by Marcos Aragon
CHANDLER — After coming back to avoid an early upset on Sunday morning, Prevail Baseball faced off against Vipers Baseball for the 14u title game at the Arizona Spring Championships.
The Vipers were not able to strike first; instead, Prevail jumped out to an early lead and never looked back.
Prevail (Huntington Beach, CA) defeated the Vipers (Mission Viejo, CA), 7-0, behind their two pitchers, Tony Martinez and Aaron Minnicucci. The duo combined for eight strikeouts and kept the high-powered offense of the Vipers at bay -- the top-seeded Vipers offense scored 67 total runs entering the championship game.
Prevail head coach Bryan Perez explained that the pitching on his team and its defense are the strengths they can rely on in any game.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that can go innings,” Perez said. “We put ourselves in the right position to capitalize on the way the ball is hit to us.”
Minnicucci said his confidence was high coming into the game to replace Martinez in the sixth inning.
“We were up by a lot, (Martinez) had shutout innings...I knew our defense would back me up and stuff. Once again (Martinez) threw a hell of a game, and our bats would come through.”
Martinez agreed with his coach that the strengths of the team are good pitching, along with a great defense behind it.
“Even though our pitching is really good and we throw strikes, our defense backs us up really good,” Martinez said.
Prevail never looked back after taking the lead, but the team had first-hand experience of a team blowing a lead after Prevail came back on the RC Bulldogs in their earlier game, winning 11-9. Martinez controlled the pace of the game but knew in the back of his head that they couldn’t take their foot off of the gas.
“In the first inning, I think we scored a lot of runs and we got our momentum after that," he said. "We didn’t stop and we tried to keep it up. We felt confident but we didn’t want to lose our ground because that’s what happened to (RC Bulldogs) today: they scored a lot of runs and we came back. We didn’t let our guard down.”
Even though Prevail is the champion, Perez noted that the larger point of the tournaments is to groom the players and help them become better ballplayers in their respective next levels.
“Keep getting better. I’m a firm believer in if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse,” Perez said. “I don’t like complacency. I always tell the kids ‘always do something to get yourself better’. That’s why we’re in these tournaments - to get looks mostly and to develop them into the high school baseball players they need to be ... winning is just a byproduct.”
by Tanner Puckett
The AZ Diamond Dawgs rode a stellar starting pitching performance and a seven-run inning to an 8-7 victory over the Chandler Stars (AZ) in Sunday’s 12u championship game at the Arizona Spring Championships.
The two teams, both from the East Valley area of metro Phoenix, have faced off several times over the years. On this occasion, the Diamond Dawgs (Queen Creek, AZ) jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the second inning on a triple by Cameron Mitchell and an RBI single by Nolan Agostini.
They lost that lead just once after a rough top of the fourth, loudly reclaiming it with seven runs in the bottom half of the inning. Diamond Dawgs starting pitcher Zach Bolles puzzled the Stars’ bats for most of the afternoon, striking out nine over 4 1/3 innings. He was charged with four earned runs on four hits, one walk and a hit-by-pitch.
“He’s our big horse,” Diamond Dawgs head coach Jason Cronin said.
Asked if he took any special preparations for the game, the only one was rest.
“I was actually sick this morning,” Bolles said. “So the first two games I sat on the bench and just hit, just to get ready for this game.”
Eli Cramer-Cronin’s relief of Bolles in the fifth inning was the final pitching change made by the Diamond Dawgs. He pitched out of trouble twice, allowing an inherited runner to score in the fifth before getting the last out and stopping a sixth-inning rally after three runs scored to end the game.
“We go to Eli to finish things up,” coach Cronin said. “It got a little rough, but he handles that pressure. We’re gonna stay with him to the end.”
After falling behind 2-1 after a home run from the Stars’ Ryan Hardwood, the Diamond Dawgs focused in on striking quickly. Cronin told his team there was a lot of game left to be played. A seven-run fourth inning proved to be enough to put the game out of reach.
“We got a couple of key hits and then it was just enough to hang on,” Cronin said. “Because we knew they were going to keep coming. We’ve been playing these guys for a long time and that’s what they do.”
