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Puerto Rico takes 2005 Tournament

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Hustle, speed and defense were the keys to Puerto Rico's victory

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The rabbits who propelled Puerto Rico to victory

No one denied that Puerto Rico team had talent, but they sure didn't come in as favorites. Probably every other one of the 12 teams that entered the 2005 NY Emperors Memorial Day tournament had a lot more experience as well as power. But this time around, youth, speed and determination trumped experience and enabled Puerto Rico to defeat the highly favored Gold team 5-4 in the finals and be crowned 2005 Memorial Day champs.

For the past five years, the Memorial Day tournament has been marked by threatening skies and games being snuck in between downpours. Despite a brief shower on Saturday night, this year's weather was warm, sunny and just about perfect. Thirteen teams came down to stickball boulevard to compete, including two teams from San Diego, one from Florida and one from Puerto Rico. The holiday tournaments traditionally allow (and even encourage) the addition and recombination of players under one banner. Given the depth of player talent available, many of this year's teams looked particularly strong.

By the semi-finals, three veteran teams and one group of youngsters remained. Monday afternoon's double bill included the Bronx Knights against the Puerto Rican squad on one field while on the other, the Brooklyn Knights paired up against the Gold, in what many considered would be the match to determine the tournament winner.

Brooklyn came out quickly and scored 4 runs in the top of the first, leaving the Gold in an apparent state of total disarray. Realizing his team needed to quickly focus, Albie Santiago worked himself up and leveled an emotional barrage against Robert Pizzarro and the other members of Brooklyn's veteran squad. Not only did it add emotion to the Gold players, but it seemed to distract the Knights. Instead of cementing the lead, they played sloppily in the field and gave the runs back in the bottom half of the inning. While the game remained close, three runs in the bottom of the fourth put the Gold on top for good in their 10-5 victory.

Meanwhile Puerto Rico's tough defense enabled them to prevail over the Bronx Knights 3-0. This set up a finals match between the Gold, one of New York's top teams and the young and fast newcomers. Few gave Puerto Rico much chance.

Having to compete without Frankie Martinez, one of their top players, due to a leg injury, the Gold had added to their already strong team by including Stevie Plerqui (of Sports Illustrated fame) and John "Pito" Lipsett, last year's Stickball Classic Longball winner. However, while the Gold have the physical talent, sometimes they lack the emotional intensity or allow themselves to get too overconfident, particularly when playing a team they think they should beat. This attitude and a general lack of spark would be their undoing.

The Gold drew first blood, scoring a quick run in the first, but their rally was limited by Puerto Rico's good defensive play. Then in the third inning, Puerto Rico exploded with a series of quick hits. Joshua Infante then smashed a hard line drive to third that bounced off the tree and careened back past home plate. With the bases loaded with speed, three runs came around. All of a sudden Puerto Rico was up 4-1.

A sacrifice fly by Xaeler Rimo two innings later added a fifth run. This =proved to be decisive, for the Gold smacked in three runs in the seventh inning to come within one run of tying the game. It appeared that Puerto Rico was crumbling after they made two errors in the field then put the winning runners on base. However, the Gold were unable to capitalize on this opportunity and failed to bring the runners in, giving Puerto Rico a well deserved 5-4 game win along with the tournament trophy.

As usual, the play was exciting, but in addition so was the spirit of the weekend. The crowd was there to watch the games, catch some rays and dance to the evening music; a perfect summer kick-off for hundreds of people who not only enjoy the game of stickball, but the tradition of using it to stay close with an extended community of friends and family.

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