ANTHEM, Ariz. – When the ballplayers from Fayetteville (Ark.) High School finally came together here as one in the Valley of the Sun on Saturday morning, they did so with a genuine sense of purpose.
The first task at hand, of course, was winning a divisional championship at the prestigious Perfect Game Coach Bob National Invitational tournament, which is what brought the team down here from their home in northwest Arkansas in the first place.
But there is a bigger picture to be viewed, a bigger goal to be attained. Fayetteville High School, winner of six Arkansas Class 7A (big-school) state championships since 2003, wants to prove it belongs in the conversation when talk turns to nationally recognized and relevant high school programs.
“This is an awesome opportunity and there are going to be a lot of great teams out here,” Fayetteville senior left-hander and outfielder Kyle Pate said before the Bulldogs took on nationally ranked Bishop Gorman High School out of Las Vegas on Saturday at Boulder Creek High School.
“We get to play against some of the best teams in the nation and it’s going to be good for us as a team,” he said. “We want to get our name out there nationally and let people know that there is good baseball in Arkansas and we’re ready to play.”
Pate is one of three Bulldogs players that have committed to the University of Arkansas, an SEC school that sits prominently right in their hometown of Fayetteville; the others are juniors Drew Tyler and Jay Bouschelle. One of the best Bulldogs decided to leave home, however, when junior right-hander and third baseman Andy Pagnozzi committed to the University of Mississippi.
It is a strong junior class that leads this team, one that has yet to crack the Perfect Game High School National Top-50 Rankings. The Bulldogs’ players and coaching staff feel that a little more national exposure might get them a little more national recognition.
Head coach Vance Arnold, the only coach the school has had since the baseball program was established 26 year ago, told PG on Saturday that the Bulldogs had talked about coming out to the PG Coach Bob Invite for the last five or six years but was in the process of building its own state-of-the-art facility and decided to host its own local and regional tournaments. The makeover includes a new artificial turf field and indoor facility. This year, however, just felt right.
“We had a little extra money and the parents wanted to travel so we hooked it up and came on over here,” Arnold said. “A week ago Saturday it was 65 degrees (in Fayetteville) and we were outside bouncing around, and then on Sunday it was 28 degrees and snowing. So, coming out here and playing against nationally ranked teams and playing on beautiful, manicured fields and with the big tournament atmosphere and stuff, we’re excited to be here.”
The Bulldogs got their PG Coach Bob experience off to a nice start Saturday with a 2-1 victory over nationally No. 50-ranked Bishop Gorman in front of a nice contingent of parents, fans and scouts at Boulder Creek.
Andy Pagnozzi, a 6-foot, 185-pound right-handed junior ranked No. 60 nationally in the high school class of 2015, got the start and gave up one earned run on five hits in 5 2/3 innings with six strikeouts and two walks. His fastball topped out at 90 mph to go along with a 72 mph curveball and 79 mph changeup. Pagnozzi previously excelled at the Perfect Game Pitcher/Catcher Indoor Showcase in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in February.
Pate came on in relief and struck out four of the six batters he faced while also giving up an infield single and a walk. Tyler, Pate’s fellow Razorback commit, slammed a two-run home run in the second and added a long two-out double in the fourth. The Bulldogs improved to 5-2 on season.
Gorman’s junior right-hander Alex Perron also worked 5 2/3 innings, and gave up the two earned runs on seven hits with 11 strikeouts and a walk. The Bishop Gorman roster features five prospects with NCAA Division I commitments: Perron (San Diego), senior Mike Blasko (Nevada), senior Cole Krzmarick (Nevada), junior Cadyn Grenier (Oregon State), and sophomore Jack Little (Stanford).
Andy Pagnozzi felt especially proud to get handed the ball for the start on Saturday. One of the people watching him play for the first time in nearly four years was his grandfather, Don Pagnozzi.
“This is special since all of my family lives down here and they never get to see me play,” he said. “My grandpa is here – he’s 87 years old – and he hasn’t got to see me play in a long time. And my cousin, Matt Pagnozzi, is down here for spring training with the Brewers, so I’m going to get to see him play, too.”
Facing and beating a team like Bishop Gorman – which won a national championship in 2012 – was also a special treat in Pagnozzi’s mind.
