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Tournaments | Story | 5/26/2019

AZ T-Rex takes on an upstart

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Justin Still (Perfect Game)

GLENDALE, Ariz. – It’s the same story at just about every high-profile Perfect Game WWBA tournament, but it’s a tale where the telling never gets tired.

Sitting in one dugout is the seasoned pro, the program that has hauled off PG championship trophies, hung PG championship banners and been fitted for PG championship rings. In the other sits the unknown up-and-comer, the upstart, if you will, a program that no one knows a whole heck of a lot about because, truth be told, they’ve never been down this path before.

Such was the scenario Sunday morning at the PG WWBA 16u West Memorial Day Classic when Rex Gonzalez’s Scottsdale-based AZ T-Rex Easton squad, representing a program that is respected from coast-to-coast, took on Ian Gac’s Bellevue, Wash.-based ExploSwing NW squad, an outfit playing in a PG tournament for the first time in its brief existence.

The pairing – put on display on the White Sox side of the Camelback Ranch spring training complex – might have gone unnoticed had it just been any other pool-play game. But there was a lot on the line in this one because both teams stood 2-0-0 coming in and the winner would capture the pool championship and advance to the quarterfinal round of the playoffs later in the afternoon.

It’s games like this that make moving day at PG tournaments so much fun. There is an element of the unknown on both sides and although both would be playing at least a fourth game at the tournament, one would be in bracket-play and the other in consolation play. To the winner goes the spoils …

“It’s kind of nice, like I always like to say, when you get new blood in there,” Gonzalez told PG Sunday morning. “It’s kind of a cool thing because at one time we were that team, too, you know. It’s always good to see new talent, new teams and meet new coaches. It’s just good for baseball, it’s good for the community, it’s good for everybody involved.”

Gac, who has had PG experiences even if most of his players had not before this weekend, wasn’t about to share with his unsuspecting players any secrets he may have harbored about his team’s opponent.

“All I told them is that we’re playing against a good team; I didn’t give them any kind of breakdowns,” he told PG on Sunday. “Hopefully they’ll be naïve to what’s going on and just go out and play their game.”

Observers always want to see the best playing the best and even though one program had a lot more experience playing on the big stage than the other, this was the best playing the best. AZ T-Rex had outscored its first two pool-play opponents by a combined 19-2 and ExploSwing had outscored the same two teams by a combined 16-2.

Gonzalez, who also has AZ T-Rex Easton teams playing in the 14u and 18u WMDCs, likes this 16u team. He told PG he’s added a couple of “good pieces to the puzzle” to replace guys previously on the roster who decided to move on, and the core nucleus of the group remains sound.

“With that being said,” he added, “I think we’ve been playing pretty well but with these new teams that are up-and-coming, you just never know. There’s a lot of talent out there so you just never take anything for granted. Our job is to just teach the game the right way and let the chips fall where they may.”

Gac, too, likes his group and the players are a lot more familiar with one another than one might assume.

“We’ve been going at it since the fall and these guys have worked extremely hard; hopefully they’re well-coached, I’ve been doing the best I can,” he said with a laugh. “I’m definitely proud of these guys to have played as well as they have so far and to put themselves in position to move on to the quarterfinals. Regardless of what happens I know they’ll do their best and I’ll be proud of them either way.”

So, does a program that has not only a lot of experience playing in PG tournaments but a lot of experience winning them, have some sort of advantage over the newcomer? The answer isn’t as obvious as it night seem at first blush.

Gonzalez thinks the only advantage his program might have over a program doing this for the first time is that he has an intimate, first-hand knowledge of how these tournaments work. It really comes down to gaining an understanding of how and when to use certain players when you could conceivably play six games in four days, and that’s especially true with your pitchers.

But baseball people know the game and understand what’s best for their players, so that might not be is that big of a deal at all.

“In the big scheme of things it really doesn’t matter because every team is different,” Gonzalez said. “Some days (the players) come out ready to go and some days they come out flat; it just doesn’t add up to much. … You still have to go out and play the game.”

Gac is a baseball person. He was raised in the Seattle area, was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the 26th round of the 2003 June Amateur Draft out of Edmonds (Wash.) Woodway High School and went on to play 13 seasons in the minors and independent leagues (2003-15). And he doesn’t shy away from talking to his young player about the time he spent in the professional ranks.

