High School : : General
Saturday, March 26, 2016

Chaparral shines in AZ sun

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The month of March is definitely going out like a lion for Chaparral High School (Scottsdale, Ariz.) junior third baseman Jacob Gonzalez. In fact, it could be argued that Gonzalez is the state of Arizona’s most dangerous hitter as the calendar flips into April, with his most pressing competition coming from his senior teammate, power-hitting first baseman Harrison Jones.

The Chaparral Firebirds jumped to a 7-0 lead over Scottsdale rival Desert Mountain on Saturday and then held on to beat the Wolves by a field goal, 17-14. The win upped the Firebirds’ record to 13-3 this season and made them look like they might have the kind of offensive production to contend for an Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) Division I (large school) state championship, which would be their third since 2011 under sixth-year head coach Sam Messina.

AIA Division I teams have Section games but they also play 18 “power-point” games that ultimately determine whether or not a team qualifies for the state playoffs. After Saturday’s win, the Firebirds were 3-2 in their five power-point games with 13 more to play.

They opened the season by winning all six of their games in the Scottsdale Invitational Tournament over a two-week span. Chaparral then took a trip to Oklahoma for the Best of the West Tournament where it won 4-of-5 against top-level Oklahoma schools.

“We played well in those two tournaments early … but we’ve got to make sure we’re heading into the right direction as we get into April,” Messina said.

A big reason for the March success has been a lineup that is hitting .343 and averaging 8.2 runs per game. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound right-handed swinging Gonzalez has been a force, and he put on a display early Saturday at Desert Mountain HS in a D-I Section III contest played under a cloudless desert sky on one of those days that could have come directly out of a Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce promotional brochure.

In his first at-bat, with runners on first and second and one-out, Gonzalez drove a pitch well over the head of a chasing Desert Mountain centerfielder for a two-run double. An inning later, in his second at-bat, he smoked a drive to the gap in the left-center for another double, this time driving in a single run. At days’ end, Gonzalez – who bats cleanup in the lineup – was slashing .460/.591/.840 with five home runs, four doubles, 25 RBI and 14 runs scored in 16 games.

“From an offensive standpoint, he’s a difference-maker in the middle of the lineup and he’s a presence in the middle of the lineup,” Messina said. “It’s nice to have one of those guys in there – he bangs.”

Added Gonzalez: “I still have a lot of things I need to work on. I’m happy with the progress that I’ve made over the years but I’m still a long way where I want to be.”

The 6-foot-3, 210-pound right-handed swinging Jones’ numbers are a near mirror-image to Gonzalez’s. The uncommitted senior has posted a slash-line of .460/.525/.940 with five home runs, one triple, seven doubles, 27 RBI and 17 runs scored. It’s quite a one-two punch.

“I just try to get a good pitch to hit and hit it hard every at-bat,” Gonzalez said. “With Harrison, we hit together in the offseason this year and we worked on a couple of things approach-wise. We’ve both tried to get a good pitch to hit and that’s what’s been working.”

Coach Messina concurred: “They’ve both, through the first half of the season, done a very, very nice job,” he said. “They’ve had a good approach for the most part and they’re handling things well. They’ve both had a nice year so far.”

This Firebirds team has a solid senior presence led by Jones, left-hander Alex Segal – a Wichita State signee – and outfielder Dylan Cole, but it is a hard-nosed and battle-tested group of seven juniors that do a lot of the heavy-lifting.

Perfect Game ranks Gonzalez, a Texas Christian University commit, the No. 248 top national prospect (No. 7 Arizona) in the class of 2017. He trails No. 116 (No. 3 Arizona) outfielder/first baseman/right-hander Blake Paugh – a U. of Arizona commit – on the rankings list, but both are equally talented.

The other rising juniors are top-500 national infield prospect Tyler Stokes, infielder Ian McMillan, right-hander Casey Candiotti, outfielder Gianni Tomasi and infielder Drew Wayland. Gonzalez, Paugh, Stokes and Tomasi all play their summer and fall travel ball with the T-Rex Baseball Club, a very successful national program operated by Gonzalez’s uncle, Rex Gonzalez.

“There’s a big group of us that have been playing together for quite a while,” Jacob Gonzalez said. “We’ve got a good group of seniors this year and our juniors, we’re all really close.”

