The neatly pressed No. 11 Texas Sun Devils jersey hung at the end of one of the dugouts at Blue Field 7 at the Roger Dean Complex in Jupiter, Fla. Not a shrine, necessarily, but certainly not an afterthought by any stretch.
It was the morning of Oct. 24, and the unbeaten Sun Devils were preparing to play Central FL PG Royal in one of the semifinal games at the Perfect Game WWBA World Championship. It was a game the Sun Devils would lose, bringing an end to a season filled with much jubilation and one jabbing dose of heartbreak.
The last Sun Devil to wear the No. 11 jersey was 18-year-old Dustin Kellogg from Conroe, Texas. Kellogg died on Oct. 4 in a traffic accident in Montgomery County (Texas) not far from his hometown. The 6-4, 175-pound right-hander was a 2011 graduate of Caney Creek High School, and was ranked No. 220 nationally by Perfect Game. He signed a professional contract with the Houston Astros after being selected in the 34th round of the 2011 draft.
Kellogg played with the Sun Devils in five PG events in 2010 and ’11, and made his last appearance in a Sun Devil uniform at the WWBA 2011 Grads or 18u National Championship in Marietta, Ga., June 2-8. Shortly after the conclusion of that tournament, he left to pitch in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.
A few months later, tragedy struck.
“It was real tough, and like anything else it’s still tough for some of us right now. But the pain subsides a little bit as we learn how to deal with it a little bit better,” Sun Devils head coach Matt Thompson said in a recent telephone conversation with Perfect Game. “Jupiter was hard for a bunch of us. We kept Dustin’s jersey with us in Jupiter; he was always the life of the dugout and where ever we were at, Dustin was always going to make someone laugh.”
Thompson and the Sun Devils brought Kellogg’s No. 11 jersey with them from Texas to the WWBA World Championship, and before each game the jersey was carefully hung up in the dugout for all to see.
“One of the players would take Dustin’s jersey to his hotel room and hang it up to make sure it stayed wrinkle-free,” Thompson said. “After each game, we’d have the coaches speak and then we’d ask who wanted to take Dustin back to their room that night. Inevitably, a bunch of people would raise their hands so we’d pick one guy and he’d take (the jersey) with him.”
The PG WWBA World Championship was the last of five major Perfect Game tournaments the Texas Sun Devils 17u squad competed in this season. The Devils went 4-0 in pool play, blanked the ultra-talented Midland Redskins/Royals Scout Team 5-0 in the first round of the playoffs and outlasted their Texas nemesis the Houston Banditos 2-1 in the quarterfinals. They lost to the upstart Central FL PG Royal 8-2 in the semifinals.
“I was glad we were able to have a tournament (WWBA World) after Dustin’s passing to get the group back together and to tell stories about Dustin and relive his couple of years with us,” Thompson said.
After failing to make the playoffs at the PG WWBA 18u National Championship July 2-8 at the East Cobb Complex in Marietta, Ga. – Kellogg’s final tournament with the Sun Devils – the same basic roster of players reached the round of eight at the WWBA 17u National Championship the following week in Marietta.
A week later, most of that same group was in Fort Myers, Fla., where they won the PG 17u BCS Finals with a perfect 10-0 record, including a 3-0 win over the Orlando Scorpions 17u Purple in the championship game.
The next stop for the Sun Devils was the WWBA South Qualifier in Austin, Texas, where they advanced to the final four before losing in the semifinals to the Houston Banditos Black, 2-0. It was an incredible run, capped by the top-four showing at the WWBA World.
“As far as results are concerned and winning on the field, it was probably our most successful year as far Perfect Game events are concerned,” Thompson said. “Like all the other select organizations that are out there … we recruit players with the idea of building a great nucleus locally and then branch out if we have to. The main idea is to get players noticed and get them college scholarships, and hopefully help them with professional baseball.”
Thirteen Sun Devils players occupied spots on the rosters in all five of those PG tournaments. Included in that “Band of 13” was OF/INF/RHP Kolby Copeland from Bossier City, La. Copeland was named the Most Valuable Player at the 17u BCS Finals after batting .500 (13-for-26) with a home run, two doubles, nine RBI and 11 runs scored. His on-base percentage was .581, his slugging percentage .692 and his OPS 1.273.
