By VINNIE PORTELL
Entering this weekend’s state tournament, the 9-11-year-old Venice All-Stars knew they would be tested early.
Belmont Heights (Tampa) wanted to use its speed to its advantage, and tried to drop down two bunts to open the game. But Venice didn’t flinch, throwing out both runners before taking a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the first.
With Trent Fulcher on the mound, Venice stayed out in front all game as it used seven RBIs from the Kunz brothers (Carter and Jaxson) to win, 7-2, on Friday night at Atwater Park.
“We kind of scouted them, so we knew their first two batters were going to bunt,” manager Jason Allaire said. “We worked on it all week. We stopped them from bunting really quick, and that was important.
“And our bats, again. We started off the first inning well. Our bats are really good.”
The Kunz brothers got to work early against Belmont, as Carter opened the scoring with an RBI single down the third base line before Jaxson knocked in two more runs with a single of his own.
After Fulcher allowed a run to score on an RBI groundout in the third inning, Carter Kunz stretched the lead back to three with a blast that carried well over the left field fence — his second home run in All-Star play.
In the fourth the Kunz brothers buried Belmont.
Carter ripped an RBI double to deep centerfield with two outs before Jaxson followed up his brother’s hit with a two-run single to right field.
“They’re pretty special,” Allaire said of the Kunz brothers. “This is (Carter’s) second home run and he also hit a ball off the top of the fence last tournament, too. He’s hitting the ball hard.
“But I preach, ‘Team, team, team.’ And I think they’re really jelling as a team. You need everyone to play well to win these games.”
As the Kunz brothers unleashed an offensive barrage on Belmont, Fulcher kept the opposition’s bats quiet until the sixth inning. He allowed one run on a walk and four singles, striking out two until the sixth.
Belmont opened the sixth with three straight singles to make it 7-2 as Allaire brought in Braeden Tinker in to close out the game. Pitching with two on and no outs, Tinker struck out two and induced an easy ground out to end the game and give Venice a good start in pool play.
With the win, Venice will play two games today (Saturday) — beginning at 9:30 a.m. — as it looks to win the state tournament. If Venice can win both of its games today, it will be guaranteed a spot in Sunday morning’s championship game.
Then, if Venice wins the state championship, the team will move on to the Tournament of State Champions in Greenville, North Carolina, beginning July 26.
“We don’t have any weaknesses,” Allaire said of what makes this team special. “If you look at our lineup, our weakest players today were our strongest players last week. So, it’s always next man up.
“We have one through nine that can hit, and then we have subs who come in that can hit, too. I tell them, ‘You have to form a team before you can win.’ I’ve been preaching that all season long. We’re a team. We don’t put people down. We treat each other well. And it’s showing.”
Carter Kunz: 3-for-3, 3 RBI, 3 runs (single, double, home run)
Jaxson Kunz: 2-for-3, 4 RBI (two singles)
Peyton Gomez: 2-for-4, 1 run (two singles)
Trent Fulcher: 5+ IP, 7 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 2 K