That fourth inning saw the Diamond Dawgs collect five hits and two walks to post the seven-spot, primarily on the back of a three-run home run by Cayden Hokanson and a grand slam from Marley Chancey.
The players echoed their coach in terms of approach. Hokanson’s homer came first on a 2-2 breaking ball and put the Diamond Dawgs back on top, 4-2.
“His curveball was good so I was expecting him to throw it to me, and he kind of just hung it,” Hokanson said.
Chancey’s grand slam was the hit that put the game out of reach.
“I was just looking for my pitch to drive,” Chancey said. “Needed those runs.”
The win was an important one for the Dawgs, both in the context of the 12u championship and in the bigger series with the Stars. Even though they’re close in proximity and go toe-to-toe often, there’s a lot of respect between the two teams.
Cameron Mitchell, who went 3-for-3 for the Dawgs with a triple, stolen base and two runs, said the competition is a fun one.
“It’s always been close games and it’s always been a great experience playing baseball with them.”
by Marcos Aragon
CHANDLER — After upsetting the top seed in the 11u bracket Sunday, the No.4 seed Golden Spike Pirates continued the theme and earned the title at the Arizona Spring Championships after defeating the Midland Bandits Black, 10-7.
Golden Spike’s Crosby McGreal said the team was riding high off of their victory over top-ranked Swarm.
“I was kind of happy. I had a feeling we were going to win since we beat the no.1 seed, and our team was playing really good.”
The Pirates (Las Vegas, NV) started the game off hot by scoring four runs in the first inning. Mitch Walker drove in a run to get the scoring started, followed by McGreal hitting an RBI single; later a huge two-run inside the park home run by Jayson Marquez put the Pirates ahead at the end of the inning.
Golden Spikes head coach Scott Haney explained that his team had a bit of an advantage on Sunday because they were the visitors both times. Haney noted that the opportunity to put points on the board first was big for his team’s mentality.
“That right there is a huge confidence builder for the boys,” Haney said. “If they can go up three or four runs and shut down that first inning — it’s a good recipe.”
Golden Spikes added two more runs in the second inning, putting some added pressure on Midland to come back from 6-0. The Bandits (Midland, TX) responded by posting three runs in the bottom of the second and third inning to tie the game at 6-6.
With everything tied heading into the fifth inning, Midland’s Cisco Rodriguez drove in a run with two outs to put the Bandits ahead, 7-6.
The Pirates’ Santiago Cocon was the team’s pitcher from the third inning on. He said that he was nervous at first because he didn’t want to surrender the lead, but had faith in his team’s offense to bring them back if necessary.
“I felt pretty confident when we came up to bat that we might come back and take the lead,” Cocon said.
Golden Spike’s Mitchell Walker said he was also a little nervous going into the inning, especially as the leadoff hitter, but his nerves were quickly calmed after he got the hit.
“As soon as I led it off with a hit and then (McGreal) got a hit, I thought we were going to score at least a couple runs,” Walker said. “I was pretty confident in our team and our hitting because our hitting has been good this weekend.”
Like Cocon predicted, the hot bats of the the Pirates returned in the top of the sixth inning where Marquez hit a deep triple and brought two runners home to give Golden Spikes the lead. Jordan Haney was next to bat and drilled the ball deep and used his speed to earn the two-run inside the park home run.
After the final out of the game and all the celebrating was completed, Haney knew his team would enjoy their moment but still have baseball on their minds.
“It’s huge for the boys. We haven’t had a big championship win like this in a while,” Haney said. “We’re getting ready for Steamboat Springs in July. So it’s great for building for us and we have all spring to play.”
Meanwhile, Jordan Haney echoed his coach’s thoughts about keeping sharp until their next tournament. And with a laugh, he said the first thing he was going to do after winning the title is just go home.
“I’m probably going to play games, play baseball, and keep practicing so we can keep getting better,” he said.
by Tanner Puckett
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Playmakers capped an undefeated run through Session 1 of the Arizona Spring Championships on Sunday, topping the 13u division with a victory over the top seed Militia, 10-6.
The Playmakers' bats struck early and often against the Militia, opening the scoring with two runs in the top of the second inning on Evan Yau’s two-out triple.