“This is definitely enjoyable,” Copeland said from the field at City of Palms Park after receiving his MVP Award. “We’ve been working hard all summer … and we just came into this tournament knowing we were going to win; we’d be the team to work the hardest, play the hardest and come with the victory, and that’s what happened.”
Middle-infielder Gavin Cecchini, ranked 17th nationally (2012), also enjoyed a terrific 17u BCS Finals tournament, hitting .462 (12-for-26) with three doubles, one triple, eight RBI, nine runs, .548 on-base, .654 slugging and 1.202 OPS. Cecchini then played in his third WWBA World Championship in October.
“Jupiter is always one of the best tournament you can go to because you can get recognized by some of these scouts and college coaches and you get to play with some of the best players in the nation,” Cecchini said at the WWBA World.
Right-hander Taylor Butler from Lake Charles, La., yet another one of the “Band of 13”, was named MV Pitcher at the 17u BCS Finals. He pitched a complete game five-hit shutout in the championship game and threw 11 scoreless innings during the course of the tournament.
Cecchini was one of five Ole Miss recruits that dotted the various Sun Devils’ rosters this season. The others, all in the class of 2012, were: LHP Matt Denny from Jackson, Miss.; OF Cameron Dishon (Beaumont, Texas); RHP/C/INF Ty Hensley (Edmond, Okla.), and C/1B/3B/OF Stryker Trahan (Scott, La.). Trahan is ranked 52nd nationally.
Other top Sun Devils prospects who were included on the rosters of all five 2011 PG tournaments the team played in include SS/1B/3B Zach Green, an Oregon State recruit from Rocklin, Calif.; RHP Jacob Lemoine, Orange, Texas (a Houston recruit); RHP Josh Leone, Keithville, La. (La.-Monroe); LHP Sterling Wynn, Crawford, Texas (Baylor); SS/RHP Troy Lewis, Geismar, La.; RHP/1B/3B Preston Warner, Beaumont, Texas; and 1B/RHP Nick Zaunbrecher, Lake Charles, La.
Prospects like SS/INF/OF Max Dutto (a Cal recruit), LHP Logan James (Stanford), 3B/RHP Corbin Olmstead (North Florida) and OF Charlie Yorks (LSU) weren’t on hand for all five tournaments but contributed when they were present. Yorks is a top-125 prospect in the class of 2013.
One of the biggest challenges Thompson faced all year was keeping this top-notch group of players together for each one of the tournaments.
“With the amount of top talent we have, they get pulled in many different directions … and it becomes very challenging at times to make sure that we can keep them together,” he said. “Their loyalty to us and our program and what we’re trying to do, I think that stands out with guys like Cecchini and Hensley and Dishon who are doing a bunch of other things and then might jump on a plane from one place to join us in East Cobb.”
This core of this year’s group was comprised mostly of prospects in the class of 2012, many of whom had played together the last two years and at least a couple who have been together since T-ball. That’s going to require some rebuilding next year.
“Every year or two … there is turnover and sometimes there is high turnover,” Thompson said. “That’s what we’ll have with this 2012 group – there will be a pretty big turnover. We wanted to keep this group together for awhile and it’s a pretty neat group for the coaching staff to be around. They can do a lot of stuff by themselves without us asking and they understand the process.”
Right now, that process involves putting together an elite team for the 2012 spring, summer and fall seasons. The Texas Sun Devils are based in Beaumont, Texas, which sits on Interstate-90 about 85 miles east of Houston and about 190 miles west of Baton Rouge, La.
That proximity to so many powerhouse travel ball organizations, including Baton Rouge-based Marucci Elite, makes securing area’s best players a real challenge.
“It’s just like college in that you can’t fall asleep too long when you want to find the next batch of (talented) guys,” Thompson said. “Hopefully that batch is the handful of guys that want to compete at the national level and want to play for a team like us.”
If the Sun Devils are fortunate enough, they’ll assemble another team with a talent level comparable to this year’s group. And if they’re really lucky, they’ll find someone with the enduring spirit of Dustin Kellogg.
“I definitely felt him the dugout sometimes when things weren’t going our way and we were able to pull some close games out,” Thompson said of the five days the Sun Devils spent in Jupiter, just weeks after Kellogg’s death.
“What we were trying to do as a coaching staff other than play baseball and win the biggest tournament in the world, was to let (the players) know how to, hopefully, deal with this a little bit better – it doesn’t have to be sad. We don’t have to mourn him; we can celebrate what he did with us in a short time with us, and that’s what we were trying to do.”