“We love the challenge, no doubt; that’s a big part of the game,” Andy he said. “You want to go out there and play against someone that’s going to be a challenge. You have to expect to win and you have to have the confidence there, or you’re not going to win”
Fayetteville High School has had a baseball program for only for the past 26 years and Arnold is the only head coach it has known. The Bulldogs won the Arkansas Class 7A state championship in 2013 (with a 24-1 record) for the sixth time since 2003, a streak that included three straight state titles from 2007-09. They have also won eight conference titles since 2001 with three others in 1988, 1989 and 1997.
“When we started we were playing in the city park down on the river that wasn’t a very good park, so we started building,” Arnold said. “We came on campus in ’92 and we built our facility and it’s all been with parent and community support, and the school didn’t start pumping money in until this last year.”
Fayetteville High returned its entire pitching staff from last year’s championship team, including the senior left-hander Pate, and junior right-handers Pagnozzi, Cody Davenport, Walker Powell and Connor Shaw. Pagnozzi and Pate were the No. 1 and No. 2 guys in the rotation a year ago and are back to anchor the staff again this year.
“With Andy and Kyle on the hump and what we put on the field, we feel like we can compete against anyone,” Arnold said. “They do it in the summer – they’re all playing on different teams now – and we feel like we’re right there with (the national powers). We always play the teams out of (the Tulsa, Okla.) area) like Broken Arrow, Jenks, Union, Owasso – the big schools – so we play anyone we can that’s any good. We always try to play up; we’ll go anywhere to play baseball.”
There is another person that has played a key role in the development of the Fayetteville High baseball program over the past six or seven years, and that is Andy Pagnozzi’s father, Tom Pagnozzi. Tom, a catcher, played at the University of Arkansas and went on to enjoy a very fine 12-year big-league career with the St. Louis Cardinals and was an All-Star in 1992 and a Gold Glove winner in 1991, 1992 and 1994.
When Andy and his baseball playing friends were about 9 years old – this year’s FHS junior class – Tom brought them together and started working with them.
“Tom Pagnozzi has taken this group, as well as 10 or 12 other kids, and run (youth teams) the whole time coming up and they’ve been coached by Tom and some ex-college players,” Arnold said. “They’ve traveled and played together for several years together as a group – our junior class – and they know each really well, they know what it takes to play in big games … and they’re really committed to playing baseball.”
Tom Pagnozzi downplayed his contributions when asked about it on Saturday.
“There are seven of these guys that will be on the field today that are juniors and we started these guys out when they were nine years old,” he said. “I enjoy it, and it’s always more enjoyable working with better players. When they’re nine and you’re trying to teach them things, they’re just trying to learn their body. What I enjoy is when you say something you can see them trying to work on it; they understand it a lot more.
“They all know each other and they’re all really good friends. When you can get a little more chemistry I think that always helps from that standpoint.”
“We’re as close as can be,” Andy Pagnozzi said. “Most of us went to the same elementary school, and we hang out together during school, outside of school, every place. We’re always together. It helps so much with communication, just knowing each other and how they are. When you’re on a team that you don’t know everyone you don’t feel comfortable with it and you don’t play as a team.”
Arnold said when he first got the program off the ground he affiliated it with American Legion baseball during the summer but that soon became unworkable – for the Fayetteville High players, anyway. With the proliferation of travel ball teams, the top Bulldogs prospects began hooking up with the top organizations from across the country – Andy Pagnozzi played with Marucci Elite and Pate with the Atlanta Blue Jays last summer, for instance – and that has only helped them toward their goals of becoming college or professional players.
“That’s where Tom Pagnozzi and this group of parents have come in. They’re real baseball people; Tom will help a kid get to anywhere,” Arnold said. “He works with them, and he’s coaching a group of fifth-graders right now and his son is a junior in high school.”
The immediate goal of this group of Bulldogs is to take home a championship trophy from this week’s PG Coach Bob National Invitational. The next immediate goal is a second straight Arkansas Class 7A state championship, and a combination of the two just might get them the national recognition they feel they deserve.
“We have good team chemistry,” the senior Pate said. “A lot of us have been playing together for a long time and we all like each other and everybody is a friend. We hang out outside of baseball and we just have great team chemistry. We’re expecting to play hard (this spring) and hopefully go undefeated in conference and hopefully win another state championship.”
“You definitely want to repeat,” Andy Pagnozzi said. “You want to prove that it wasn’t a mistake, it wasn’t luck; we want to prove that we’re here to stay.”