Tournaments : : Story
Sunday, May 25, 2014

AZ Athletics stand tall in the Valley

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

GLENDALE, Ariz. – One of the most successful high school baseball organizations from the state of Arizona is once again announcing its presence at this weekend’s 18u and 16u PG WWBA West Memorial Day Classic tournaments being played primarily at the Camelback Ranch Complex here and the Goodyear Ball Park Complex in neighboring Goodyear.

The AZ Athletics program, based in Peoria, Ariz., has established itself over the past half-decade or so and has evolved into a quality name-brand when it comes to fielding competitive teams at Phoenix-area Perfect Game events. The annual PG MLK Championships, the PG/EvoShield Underclass and Upperclass National Championships and the 18u, 16u and 14u PG WWBA West Memorial Day Classics are all under that PG umbrella.

Eric Gardner, the AZ Athletics Baseball founder and director and the head coach at Sunrise Mountain High School in Peoria, created the AZ Athletics organization four or five years ago with the idea of getting young prospects together to play in USA Baseball events.

Gardner then brought together a group of fellow high school coaches from around the Valley with the idea of creating an organization where the high school coaches are in charge of the summer teams. That’s not a novel idea in other states across the country, like Florida, for instance, but it was new way of thinking in Arizona.

“We decided it would be high-level baseball where we would take our kids to the next level,” Gardner told PG on Saturday. “It’s morphed into this organization now where every one of our teams is coached by a head high school coach or assistant varsity coach. We have now placed about 90 percent of our graduates into colleges.”

It is an impressive group of coaches that Gardner has brought in to be a part of the program. Matt Denny, the head coach at Greenway High School that just this week won the Arizona Division II-AIA state championship, is the head coach of the AZ Athletics’ 18u team after guiding the same roster as a 17u group a year ago. Trent Otis, Denny’s assistant at Greenway, helps him out with the 18u AZ A’s team.

Other coaches within the AZ Athletics’ organization include David Lopez, the head coach at Chandler High School; Ernesto Ortiz, head coach at Apollo High School and Chris Raymond, an assistant to Gardner at Sunrise Mountain.

“Our formula is pretty simple,” Gardner said. “We don’t hold massive tryouts (and) we don’t carry large rosters. We basically have kids that are recommended to us by the high school coaches who say, hey, this is the organization we want to be in.”

The AZ Athletics find most of their players right in the Phoenix metropolitan area, commonly referred to as the Valley. It should come as no surprise that many of the players come from the schools at which the Athletics’ coaches work at full-time, like Greenway and Sunrise Mountain, but also from Arizona powerhouses Chaparral and Sandra Day O’Connor.

“I would say that those are probably the three schools that feed us the most – Sunrise Mountain, O’Connor and Chaparral – and all three of those programs are basically perennial powerhouses here in Arizona,” Gardner said.

The AZ Athletics organization has two teams entered in each of the 18u and 16u PG WWBA West Memorial Day tournaments this weekend. Heading into Sunday’s play, which will ultimately determine Monday’s playoff berths, the AZ Athletics 18u team stood 3-0 in pool-play and the highly regarded AZ A’s 17u team was 2-1 in the 18u tournament. The AZ A’s 16u team was 1-1 and the AZ A’s 15u squad stood 0-1-1 in the 16u event.

The AZ A’s 18u team reached 3-0 thanks to two incredible pitching performances. In their opener on Friday, left-hander and UNLV recruit Corey Wilson threw a seven inning one-hitter – the only hit he surrendered was a solo home run – in a 2-1 win over Fuego Baseball. Wilson walked one batter and struck out 17.

On Saturday, right-hander Antony Race threw a five-inning no-hitter in a 10-0 win over Aggies Baseball, with five strikeouts and three walks.

The AZ Athletics 18u team won last year’s 18u West Memorial Day crown and its 17u team – this year’s 18u squad – finished third at the same event. On Saturday, Gardner identified this year’s AZ Athletics 17u team as the organization’s premier squad.

“We’ve had a lot of success with (PG),” Gardner said. “Perfect Game has been very good to us and very good to our kids. We feel like (PG’s) type of showcase events are a platform for our kids to get to the next level, and we put a lot of our weight into our 17u roster. They are all kids that are unsigned kids that are juniors that are all projectable with colleges and recruiters.”

Gardner explained that the most important consideration for membership on the 17u team is that the prospect has yet to commit to a college. He said that 17u age-group youngsters in the Valley “beg” to be a part of that team because the organization sells it to college coaches and recruiters as the best 15 or 16 high school junior prospects in the state are still uncommitted.

There are many unsigned gems on this year’s AZ A’s 17u team but 2015 second baseman/right-hander Gabe Hamilton, 2015 right-hander Samuel Messina and 2016 outfielder/right-hander Colby Wyatt stand out as high-follows nationally – and top-25 in Arizona – in their respective high school classes.

The AZ Athletics 15u team competing in the 16u PG WWBA West Memorial Day Classic is another squad Gardner speaks highly of (although he praises all four of this weekend’s entries). He pointed out that no fewer than seven of class of 2017 members on this team started on their respective high school’s varsity teams as freshmen this spring. They include:

Sunrise Mountain ninth-graders Daniel Partida and Dylan Sund; Sunnyslope High School freshmen Matthew Schrader and Cameron Van Kilsdonk; Apollo middle-infielder Channy Ortiz; Willow Canyon outfielder Lester Acoba, and Copper Canyon second baseman Jordan Suarez.

“Our 15u team, the entire roster, played together in the Junior Olympics as 14-year-olds, so this is their second season together,” Gardner said. “That is probably the most significant thing about the Athletics is my 18u roster this year has been with us since they were 15. Kids don’t leave the Athletics. Once they come they never leave because what we try to create as a product of just standard consistency.”

The ultimate fate of the four AZ Athletics Baseball squads participating at this weekend’s 18u and 16u PG WWBA West Memorial Day Classics will be decided on Sunday when the final playoff fields are set. Both entrants in the 18u West Memorial Day look solid while both entrants in the 16u West Memorial have their work cut-out for them.

Bottom line? This is an organization that is here to stay and will always be competitive in any PG tournament it decides to field one or more teams.

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