“We came in solid and came out with a dub,” Yau said when asked about his team’s performance against the Militia.
Yau accounted for four of the team’s RBI, also bringing in runs on a single in the fourth and a groundout in the sixth.
The Militia (Murrieta, CA) touted the most productive offense of the division through pool play, with 44 runs scored in three games. Their +16 run differential was tied for first. The Playmakers (Hayward, CA) flexed quality pitching that was able to keep the Militia off the scoreboard until the fifth inning and didn’t allow a hit until the third.
Zayden Zataray, the hero of the Playmakers’ last pool game in which he stole home to secure a walk-off victory, was on the mound for those first five innings. He gave up just five hits and one earned run while striking out three and hitting three batters.
Playmakers head coach AJ Aguon said, if the team was in the championship, the plan was to have Zataray on the mound.
“I told him on the first day, ‘Be prepared for Sunday,’” Aguon said.
Zataray’s teammate Yash Gupta said the team felt the same way.
“He’s really good in those pressure situations so we knew he was going to come out and throw his best stuff, and we all trusted him,” Gupta said.
Zataray was efficient in his approach, throwing 74 pitches over those five innings, with 49 going for strikes. He said confidence in his defense was important.
“They played great behind me, great defense,” Zataray said. All 12 of Zataray’s outs that weren’t strikeouts were recorded on ground balls.
The Militia looked to be mounting a comeback in the sixth inning after Yau came on to pitch in relief. With two outs the Militia strung together five consecutive hits, capped by a three-run inside-the-park home run by Aidrian Carrillo.
In all, they had tallied five runs in the sixth to reduced the Playmakers’ lead to 8-6.
The rally looked to continue after the next two plate appearances turned into full-count walks. Yash Gupta entered the game and got an important ground ball out after walking the bases loaded.
“I was just trying to throw strikes and make sure I didn’t leave any balls high so they didn’t get anything good to hit,” he said.
Those two batters were the only ones Gupta faced, but Aguon said that’s the role Gupta has on the Playmakers.
“That’s one of our good closer guys,” he said.
He continued to make a mark, ripping a triple into the outfield in the top of the seventh and bringing two important insurance runs home.
“I was sitting fastball because I hadn’t really seen his curveball,” Gupta said. “Just get something through the infield, make sure one run scores, and I happened to get a good hit.”
It was exactly what Aguon had hoped to see from his lineup after a rough half-inning.
“I told them we need to get on the board, get some insurance runs, close it out,” he said.
The Playmakers were able to squash a potential Militia rally in the bottom of the seventh when a 7-4 double play set up a strikeout to end the game.
Coach Aguon said he thought his team played really well when asked about their undefeated run.
“They gave me a lot of effort all five games,” he said. “Didn’t stop until the game was called by blue (the umpire).”
By Tanner Puckett
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Playmakers finished pool play with a 6-5 walk-off win over the NC Mavericks Green in seven innings Saturday afternoon. They finished undefeated in pool play through three games in the Arizona Spring Championships.
The Playmakers started the bottom of the seventh inning with a 5-4 deficit. They were one out away from a loss before Kamaile Noa legged out a single and scored Benny Rodriguez from third.
Rodriguez had reached third on a pair of stolen bases, the second coming on a perfectly timed double steal. That put Zayden Zataray on second, advancing to third on Rodriguez’s single and positioning him to swipe home.
The Playmakers’ head coach AJ Aguon said the steal was a decision they made beforehand, and one they’d done before.
“We’ve tried it in the past, yeah,” he said. “We come out and just try to give the most effort we can.”
Zataray’s dash for home caught the Mavericks by surprise and resulted in a close play at the plate, barely beating the tag to secure the victory.
“We’ve done it before in tough situations,” Playmaker Sebastian Ultreras echoed.
With the win, the Playmakers locked down the third seed headed into the bracket. The final run that gave the Playmakers the lead was the fourth lead change of the game. The Mavericks got out to an early 1-0 lead in the first inning, adding a second run in the fourth.
The one run from the Mavericks was the lone blemish on the record of Playmakers starting pitcher Aneesa Aguon, as she faced one over the minimum over the next two innings.
