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Tournaments | Story | 1/17/2015

T-Rex older, just as determined

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Most of them are sophomores in high school now, although three are already halfway through their junior year. It’s hard to believe that that it’s been two years since these current Arizona high school players were in eighth and ninth grade, fighting their way to the championship at the 2013 14u Perfect Game MLK Championship.

Nine members of that 14u T-Rex Baseball Club team are back at the Camelback Ranch Cactus League spring training complex this weekend still playing for Rex Gonzalez and the AZ T-Rex Baseball Club at the 2015 16u PG MLK Championship.

Although still high school underclassmen, the players are looking more grownup these days, and four have reached the top-168 in Perfect Game’s class of 2017 national prospect rankings. No longer eighth-graders, it is now suitable to refer to the top guys as high school “prospects.” And two years after winning that 14u PG tournament championship, they’re eager to see what they can do at the 16u level.

“We’re always looking forward to it when we come out to Perfect Game (tournaments),” Rex Gonzalez said Saturday morning before AZ T-Rex Baseball Club played its tournament-opener against the Iowa Sluggers at one of the Chicago White Sox’s spring training practice fields at Camelback.

“It’s probably one of the premier tournaments in the nation – well run – and our kids love getting the opportunity to swing the wood bats and getting out here and being part of something pretty special.”

The AZ T-Rex Baseball Club’s roster at the 16u PG MLK is made up exclusively of players from cities and high schools in the Valley, with the exception of one player from Farmers Branch, Texas. They come from Phoenix, Scottsdale, Mesa, Peoria, Gilbert and Chandler and attend 15 separate high schools, with five calling Chaparral HS in Scottsdale their home.

The top prospects, all 2017s, include shortstop/right-hander/corner-infielder Boyd Vander Kooi, an Oregon commit from Mesa (ranked No. 93 nationally); middle-infielder/catcher Jacob Gonzalez from Scottsdale (No. 112); right-hander/corner-infielder Matt Schroer from Phoenix (No. 144) and outfielder/first baseman/right-hander Blake Paugh from Scottsdale (No. 168).

Seven T-Rexers that are here this weekend were named to the all-tournament team at the 2013 14u PG MLK Championship, including Paugh – who was named as both a hitter and a pitcher – and Vander Kooi. 2017 outfielder Tyler Stokes from Chandler was named that event’s Most Valuable Player, and 2016 first baseman/right-hander Mitchell Allen from Phoenix and 2017 third baseman/right-hander Scott Mehan joined Paugh as two-way selections.

“We’ve been playing together for quite a few years now and we all get along pretty well. I think we’re pretty good and we flow together pretty well,” Vander Kooi said Saturday morning.

“There’s just a special bond between all of us,” added Jacob Gonzalez, the son of former MLB All-Star Luis Gonzalez and Rex Gonzalez’s nephew. “We’re all best friends outside of the team, we all hang out together, we all work-out together, we all train together, so there’s something special about it. We’re all spread out (at different high schools) but we all find ways to get together.”

Rex Gonzalez moved from Florida to the Valley in 2010 and started his T-Rex Baseball Club at that time, when most of the players on this roster were around 11 years old. The program started with 12 players and now has about 90 players on 11u, 12u, 13u, 14u, 15u and 16u teams. The key to this 16u team’s success has been its ability to stick together as a unit through the years.

“We’ve been pretty fortunate,” Rex Gonzalez said. “We have a good group of boys and they’re like a brotherhood, so to speak. Everybody gets along really well and that’s the reason we always say we don’t have any names on the back of our jerseys because we play for the name on the front; that’s kind of the motto we have here at T-Rex.

“The kids have really bonded together with one another and it’s been a pretty successful thing for us so far.”

Rex Gonzalez, who played three seasons (1995-97) in the minor leagues, preaches the most basic of fundamentals to his young players. He won’t allow showboating and doesn’t want his players trying to do too much on their own, and instead wants them to concentrate on two things: throwing the baseball and catching baseball.

If his players do that effectively and efficiently, Rex Gonzalez believes they will give themselves the opportunity to win every game they’re in. Oh, and there’s one more thing he asks of his players: Every time they take the field, they have to have fun.

“They’ve really bought into the process that we’ve been trying to (build) here at T-Rex,” Rex Gonzalez said. “The kids are just good boys. It’s not so much what they do on the field, they’re pretty talented kids off the field, as well. They’re very well respected and they respect the community and they respect the game, and that’s what we try to implement here at T-Rex.”

The T-Rexer’s certainly enjoyed themselves in their first two games of pool-play Saturday at Camelback Ranch. They opened up with a five-inning, 9-0 win over the Iowa Sluggers in a morning game and then turned around and beat Team Northwest 15u, 6-1, in what amounted to the second game of the double-header.

In the win over the Sluggers, 2017 second baseman/outfielder Zach Baptist from Phoenix – who was also all-tournament at the 2013 14u PG MLK – had two of T-Rex’s four hits, drove in a run and scored a run; Allen was 1-for-2 with two RBIs and a run; Mehan was 1-for-3 with an RBI and two runs. 2016 left-hander Connor McCord threw a five-inning, two-hit shutout with eight strikeouts.

Paugh had two hits, drove in a run and scored two in the win over Team Northwest 15u. Allen also had a pair of hits and threw five innings of three-hit ball, allowing one earned run and striking out four.

“This is our last event as a team before we all head off to our different schools; we get to kind of bond here for our last tournament of the year,” Jacob Gonzalez said. “It’s pretty fun to get out here at this tournament because, obviously, we won two years ago and a tournament here in Arizona is always nice. You get to face better pitching from out of state and this is our last tournament with wood bats.”

Jacob Gonzalez described a roster filled with “a lot of different characters” that who complement one another very well. Vander Kooi said pretty much the same thing, but noted that whether a player is vocal or quiet, a jokester or cut from a more serious mold, they all thrive on the competition an event like the 16u PG MLK provides.

“It’s great competition. I get to be around a great bunch of people and it’s always fun to get out here and play baseball,” he said. “I can get my hacks in and pretty much get ready (for the upcoming high school season). And it’s great to see the other competition. They could possibly be better than you so you want to go out and possibly beat them, so it’s pretty awesome.”

Rex Gonzalez – with his brother Luis always in the stands if he’s not helping out with the coaching end of things – has enjoyed a front-row seat watching this group of high school underclassmen grow and become more adept at the game they all so truly love.

“This is extremely rewarding,” he said. “Everybody always thinks that we’re always looking for the most talented players but sometimes we’re just looking for good character kids, kids that are willing to learn. Usually those are the kids that are going to be the most successful down the road. Just because you’re not the best player at 11 (years old) doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be at 15 or 16.”

The only goal at the AZ T-Rex Baseball Club is to get their players scholarship offers so they can move on play the game at the collegiate level. If the team happens to win a Perfect Game tournament championship or two along the way, well, that’s just more pepperoni on the pizza.

“We hope we get some colleges out here that give them the opportunity to move on to the next level,” Rex Gonzalez said. “(Winning a championship) is like a stepping stone to their little milestone.”

Don’t tell that to the players, of course. They remember what it was like winning that 14u PG tournament two years ago. And although this 32-team 16u PG MLK Championship field is loaded, they feel they have the horses to make another a strong run.

“We always come in with high expectations; we always want to go all the way at these tournaments,” Jacob Gonzalez said.

 “I’ve been really excited to play, especially with Perfect Game, just because they’re great tournaments with great competition,” Vander Kooi concluded. “We have a great team so I think we have pretty good chance of winning it.”

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