FORT MYERS, Fla. - Texas Sun Devils head coach Matt Thompson watched June's Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft about as intently as anyone in the country. He experienced euphoria while hearing the names of five of his 2011 players selected in the first three rounds, and then a sense of dread while he contemplated his job at hand.
"I had one of those moments when I was really happy for everyone, but then I thought, 'You've to a lot of work to do,'" Thompson said Monday morning from City of Palms Park before his 2012 Texas Sun Devils team played its third of six pool-play games at the Perfect Game 18u BCS Finals.
The Beaumont, Tex.-based Sun Devils came into the tournament as a defending champion of sorts. The Sun Devils won last year's 17u BCS Finals national championship but came back this year playing up an age group. And it's basically a whole new outfit.
Ten prospects who filled roster spots on last year's 17u BCS Finals championship team were selected in the 2012 MLB amateur draft, including first round selections Gavin Cecchini (12th overall, N.Y. Mets), Stryker Trahan (26th, Arizona Diamondbacks) and Ty Hensley (30th, N.Y. Yankees).
That left Thompson and his two assistant coaches, J.R. Bardin and Glenn Cecchini with some serious holes to fill.
"I don't think anybody can truly recover from losing that many kids to the major league draft, but our coaches did an outstanding job of recruiting new players," Thompson said. "We have a talented team; it's a new team, but it's a talented team."
There are Sun Devils veterans on this team, including outfielder Cameron Dishon (2012, Beaumont) and Dishon has signed with Ole Miss and will be in Oxford, Miss., in the fall and Menard joins left-hander Sterling Wynn (2012, China Spring, Tex.) as Baylor signees.
"I'm really looking forward that," Dishon said of enrolling at Ole Miss in the fall. "I have a lot of thanks owed to the Sun Devils and Perfect Game for giving me the opportunity to be seen. I feel like the Sun Devils and Perfect Game really helped me get my scholarship."
In all, there are nine 2012s on the roster who have signed with NCAA Division I schools, a list that also includes outfielder/left-hander Rock Rucker (Auburn), left-hander/first baseman Sterling Wynn (Baylor) and right-hander Taylor Butler (LSU).
The Sun Devils won all three of their pool games Sunday and Monday, and will play three more decisive pool games Tuesday and Wednesday in an effort to make the 16-team playoff field.
"Obviously, we want to defend our title and win it again, and we have some mainstays that have been with us for four years," Thompson said. "But the new guys, although there's tons of talent there, they're still kind of learning about these tournaments and playing 10 games in (six) days, that's a lot of baseball in a short amount of time. But I'm happy with where we are right now."
Thompson is quick to point out how different this team is from the one that won last year's 17u BCS Finals. The 2011 Sun Devils featured big arms and powerful bats, where the strength of the 2012 team has been its team speed.
"We're going to be doing a lot more hitting-and-running and a lot more moving runners up and trying to score them on singles," he said. "This is a little bit of a new style for us that we haven't been used to.
"We're not going to have a Ty Hensley on the mound this year when you can just sit back and watch 95 (mph fastballs) but we've got a lot of good pitchers that can throw backwards and throw off-speed in full counts."
Thompson also said he will rely heavily on the defensive abilities of his two middle infielders, Steven Keenum (2012, San Antonio) and Kennon Fontenot (2014, Lake Charles, La.)
The majority of the 2011 17u Sun Devils had been playing together for two or three years and some of them since they were coming out of eighth grade. That familiarity bred success and Thompson admits he'll have to do a lot more coaching this year than he did a season ago.
"That system kind of ran itself," Thompson said. "I take for granted how smart our team was last year just from being together so long, and this year there's a lot more meeting at the hotel to make them understand that this is why we do this in certain situations."
The Texas Sun Devils' good fortunes as an organization may have arrived in 2008 when the Cecchini family from Lake Charles, La., first came on board. Top middle-infield prospect Garin Cecchini joined the program, and his parents, Glenn and Raissa, came on board as assistant coaches.
Garin and Gavin Cecchini, then a senior and sophomore, respectively, at St. Charles High School, played together with the Sun Devils at the 2009 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., and both are now playing professionally. Glenn Cecchini remains on the Sun Devils' coaching staff.
"We wouldn't be what we are without Glenn Cecchini," Thompson said. "Obviously, having his boys in the past helped us be good but, really, Glenn is the backbone of a lot of what we do. He is a guy that brings more energy than I've seen in a coach; he's 20's years older than me and he wears me out because he's just non-stop as a coach."
The Sun Devils played in the PG WWBA 2012 Grads or 18u National Championship in Marietta, Ga., June 29-July 6 where their 5-2 pool-play record wasn't good enough to advance to the playoffs. They also played in several local tournaments in southeast Texas, and this will be the last big tournament before the 2012s head off for college.
Once they depart to the proverbial next level, Thompson plans to have this team - with some necessary additions, of course - play in the PG WWBA South Qualifier in Austin, Texas, Sept. 14-17. He then hopes to send a team to the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., Oct. 25-29.
This group played strictly 18u this summer. It took a lot of work due to the attrition inflicted by the draft, but Thompson feels like he and his staff built a team that was ready to contend in that age-group.
"I like to think we do an outstanding job looking for talent, looking for tools and then trying to mold it and shape it into a baseball player," he said. "We did a lot of work this spring and early summer looking for players and evaluating what we wanted. Hopefully, we're good at our job, and if we are then there are potential top-five round draft picks in that group right there."
Dishon has enjoyed himself while playing in the Sun Devils' organization.
"It's been really good. We've been surrounded by great coaching and great competition with Perfect Game," he said. "We've always played ahead of our age group and this year is finally the year we're playing with our own age group."
And just because about half of the squad that won the 2011 17u BCS Finals championship is now getting paid to play the game, don't think for a minute the 2012 Sun Devils feel like they're going to be over-matched down here this week.
"Anytime you're picture is on the cover of the (tournament program) after winning it last year and your new guys see it, as a coaching staff we tried to make them understand on the way here that we're not coming down here to just mess around and have fun," Thompson said. "We're coming down here to win it and there's a target on our back. And that's how we want it."