Mavericks pitcher Caden Aguiar held the Playmakers scoreless over the first three innings of the game. He finished his outing with a pair of one-two-three innings, the last time the Playmakers’ bats would go so quietly.
The Playmakers stung the Mavericks’ new pitcher Hank Harrison early, plating three runs in the fourth and grabbing their first lead of the game, 3-2.
A walk and a single put two runners on for Andre Hardy who roped a double onto the outfield grass. He crossed home on a sacrifice bunt from Brian Zamora before the end of the inning.
“Our approach at the plate was being patient,” coach Aguon said. “Trying to get runners on base, get them in scoring position. We executed on that.”
Harrison took the lead back from the Playmakers the next half-inning. With the bases loaded, Jordan Zell scored on a wild pitch. A few pitches later, Harrison scorched an outfield hit of his own, scoring two.
That was the last of the Mavericks’ offense, as Sebastian Ultreras came on to pitch for the Playmakers and threw 2.2 scoreless innings of relief, allowing just one hit and one walk.
“I was going with my guns,” coach Aguon said. “He’s one of my go-to guys.”
Though Ultreras logged three strikeouts, he said he was trying to generate weak contact and trust his defense.
“I was just trying to get outs,” he said. “I know we have good defense, and we can make the plays.”
A run created by Angelo Rivera after two stolen bases and a wild pitch in the fifth inning was the last scoring the game saw before the exciting finish in the seventh.
The three seed, the Playmakers will face off against the No. 2 Saddleback Cowboys on Sunday, March 8 at 8:00 a.m. to play for the D1 championship. The NC Mavericks Green, finishing No. 5, will await the winner of No. 8 Wasatch Baseball and the No. 9 Bear River Bears for a 12:45 p.m. match-up in the D2 bracket.
By Marcos Aragon
SCOTTSDALE — Militia earned the No. 1 seed entering championship Sunday with its impressive victory over Wasatch Baseball, 20-0, on Saturday afternoon.
The team posted 11 runs in the first inning, and never looked back after that. Militia’s lineup was in a groove offensively and forced Wasatch to change pitchers three times in the opening inning.
The offense of Militia (CA) found success hitting the ball all over the field, but excelled at earning baserunners from being hit by the ball along with terrific plate vision. Even though the team was out to such an early lead, head coach Ray Arredondo voiced to his team that they still could not afford to be satisfied with the lead and that there was plenty of game ahead.
“My kids seem to struggle with getting ahead and getting complacent, coasting and hitting cruise control,” Arredondo said. “We won the last game 15-12, prior to this game, we were up 11-0. That’s where right now I told them we have to put the gas pedal down and keep it down. They did a great job of that. It shows that they learn from their mistakes and move forward.”
Arredondo was referring to his team’s first game on Saturday where they defeated the Murieta Bulldogs, 15-12. On Saturday alone, Militia’s expert hitting drove in 35 total runs between the two games.
Although posting double digit runs in two games is outstanding, Militia’s pitching and defense did a masterful job of keeping Wasatch’s hits in play and keeping them off base. Arredondo explained that his rotation will benefit from the extra rest.
“I have two or three starting pitchers who are aces. They can come in and throw complete games, they average anywhere from 8-10 pitches an inning. That’s key in this age group, it helps with (the tournament) only giving us seven innings per tournament, it saves the lives of arms. I could throw guys yesterday in a game and I didn’t need to throw them today. They can have a day’s rest before tomorrow.”
Arredondo explained that the confidence the team is showing is well deserved but that in the game of baseball, one swing can change a lot of things on the field, but also in the team’s heads.
“I also have two kids right now who are on like 24-game hitting streaks, one of which ended today for the first time. That was kind of key, his head was getting a little big, and I think it brought him back down to earth and he’s like ‘okay yeah I need to be working hard and paying attention, this doesn’t come easy.’”
The player who saw his hit streak come to an end that Arredondo is describing is 13-year-old Adrian Carrillo, who said he felt pretty good about his hit streak when he stepped up to the plate but was “a little nervous” because he didn’t want to see it end yet. Carrillo said his favorite pitch to hit is the fastball because it’s “the easiest one to hit.”
12-year-old Brody Wilkerson explained that the 35 runs in two games will help boost the team morale going into tomorrow’s matchups.
