Tournaments : : Story
Sunday, May 27, 2018

AZ T-Rex does its desert dance

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Tyler Stone (Perfect Game)

GLENDALE, Ariz. – When the day dawned in the West Valley Sunday morning, the prominent AZ T-Rex Baseball Club program found itself in a very good place.

After two days of play at the 14u, 16u and 18u Perfect Game WWBA West Memorial Day Classics, program founder/head coach Rex Gonzalez was able to find satisfaction in the fact that the three T-Rex Easton teams – AZ T-Rex Easton 18u, AZ T-Rex Easton 16u and AZ T-Rex Easton 14u – were unbeaten in pool-play and in excellent position to secure their respective bracket-play berths.

In fact, AZ T-Rex Easton 18u came into Sunday’s final day of pool-play action having already clinched its pool championship regardless of the outcome of its final game Sunday afternoon; the 18u’s were 3-0-0 and even a loss couldn’t keep them from the playoffs.

The 16u and 14u teams both entered Sunday with 2-0-0 records and needed wins to capture their pool championships, never a given but certainly a solid possibility given the strength of the T-Rex rosters. Those who have been paying attention to the T-Rex program for the last four or five years more than liked their chances.

“This is kind of what we want to do as an organization. We just want to come out here and put a good product on the field,” Gonzalez told PG Sunday morning, speaking from the third base dugout on White Sox Field 5 at the Camelback Ranch spring training complex before his 16u team went out to try to win its pool championship.

“Most importantly, we’re just trying to teach the game the right way, and hopefully by doing that it can turn around and give us the results that we want, which is a ‘W’.”

The ‘W’s’ have come along with a good deal of frequency for AZ T-Rex Baseball in recent years and the program has grown into one of the most prominent and recognizable in the Southwest – and across the country.

The three teams Gonzalez has here this holiday weekend boast rosters filled with talented Arizona kids, all of whom attend or will soon attend – in the case of the class of 2022 players on the 14u roster – high schools in the Valley.

They come from Scottsdale – the T-Rex Baseball Club’s base of operations – Peoria, Phoenix, Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert, Paradise Valley, Glendale or any number of communities in the Phoenix Metropolitan area, and they represent their home turf with a fierce form of pride.

“It’s not always just about the talent,” Gonzalez said. “The parents are equally as important to us and buying into the process, and that’s kind of what T-Rex is all about. It’s not necessarily just winning games – which we want to do, because if they’re keeping score, we want to win – but by the same token we want to develop young men, as well.”

AZ T-Rex Easton 18u isn’t really an 18u team, it’s a 17u team boasting a roster stacked with class of 2019 prospects who will be seniors in the fall. That, of course, is not unusual for teams looking to prepare an upperclass group for the full of summer of play that awaits them.

The 18u T-Rexers are led by Chandler Murphy, a 2019 right-hander who PG ranks as the No. 86 overall national prospect in his class and who has committed to Arizona. Uncommitted 2019 corner-infielder Sean Rimmer (No. 301) can be a force, as can standout 2019 right-hander Davis Heller (top-500, Oklahoma) and 2020 catcher Tyler Wilson (top-500, Grand Canyon U.); other impressive top-500 2019s are Jarrett Pille (Utah Valley State) and Cameron Jowaiszas.

“Some of these young men on our 17u group have been with me since they were 12-years-old,” Gonzalez said. “It’s kind of a family tradition that we have here at T-Rex, and that’s the way I try to build. We try to make it a family-type deal, just teaching the game the right way from a young age all the way up. The game will separate who can play and who cannot play over the course of time.

“We’ve been pretty fortunate to have guys that have embraced our program and have really bought into it and so far, it’s been somewhat successful.”

This 17u team was playing at the 16u level in 2017 and they have been replaced by a talented group of 2020s who are now carrying the 16u banner for T-Rex. While none are currently ranked in the top-500 nationally, there are top-1000s like Kyle Ponzo and Travis Warinner, and high-follows like Drew Bond, Tag Bross, Trevor Long, Jacob Police and Joel Rubin carrying on a winning tradition.

Gonzalez really likes them, anyway, and noted that it’s a team that is especially strong up the middle, which always speaks well of a team’s foundation.

“Some of these kids have already been varsity players on their high school teams which is really important for us, and that’s kind of where we’re at right now,” Gonzalez said. “In the long run, once we start practicing together a little bit more since they just got of high school, I think we’re going to be a pretty good group.”

The T-Rex Easton 14u’s also project well, but they’re early in their development. For a program based in Arizona, like the T-Rex Baseball Club, the 14u age-division is really the beginning for the players as far as Perfect Game participation goes; PG opportunities at the lower age-groups haven’t become a reality in this region quite yet. In that respect, being able to field a competitive 14u team is very important to AZ T-Rex.

t’s not a very big group physically, which means the players really have to the basics well, like catch and throw. It is also the T-Rex coaching staff’s job to make sure they learn how to go about their business as unselfishly as possible.