And therein lies the whole dynamic that intertwines the high school baseball season in the spring with the travel ball seasons in the summer and fall just about everywhere in the country. It is especially noticeable in Arizona, Florida and Georgia where Perfect Game has such a pronounced presence. These young players love their travel ball teams, but the really love their high school teams.

“It’s an awesome experience getting to come here and play with your buddies from your school, the guys you get to see every day,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a little bit different from travel ball in the fact that you play one or two games a week, and you have a lot more energy. Your whole school comes and supports you and it’s a pretty cool experience. You’re representing your school every day and that’s just a pretty cool thing to do.”

On this Chaparral team, there is also a heavy baseball family dynamic.

Jacob Gonzalez is the son of Luis “Gonzo” Gonzalez, a veteran of 19 productive seasons in the major leagues who is revered here in the Valley of the Sun because of his clutch-hitting in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ seven-game conquest of the New York Yankees in the 2001 World Series. Luis Gonzalez now works in the D’backs’ front office as a special assistant to the President & CEO.

He can almost always be found at all of his son’s Chaparral Firebirds’ games and can be just as easily spotted at Jacob’s T-Rex BC games during the summer; he sometimes helps his brother Rex out with the coaching duties. On Saturday, he was sitting with other parents down the first-base line at the Desert Mountain High School field, and shared with PG how much he enjoys watching his son play with his high school team.

“When they play travel ball it’s a lot more competitive, but here he’s with a lot of his friends and he enjoys coming out here and competing,” Luis said. “That’s the most important part, just competing and being able to get better for the following seasons. The more you play in Perfect Game you become familiar with guys on other teams, and now these guys are older so they’re playing against (other kids) that are signing college scholarships and they all know each other through social media and things like that.

“But it’s fun for (the players) to come out here and see guys that they know on their same team and then when they go to play travel ball, they make even more new friends out there.”

Jacob Gonzalez isn’t the only player on the Firebirds’ roster who has a famous former baseball-playing dad. Junior right-hander Candiotti is the son of 16-year big-league veteran right-hander Tom Candiotti and sophomore outfielder/right-hander Griffin Hampton is the son of 16-year big-league veteran left-hander Mike Hampton. Class of 2014 outfielder Gage Hampton, another one of Mike’s sons, also played for Messina at Chaparral.

“Luis has been good,” Messina said with smile. “He’s still a dad and we all know all those dynamics going through, but he’s been really good, really positive. It was the same thing with Tom Candiotti and Mike Hampton’s sons, as well; they’ve all been really good.”

Saturday’s game between these two AIA powers – Chaparral won D-I championships in 2011 and 2012, Desert Mountain in 2013 – was a bit of an abomination. No one ever expects a score of 17-14 in game involving programs with such rich histories and reputations of sound fundamental play. But it’s a rivalry, and anything can happen.

“We’re about five miles apart and a lot of these kids know each other growing up in the (Scottsdale) community,” Messina said. “(Desert Mountain) has had some very good clubs for the last many years and we have too, so it is what it should be. It should be very good competition and intense competition and we kind of leave it at that. They’ve had some success and we’ve had some success over the recent years.”

Offense carried this day for the Firebirds. Cole had three of their 16 hits, while Gonzalez, Jones, Tomasi, Hampton and Paugh had two apiece; Paugh homered, Jones tripled, Gonzalez had his two doubles, and Segal and Tomasi also doubled; Tomasi drove in four runs, Gonzalez three and Wayland two.

“it’s a very good group of kids,” Messina said. “They’ve been receptive and coachable and they’re fun to come to the field with every day.”

There is something special about watching high school baseball during the last week of March in the Valley of the Sun, something the locals, perhaps, even take for granted.

Within an hour’s drive of Desert Mountain HS Saturday afternoon, eight MLB spring training games were being played, the Arizona State University Sun Devils were wrapping up their three-game Pac-12 Conference series against Utah, and dozens of other high school game were being played as part of the PG Coach Bob National Invitational or just as part of the regular season.

“We’re really blessed,” Messina said. “I don’t think we realize – and especially me, I’ve grown up in the state – that we have all this baseball and it’s always been good. Springtime is a special time here in the Valley and it’s just really exciting. With the weather and everything else, I think baseball is still probably one of the best commodities that we do within the state, and the weather allows that.”

High school teams like Chaparral and young players like Jacob Gonzalez and all of his teammates will make sure that never goes unnoticed.

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