“It’s just builds it all up,” Wilkerson said. “It builds a lot of confidence for all of us so we can do good in all of our next games.”
Wilkerson explained simply that his favorite part of playing for Militia is hitting and “how much work we do with hitting and how (the coaches) help us hit.”
“Being able to go back to the hotels, swim in the pool, enjoy some fun time and group bonding. We’re real big on bonding, the team bonding, and the kids bonding together. We’re like a big family,” Arredondo said. “Right now it’s key that they’re relaxed and feeling good and feeling the momentum, feeling like they can’t be beat. And they’re going to go into tomorrow with their confidence high.”
By Marcos Aragon
CHANDLER — The first games of the Triple Crown Baseball Arizona Spring Championships began Thursday morning, but the late game drama has already arrived.
A back-and-forth contest between Phoenix (UT) and the SCV Scorpions ended at 7-5 with the Scorpions emerging victorious. SCV’s Alexander Howard went 1-3 with three RBI on the day, but his two-run double in the top of the sixth inning is what eventually propelled the Scorpions over Phoenix (Farmington, UT).
Entering the final inning, the Scorpions were down 5-3, but assistant coach Gabriel Montiel explained that the message from the coaches to the players in the dugout was a simple one: just get on base.
“Putting the ball in play and forcing the opponent to make plays,” Montiel said. “Everybody collectively getting on base, making contact, I think that was by far one of the best messages we can give when we’re in this kind of situation when we’re losing.”
The Scorpions (Santa Clarita, CA) were down 5-4 when Howard stepped up to bat. He drilled the ball into the outfield and drove in two runs while flying to second base for his only hit of the game, but at an extremely crucial time. Howard later made it home after a Jackson Banuelos flyout to bring the score to 7-5.
The Scorpions defense had surrendered two separate inside-the-park home-runs that gave Phoenix four of their five total runs. But just like the clutch offense, the defense had their best inning in the bottom of the sixth by retiring the first three batters.
“We’re really strong defensively in the infield, we’re situated in a place where we can move different players around and still have that strength,” Montiel said. “For this game specifically, our middle infield and our catchers definitely stood out.
“Our catching has been phenomenal. We have a big backstop — 30, 29 feet from home plate, so that’s crucial in blocking the baseballs and in 14u, that can be hard sometimes, it’s difficult. They did a phenomenal job of blocking the baseballs and keeping them in front of them and keeping anyone from advancing or scoring.”
The Scorpions' first game was no easy test but they’re happy with the win, Montiel explained. Starting off the weekend’s games with a victory does a lot for the team both mentally and for their game plan.
“It’s a huge motivation push,” Montiel said. “Obviously from a mental standpoint, their confidence level is above and it also puts in a situation where we can move pitchers around to be a little more strategic."
By Tanner Puckett
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The first game of the 12u Arizona Spring Spring Championships for the Issaquah Purple and Murieta Bulldogs ended in a 7-7 tie after five innings.
Early March games are some of the first played in the season, but offenses from both teams didn’t need much time to start clicking. Six of the 14 total runs scored came in the first inning.
“Really happy,” IBC Purple head coach Dan Neel said when asked about his lineup’s performance.
“We’re up in the Pacific Northwest, so it’s cold. So being able to come out here and get the bats going in the heat, you know, I think we always play a lot better when it’s in the sun.”
Murieta (CA) plated two runs in the top of the first, but the IBC Purple answered quickly. A few singles sandwiched by a pair of errors led to the Bulldogs tallying four in the bottom of the inning.
“I thought the first inning, we made a lot of mistakes,” Bulldogs head coach Mike Tozi said. “We gave up four runs and we shouldn’t have given up any. But I was really proud of the way they bounced back the rest of the time.”
Bounce back they did, as some plate discipline and savvy baserunning led to two runs in the top of the second, tying the game 4-4.
Tozi credited the continued fight to the resolve of starting pitcher Mason Hanner.
“When Mason gave up the four runs in the beginning and then got one-two-three after that, it was a big turning point for us,” Tozi said. “He stayed strong mentally and the team rallied around him.”
The game was a back-and-forth from start to finish. The fourth was the only inning where both teams failed to score, bouncing between a tie game and one-run leads the rest of the time.