“In our organization we don’t have names on the back of our jerseys – we try to teach them to play for the name on the front of the jersey,” Gonzalez said. “If you do the right things, the appropriate people – the right colleges and the right scouts – will look at our roster and figure out who’s who.”

Rex Gonzalez moved out to the Valley from Tampa, Fla., in 2010 and that’s when he started the T-Rex Baseball Club. He got the program going, although not without some growing pains, but little by little the program has established itself by putting a good product on the field year after year. And he is also quick to tip his hat to the coaching staff he has assembled.

It is a staff that could be the envy of any travel ball organization in the country, with the positions filled by guys with recognizable names, all of whom played professionally, including several with big-league resumes: Paul Konerko, JJ Putz, Ron Palma, Lee Tinsley, Jason Schmidt, Sundrendy Winster and Terry Bross.

“It’s huge for us having those guys around,” Gonzalez said. “If I’m not around, they can teach these kids the stuff that they’ve experienced with the game and they can give them valuable lessons.”

And sometimes they even get an assist from other former big-leaguers, and there may be hundreds who have made their retirement homes in the Valley. On Saturday, for instance, former Chicago Cub and Arizona Diamondback All-Star Mark Grace could be seen interacting with the AZ T-Rex Easton 18u players.

The history of the T-Rex Baseball Club isn’t necessarily a long one, but it is certainly a respected one, thanks to the efforts of a solid core from the class of 2017 led by kids like 2016 PG All-American Jacob Gonzalez, Boyd Vander Kooi and Scott Mehan.

Gonzalez was a second-round pick of the Giants in last year’s MLB June Amateur Draft and is in his second season as a Giants farmhand while both Vander Kooi and Mehan just completed their freshman seasons at Arizona State.

They helped lead T-Rex Baseball to the titles at the 2013 14u West MLK Championship, the 2015 16u West MLK, the 2016 18u West Memorial Day Classic and the 2016 17u PG World Series.

Those success led to T-Rex receiving invitations to the last two PG WWBA World Championships in Jupiter, Fla., where the team performed well; AZ T-Rex Rawlings was named PG’s No. 1-ranked 17u travel ball team in the country after the completion of the 2016 season.

“That kind of put us on the map, if you will, with Perfect Game,” Gonzalez said. “We’ve been pretty fortunate that we’ve been able to enter all these tournaments and Perfect Game has been gracious enough to invite us to Jupiter the last couple of years, and we’ve had a decent showing out there with some great, great, great talent being on the big stage.

“So we’re very fortunate,” he said, “that those guys kind off laid the foundation for some of these young men that are coming up now.”

There’s no doubt that the success of that group helped build a tremendous amount of interest in the T-Rex program, especially within the communities here in the Valley, which to Gonzalez’s thinking is the way this whole club ball thing is supposed to work. Everybody wants to be a part of a good thing, and in the last five or six years, T-Rex Baseball has been a very good thing.

Gonzalez is bent on giving young ballplayers from the Phoenix area opportunities they might not receive from other more nationally prominent organizations, although winning a 17u PG World Series championship is about as “national” as it gets.

He and his coaches want nothing more than to give the local players a chance to showcase their talent, and while winning PG national championships might be viewed as a delicious desert, it is not the main course.

“The biggest goal is to help these young men get to college,” Gonzalez said. “If we can get 40 kids into college and we don’t win a (championship) banner, I think that would say that our organization is successful. A trophy is not going to define whether we’re a successful organization.”

AZ T-Rex Easton 18u beat Seattle, Wash.-based City Baseball 17u Showcase x-x Sunday afternoon to complete pool-play at 4-0-0 and move onto the playoffs. AZ T-Rex Easton 16u dropped previously undefeated Chino, Calif.-based JG Baseball 2021, 7-1, to win its pool championship and also advance into bracket-play.

The 14u’s, on the other hand – playing over at the Goodyear Ballpark Complex – fell to Albuquerque, N.M.-based Solar Sox 14u, 4-3, after taking a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the sixth inning and didn’t advance. That didn’t put a complete damper on the weekend, however.

To have two out of three teams reach the playoffs and to have all three come out of pool-play with a combined 9-1 record is something to take a lot of pride in. And to do it right here while playing in their own backyards at a couple of beautiful MLB spring training complex makes the weekend all the more memorable.

“You can’t ask for anything better than this,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a little warm here sometimes, but this weekend has been outstanding; the weather’s been great. It’s also great to sleep in your own bed.”

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