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Tournaments | Story | 10/4/2015

Ride 'em Cowboys

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FRESNO, Calif. – By the time the first day of pool-play at the Perfect Game California World Series Upperclass tournament concluded Saturday night, the four teams in grouped in Pool B were all fit to be tied … or tied to be fit … or something along those lines.

The 12 teams vying for the championship at the PGCWS Upper each played only one pool game Saturday, setting up a Sunday schedule of double-headers that would ultimately determine the four pool champions and the entrants in Monday’s semifinals. While none of the four pool champions were decided Saturday, no team in Pool B had even gained an edge.

All four squads in the pool – the Saddleback Cowboys from Rancho Santa Margarita, GBG Marucci Upperclass from Los Angeles, the EJ Sports Warriors Upperclass from San Ramon and the Southern California Bombers Upperclass from La Puente – finished day one with records of 0-0-1. GBG Marucci and the EJ Sports Warriors tied at 3-3, and the Cowboys and the Bombers tied at 5-5.

Both games finished dramatically, with GBG scoring three runs in the bottom of the seventh and Saddleback three in the bottom of the sixth to secure the ties. In terms of late-game heroics, the Cowboys’ rally took top honors.

Top 2017 Nathan Webb, who had slugged a two-run home run in the bottom of the first inning to forge a 2-2 tie, drove a 1-and-1, no-out pitch over the left field wall at the Buchanan High School field in Clovis for a three-run shot that knotted the score at 5. Webb’s final line read 2-for-3 with two home runs, five RBI and two runs scored.

“I just wanted to square-up the ball and help my team win,” Webb said Sunday morning from the playing field at Chukchansi Park before Saddleback took on EJ Sports in its second pool-play game of the tournament. “It’s always fun to get away from home and see some different places, and it’s a fun time.”

Teams that expect to win are never satisfied settling for a tie, and that was certainly the case for the Saddleback Cowboys (and the other three teams in Pool B, as far as that goes.) But the Cowboys and their head coach Richard Mercado came into Sunday’s play undeterred and confident they could still secure one of Monday’s four playoff berths.

“This is a pretty special group and they’ve been pretty successful with the tournaments they’ve done,” Mercado said Sunday. “It’s a very hard-working group and they’ve probably gone above and beyond off the field, probably more than any team I’ve been a part of.”

The Saddleback Cowboys organization, based in Orange County, has been around for three full summer and fall seasons and fields teams from the 10u age-group right up through the high school age-groups. It has teams in both the upper and underclass Cali World Series events this weekend.

This upperclass roster is filled with players from throughout Southern California, drawing from cities like Riverside, San Diego, San Clemente and Moreno Valley. It’s a wide roster base but being from Orange County the group finds itself sharing a large and diverse neighborhood with elite organizations like BPA DeMarini, CBA Marucci, GBG Marucci, Southern California Bombers and a host of others.

“It’s good; you need that ying and yang together,” Mercado said. “You’ve got to have that friendly competition because there are a lot of good baseball players in the Orange Country and Riverside areas and there’s definitely enough to go around, which makes for good competition, especially coming to these tournaments with the rest of those teams.”

This is a relatively young Saddleback upperclass team with only seven seniors listed on its official 24-man roster and fewer that actually in attendance. The top prospects, according to Perfect Game rankings, are all 2017s:

Webb, a catcher/utility guy from Moreno Valley who as committed to UC Riverside and is ranked No. 457 nationally; outfielder Dylan Orick from Riverside, another UC Riverside commit ranked in top-500; shortstop Aaron Orozco from Gardena, ranked in the top-600; and catcher Rory Smith from Riverside, a California Baptist commit.

Webb does seem to possess a special presence when he’s at the plate. He’s completing his first summer and fall playing with the Cowboys and he called it the best baseball experience he’s ever had. He has enjoyed the way the team meshed throughout the summer months and how the emphasis is on not just winning but also having a lot of fun.

“I’ve definitely been working hard and I’m just trying to get better each and every day. I’m definitely pleased with what I’ve been doing to this point,” Webb said.

“He’s very physical and he’s a strong kid, and his work ethic is just different than most,” Mercado said “There are a lot of hard-workers out there but he’s a guy that just separates himself. … His instincts are uncanny and his field for the game – you just don’t see it very often. He’s going to be real fun to watch here in the future.”

Mercado describes this upperclass team as a fun-loving group that first came together at the beginning of the summer and has jelled nicely as they have become more and more familiar with one another. There are players that attend the same high school, such as Orick and Smith, both juniors at Riverside’s Martin Luther King Jr. High School.

Like so many other successful travel ball organizations, the Cowboys emphasize player development and teaching the young prospects to play the game the right way as they prepare for college careers. The coaching staff believes that if each individual player takes care of their business both on and off the field there will be either a college scholarship or maybe even professional baseball in their future.

“We’re really confident in our coaching staff at every level and we take a lot of pride in how we train our guys,” Mercado said. “We’ve been really blessed as far as having quality young men show up on our doorstep and wanting to get better and it’s made our lives pretty easy. We thank the kids all the time for their hard work because without them we wouldn’t be here as an organization.”

The Cowboys’ quest for a spot in Monday’s semifinals took a hit when they dropped a 2-0 decision to the EJ Sports Warriors Upperclass Sunday morning to drop to 0-1-1. Their game against GBG Marucci Upperclass later in the day on Sunday would ultimately decide their fate.

But these tournaments are good for his guys, Mercado believes, especially being afforded the opportunity to go up against teams and programs they’ve never seen before. The challenge comes from facing a different style of play each time out and trying to solve the different interpretations every coaching staff has of how a game should be played. The players appreciate that, too.

“You can definitely learn some things from (the opposing players), like how they present themselves on the field and how they (carry) themselves before each game,” Webb said. “You can see what you do different and what works for you and what might work for them.”

The Saddleback Cowboys have been involved in a handful of Perfect Game tournaments in the past, including the PG/EvoShield Upperclass National Championship in the Phoenix-area last month. As the group becomes more established, Mercado would like to see it become more and more involved.

“Our goal is to be at every Perfect Game event we can be at from this day forward; that’s one thing we’re trying to do,” he said “When we first started the organization we were still kind of young and probably not strong enough with our talent base to really make a dent in any Perfect Game tournament.

“Now we’re feeling pretty confident with the players that we have we’ll be a staple at all the big events and hopefully hold our own with some of the big dogs.”

Mercado, a catcher and first baseman, played three seasons (2002-04) of college baseball at the University of Arizona and was at the 2004 College World Series with the Wildcats. The Arizona Diamondbacks made him a 12th-round selection in the 2004 MLB Amateur Draft and he played five seasons in Minor League Baseball and another four in various Independent Leagues.

By bringing his young player to events like the PGCWS Upper and Underclass championships, he’s not only hoping to impart some of the knowledge he gained through his own experiences onto them, he’s also hoping to show them just how rewarding and how much fun living the baseball life can be.

“Ever since I started coaching and running teams, this is not work at all; this is just pure joy coming out here,” Mercado concluded. “I enjoy going to work, I enjoy coming out here with the kids – it’s so easy and I feel so blessed they pay me to do this.”

And that, in turn, keeps him from feeling fit to be tied.

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