “pull the plug.”
“The meeting went much better than expected as the players and families were clearly wanting to go,” said Beckerman, “and once we got everyone in the same room, it was clear everybody was all in.”
The team focused on preparing for Florida, with plans to dedicate the trip to their coach. They left July 11 and first had to play in three pool-play games to determine seeding, followed by a double elimination tournament.
In the team’s first game, things were not looking good for Top Level. They were down 2-0 in the top of the last inning, against a pitcher from North Carolina who was seeking a complete game shutout.
Beckerman, the PaliHi alum, recalled: “I remember at the time asking myself, why do our teams always seem to struggle in Florida? Is it the humidity, the three-hour time difference, the level of competition?
“But just as I started thinking that, the boys broke things open and never looked back,” Beckerman said. “The team put up seven runs in the top of the 7th and cruised to a 7-3 win in its opening game.”
In the next game, versus one of the top-ranked teams in Florida, the hitting continued and, with solid pitching and defense, the Santa Monica team won 10-2.
In the team’s final pool-play game, the bats stayed hot during a 10-3 win over a Kentucky team.
In its first playoff game, the Top Level team routed its opponent 12-0, and then proceeded to defeat South Carolina 5-1. After four games, the pitching staff had allowed only nine runs.
A 9-3 win in the semi-finals sent Top Level into championship game, where it defeated the Texas team to win the title.
“I’ve been coaching high-level baseball for a very long time and I’ve never seen a team completely dominate a tournament like these boys did,” Beckerman said.
Aaron Heirigs (Santa Monica High School-bound) led the entire Tournament with a .588 batting average. Teddy Levin (also heading to Samo) was third in the Tournament hitting .563, while Robbie Peppel out of Playa Del Rey (Loyola High School) was fourth at .556, with future Palisades High School students Brandon Bendel and Jett Teegardin tied for fifth with .500 batting averages.
Westchester’s Luca Marucci (Loyola) led the entire Tournament with 11 RBI’s, while future PaliHi student James Levy was second with 8 RBI’s. Jaxson Ehlers (Santa Monica Pony and Venice High School) was in the Top 10 in OBP, BB and RBI’s.
Pitchers included Gavin Kirtley (Samo), who tied for tournament top honors with a 0.00 ERA, and Jack Stutz (Cheviot Pony, LACES High School), who finished second in the Tournament with one earned run in six innings and 9 K’s including a strikeout of the last Texas batter to close out the championship game.
The Top Level team outscored its opponents 59-13, making only two errors in seven games. Fielder Anthony Guerra had a .1000 field percentage and catcher Owen Boelke (Santa Monica Little League/Brentwood High School) made one of the top plays of the tournament by covering a wild pitch and then flipping it to the pitcher covering home, who tagged out the runner trying to score from third.
The Santa Monica Top Level 14U team finishes the season as the #1 USSSA Power Ranked Team in California.
The Top Level players are now looking forward to high school. Once Coach Hoye recovers, the team plans to continue playing together as a 15U team.