A big moment that nearly changed the complexion of the game came in the top of that scoreless fourth inning.
With two outs, Murieta’s Dominic Fillmore reached first base on a dropped third strike. Bulldog baserunner Parker Cerda broke for home, but Issaquah got a throw over in time to catch Cerda in a rundown. IBC Purple catcher Ethan Scheel applied the tag at home and ended the inning.
“It’s definitely something we emphasize as coaches and we work on,” Neel said of Issaquah’s defense. “We’re actually compatible with Little League, so we only get them once a week. Once a week, we’re not going to be able to build a swing or revamp someone’s pitching motion, but we can work on defensive plays. When you get to see them happen in-game, it puts a smile on your face.”
Fillmore was a large part of why the Bulldogs were able to remain in the game. He threw two innings in relief, striking out four and walking none while allowing two hits. Fillmore surrendered one unearned run, scored on a passed ball.
“He’s one of our big guns and he did exactly what we were hoping he would do,” Tozi said. “He did great.”
Fillmore pointed to confidence in his team as a key to his success.
“I had a good defense behind me, so I just tried to throw strikes,” he said.
Another major component was a heads-up baserunning. Murieta had five stolen bases on the day, with three coming from Isaac Ochoa.
“He’s a super fast kid, and he’s super aggressive,” Tozi said.
The Bulldogs were able to get their first lead since the top of the first when they plated two in the top of the fifth, with the go-ahead run coming on a sacrifice fly by Robbie Swensen.
In the bottom half of the inning, the IBC Purple plated the tying run when Tristan Turi broke for home on a wild pitch.
Tozi emphasized pride in his team’s ability to stay focused.
“I was really proud after they made mistakes early how they bounced back,” he said. “I thought they played really well and they were in the game the whole time. I thought they had some good at-bats after a tough start.”
A point that may often go overlooked is the adjustment made by teams coming from much colder areas, like Issaquah, WA.
“Not quite used to 85 degree weather, so (trying to) stay hydrated,” Neel said. “Even our best pitchers, we’ll probably only have them go a couple of innings, even if they’re rolling. Because we’ve got a long tournament.”
As for how Neel feels about the Purple’s start, he’s happy with the performance.
“I think, because of being compatible with Little League and only having them once a week, we always start out kind of slow,” he said. “We had a doubleheader scrimmage a week ago and lost them both. It made me look up the last four years, how have we done? And I think our best start is, like, 2-5. But then we finish 11-3 after that. We pick it up. So to start out this way and having made a number of defensive plays feels good.”
Both teams have doubleheaders tomorrow, March 7. Murieta will play their first game at 8:15 a.m. against the Midland Vipers (1-0). Issaquah will start the day at 8:00 a.m. against the HB Stingrays Elite.
Adjusting for weather, travel fatigue and a heavy schedule of games takes a balance.
“We’re also going to a spring training game tonight, and they’re saying, ‘Pool, pool, pool,’” Neel said. “So it’s a combination of having fun and relaxing, but trying to get to bed at a reasonable time, because 8 a.m. is going to come quick.”
By Sergio Santistevan
The oldest travel baseball program in the United States hails from West Covina, CA, and their expectations are higher than ever.
“Winning matters. but we teach winning ways,” said Cameron Saylor, who started as a board member and became manager of the Dukes 14 years ago. “We set our sights out there every year at every level to win. Again, some people who say it doesn’t matter are wrong … we expect every year at every level to finish strong or we expect to finish in the world series or a national championship. We go into every tournament with the expectation of winning.”
Led by Saylor (who is also a restaurant owner), the West Covina Dukes has not only been one of the premier youth baseball programs in California for 30 years, but regarded as such in the nation because of their rich legacy and winning ways.
In 1991, Dukes Baseball landed a federal land grant and became the only travel baseball program to own a facility. Year after year, Maverick Baseball Park has kept growing, from adding a turf field, locker rooms to even an LED lighting system.
“We’ve developed a pretty strong facility that is a destination point in the area,” said Saylor.