“I tell them about my different experiences, especially my failures,” Gac said. “They, obviously, are going to fail and I failed my fair share, and they need to learn from it and move on. So I give them the fun stories, I give them the not-so-fun stories.”

Once his playing days were behind him, Gac got right into coaching and was giving private lessons on a full-time basis. He also started coaching 13u and 14u teams in the Seattle area, and several of the players that are with him this weekend played on those 13u and 14u teams.

When building a team of his own, he decided to go with the 16u age-group because that was now how old his original core of kids were this year, almost all of whom are in the class of 2021. None are ranked by PG because for most of them, this is their first go-around at a PG event.

“If I tried it at 18u, if I tried it at 13u, it wouldn’t have worked as well,” he said. “I had a pretty good rapport with this age group, with this class level, so it worked out pretty well.”

For his part, Gonzalez remembers when he first got his program up-and-running a decade ago. He, like Gac, started with just one team and has since added teams in each age division. With just one team, he recalled, it was quite a bit easier to make sure you were in the right place at the right time, but now he’s learned to delegate some of that responsibility.

On Sunday, for instance, Andrew McCormick and Jason Ramos were coaching the 16u team at Camelback Ranch while Gonzalez was with the 18u team over at the Goodyear Ball Park spring training complex.

“You’ve just got to trust your coaches and know that they’re going to a great job for you,” he said. “I do trust my coaches and I think I’ve put together a pretty good coaching staff. We all work well together and I think we all have trust in one another. We always tell everybody in our T-Rex organization that it’s a process and it’s for the betterment of the player.”

Ian Gac is himself a PG alumnus, having received Top Prospect List recognition at both the 2002 West Coast Top Prospect Showcase in San Diego and at the 2003 World Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla., leading up to the 2003 MLB Draft. He knows first-hand that his young ExploSwing NW players are sure to benefit from the PG experience.

“I know I did when I was going through this whole circuit,” he said. “It’s a good experience, especially for them to get exposed to kids from this area where there’s a lot more baseball the year-around. We’re slightly limited by the weather up in the Northwest.”

ExploSwing NW jumped to a 1-0 first-inning lead over AZ T-Rex Easton in the pool championship game thanks to a one-out walk, a one-out single from Connor Beatty and one-out sacrifice fly off the bat of Davis Franklin. As it turned out, Beatty’s single provide his team’s only offensive highlight of the day.

AZ T-Rex 2021 left-hander Justin Still allowed only that lone single in five innings of work, striking out nine and walking six (he also smacked a double). 2021 lefty Trace Laudenschlager threw two more no-hit, shutout innings, striking out three and walking one in what turned out to be a 5-1 AZ T-Rex victory; Levi Graham was 2-for-3 with an RBI and a run scored and Cole Caruso contributed a two-run single.

“We just try to teach the right way to play and then hopefully the results speak for themselves,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve had some pretty good teams over the years and, you know, you win some and you lose some. You’ve got to give credit to the other team, as well – there’s a lot of good talent (across) the nation.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not the better team, but sometimes the other team just played better than you that day. That’s the way the game goes sometimes.”

With the victory, AZ T-Rex Easton advanced to the quarterfinals as the No. 2 seed in the 16u WMDC playoffs with its eye on reaching Monday’s semifinal round. Although he’s been down this road before, Gonzalez said he “absolutely” still gets excited about playoff baseball because that’s the competitive nature that resides inside of every ballplayer, every coach. You’re just excited to be around the guys and being around the game itself.

It’s a feeling that Gac and his ExploSwing NW players seem certain to experience as they get more acclimated to play on a national stage. And Gac will one day tell his players the same thing that Gonzalez tells his, if he hasn’t done so already.

“Stay the course and go have fun,” Rex tells them. “The game puts a lot of pressure on them, the parents put a lot of pressure on them, and more often than not the kids put more pressure on themselves more than anyone else can possibly put pressure on themselves.

“As coaches, we try to stay away from that and keep things positive,” he concluded. “Like I said, stay the course and make sure they do the little things correctly.”

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