Dukes Baseball originally started out only with 13 and 14-year-old teams, but that has now evolved into 9- to 18-year-old age groups with 10 total teams currently in the program. In what has been described as two generations of Dukes Baseball, it all started with the original founder of the program – Duke Defrates. Much of today’s Duke Baseball coaching philosophy still comes from Defrates.
“The overall coaching philosophy of the program, a lot of it was adopted from Duke Defrates,” said Saylor. “There’s a lot of information in those handouts that we had … that’s where our core principles came from.”
Those coaching tactics and core principles have evaluated Dukes Baseball to tremendous success over the years with championships and scholarships. In the past 13 years alone, Dukes Baseball has had 149 players sign to play college ball at NCAA DI and D2 programs. From 2012 to 2016, 14 former Dukes were drafted in the MLB in only that four-year span.
One of the most successful seasons in Dukes’ history came in 2014, as 14u Dukes National won the USA West National Championship with a 7-1 record.
“We’re averaging about 11 guys per year that are going on to play DI and D2 baseball,” said Saylor. “We’ve accounted for about $20 million to $21 million in college scholarships. Currently, we have 24 guys playing pro ball.”
Saylor and the Dukes take great pride in those numbers but love even more that their fees system is set up to be affordable for parents. Since the Dukes are a not-for-profit organization, they aren’t out to break parents back with payments. Instead what Dukes Baseball aims to do is provide a top-notch facility and coaching for their players.
Former Dukes players who are playing professionally come back in the offseason and help coach some of the teams or even individual positions. Once Spring Training approaches, the kids love seeing their coaches compete on the diamond in front of a packed audience.
“They’re really gracious to these guys,” Saylor said. “They go out there and see their coaches who are on the field, now on a big-league field … it’s a good time.”
Saylor first got involved with youth baseball when he was coaching his daughter, who is now 35 years old. He then went on to coach his son, C.J., through the years, where he would become one of the top players in the state of California and eventually drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers out of high school as a catcher and again by the St. Louis Cardinals as a pitcher.
When Saylor’s wife was pregnant with both his kids, he and his friends played in a men’s league on Maverick Field, so he likes to think his kids literally grew up in the system.
Today, Dukes Baseball has higher expectations than ever before both on and off the field as charity work has become a focal point of their program. One of their favorite charity events is the annual RJ’s Game, hosted at Maverick Field where a handful of the best high school baseball teams compete against each other. The Dukes charge admission, sell food and livestream the games and then use all the proceeds to donate back to the schools.
On top of the RJ’s Game, Dukes Baseball has a scholarship program with a local school and is going a step further this year and adding a college scholarship under the RJ name.
“We try to do stuff a little bit differently,” Saylor said regarding charity and scholarship efforts.
Dukes Baseball places a big emphasis on education in their program. Saylor says the Dukes lay out a path for every player on how to achieve their goals and what they want to accomplish. In what is called “The Yellow Brick Road” education is stressed as one of the most important aspects for every player.
“We put you on a track to have your SATs, transcripts, and have your grades ready,” said Saylor. “We have tremendous success on the academics side.”
Unlike a lot of other teams, the Dukes want high-parent involvement on their teams. Saylor says that if parents are involved and know what’s going on in the program, it’s easier for players to get on board.
Through coaching Dukes Baseball, Saylor has found something that he loves to do. He appreciates seeing the success of players more than anything whether that means excelling in life or succeeding on the diamond. However, coaching has had more of the impact of him than he believes he’s had on the players.
“I don’t know if I get more out of coaching or if (the players) get more out of it,” said Saylor. “(Coaching) made me a better guy, actually it probably made me a better father. At the end of the day, I’ve had the opportunity to practice a lot, I’ve had the opportunity to meet lots of families and kids. I’ve learned a lot of rights and wrongs and tried to practice all the rights … it’s also made me a better husband.”
by Sergio Santistevan
In South Orange County, CA, one baseball program will tell anybody who walks through their door about its philosophy.
Led by a group of high-level coaches, the Saddleback Cowboys are built off discipline, respect, and development – everything else comes second.
“We’re really keen on fundamentals and development, not necessarily about the wins,” said Saddleback Cowboys coach Wade Jackson. “Teaching them the right aspects of the game … fundamentals, development, respecting the game and having professionalism on the field.”
Growing up in the local area, Jackson has decades of playing and coaching experience. At El Toro High School, Jackson was a two-time All-South Coast League selection. Following his high school career, Jackson went on to play at Saddleback College, a JUCO in Mission Viejo, CA.
Jackson racked up several accolades during his junior college run as he was a two-time All-Orange Empire League selection, 1994 Junior College Player of the Year in the Southern Division, and he broke marks in batting, hits, RBI and runs. Today, Jackson is enshrined in the Saddleback College Baseball Hall of Fame.
After his JUCO run, Jackson played at the University of Nevada - Reno and was selected by the Anaheim Angels in the 1996 MLB Draft.
Once he was done playing in the minors, Jackson’s career switched to coaching youth baseball. A year after retirement, Jackson’s neighbor approached him and asked him to coach his son's travel team, which was one of the only baseball teams in South Orange County at that time.
Through the past 19 years in youth baseball, Jackson has experienced coaching his son to being a co-owner of the Saddleback Cowboys with Chris Malec and Richard Mercado.
Jackson took a few years off from coaching when his son, Jake, was younger but returned when he turned age 8 so he could coach the team. When Jake was ready to go to college, he followed his father’s legacy and chose Nevada where he was named a Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-American in 2018.
Jackson’s co-owners of the Saddleback Cowboys, Malec and Mercado, have plenty of experience on the diamond, too.
Malec was a freshman All-American and three-time All-Big West selection at the University of California - Santa Barbara. He then went on to get drafted by the New York Yankees in 2005, where he was a 2008 Class AA All-Star and three-time league champion who reached Triple-A.
Mercado attended the University of Arizona where he was a captain for the 2004 College World Series team. He was selected in the 12th round of the MLB Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks and achieved a nine-year professional career, also reaching Triple-A.
Jackson, Malec and Mercado have focused their post-playing careers on coaching youth baseball, but all three men have families – it can be hard to juggle baseball and their own lives.
“It’s balance, long hours,” Jackson laughed. “We get on the field at usually one and two in the afternoon and we’re at that until nine. Weekends are on the baseball field. It’s tough.”
Despite the long hours, all three coaches find a way to balance their lives and still implement discipline, respect and development in their players.
“We teach them that it’s a hard game, a family game, something you got to work every day at. It’s not something you just show up and throw your cleats on and start throwing the baseball,” Jackson said. “You have to respect it, treat it the way it’s supposed to be treated, and give it your all. This game can be very fortunate for you, take you very far, and do lots of things for you.”
The Saddleback Cowboys coaching staff has set up goals throughout the year for each age group but winning isn’t at top of that list. Development always comes first.
“As they get older that stuff happens because of what they do as they grow … we’re really keen on developing the boys, especially at a younger age,” he added.
Developing the team comes with the respect and discipline that Jackson says is taught even in the youngest teams. A Saddleback Cowboys' rule is that if a player doesn’t show up with his uniform belt, then he doesn’t get to play.
Jackson understands there is more to life than baseball, which is why he wants to teach his players life lessons on top of baseball techniques. His favorite stories to hear from players are the ones where they sign to a college with their help, because it shows that they accomplished their goals of creating good ballplayers and disciplined men.
“It’s just not just baseball, it’s teaching them aspects of life and becoming a young man,” Jackson said. “Teaching them beyond baseball is another thing … not everyone is going to go make that $10 million per year and there are other things in life.”
After a month and a half off from baseball, the Saddleback Cowboys returned to the field in late January. Jackson currently has his team hitting and doing some strength and conditioning as they start to prepare for their spring schedule.
“It comes back to development. Most of our teams get in three workouts a week,” Jackson said. “It’s preparing for them for the fundamentals and situational (baseball) … putting our best foot forward and trying to teach them.”
Despite being away from his family, grandchildren and friends often due to baseball events, Jackson can’t imagine himself doing anything else in life. He calls himself fortunate that he’s been allowed to do something that he loves for his entire life.
“How many people out in the world can say they do exactly what they love every day?” he said. “I get to be on the baseball field 50 percent of the day and almost every day. It’s something that I developed a respect for all my life, and I get to teach it to younger kids now.”