GLENDALE, Ariz. – By mid-morning on Friday, the desert sun was already beating down on the Camelback Ranch spring training complex with all of its triple-digit temperature ferocity and fury.
Chris Botsoe, a talented 2015 outfielder from Hinsdale, Ill., and a member of the Gravel Baseball (Illinois) underclass squad, seemed unaffected by the morning heat while he and his Gravel teammates “warmed up” just ahead of their opener at the 2013 Perfect Game/EvoShield National Championship (Underclass).
In fact, Botsoe smiled widely through the perspiration on his face when a questioner took him back more than a year to one of the highlights of Gravel Baseball’s recent history. It was in early August 2012 when Botsoe, many of these same Gravel prospects and head coach Sam Sorce surprised an elite 16-team field by winning the national championship at the inaugural 15u PG World Series played in Marietta, Ga.
“I remember that we were just as excited about that tournament as we are about this one,” Botsoe recalled with unusual detail Friday morning. “We came into it and we had a walk-off win against the Houston Banditos so we were feeling good, but then Marucci (Elite) whooped us, 15-to-nothing.
“Coach Sam (Sorce) talked to us after the game and told us that sometimes that just happens and come out and keep playing hard, and we ended up playing a lot harder and a lot better and we kept on going for it.”
With seven players from that 2012 15u team – which came back and beat Marucci Elite in the championship game – among Gravel’s 18-man roster here this weekend, the Chicago-based club is poised to make a deep run at the PG/EvoShield Underclass. The tournament began its four-day run Friday with 48 games played on the fields at Camelback Ranch (Cactus League home of the Dodgers and White Sox) and the Goodyear Ballpark Complex (Reds and Indians).
The Graveler’s quest for a second set of PG national championship rings got off to nice start when they knocked off the North County (San Diego) Padres, 6-1, in their first pool-play game played on the White Sox side of Camelback. Right-hander Stephen Bonnain (2015, Tomball, Texas) threw six innings of three-hit, six-strikeout ball and standout Ako Thomas was 2-for-2 with a triple and four RBI.
The outcome provided early justification for the team taking the 3 ½ hour flight from Chicago to Phoenix, and head coach Sorce enumerated the reasons why the trip was made.
“The number-one reason is it’s a Perfect Game event, and they’re usually pretty good,” he said Friday morning. “Number two, this is the last tournament of the year for us, and finally, the competition – we haven’t played any of these West Coast teams that much.
“We just wanted to come out here; it’s a beautiful facility and a nice tournament. Why wouldn’t we want to be out here?”
The Gravel Baseball organization was formed decades ago by Chicago-area businessman Al Oremus. Its original incarnation was a team called Prairie Gravel made up of older, semi-pro players, primarily ex-professional and college players. Oremus began fielding youth teams in the mid-1990s.
This is a talented underclass team Sorce has brought the desert this weekend. Botsoe, a University of Louisville commit, is ranked 156th nationally (No. 3 in the state of Illinois) and was especially excited about showing the West Coast what this squad from Chicago is capable of.
“We’ve been talking about this trip all year; we’ve been really excited about it,” he said. “We have a bunch of new kids on the team and we’re pumped up for this tournament. We’re hoping to go back to Chicago with a ‘W’ and get some (PG national championship) rings.”
Third baseman/outfielder Brenden Spillane (2015, Wellington, Ill.), is ranked 183rd nationally (No. 4 Illinois) and right-hander Grant Sloan (2015, Zionsville, Ind.) is No. 76 nationally and No. 4 in Indiana. Gravel is playing this weekend without regular shortstop Charlie Donovan (2015, Clarendon Hills, Ill.), a University of Michigan commit who is ranked 316th nationally in his class.
Ako Thomas is also an intriguing prospect. Listed at just 5-feet-8, 150-pounds, he hits cleanup in Gravel’s batting order and has proven time and again he can handle himself well both at the plate and while patrolling second base. Thomas (2015, Chicago) was named the Most Valuable Player at the 15u PG World Series after hitting .455 (10-for-22) with 12 runs scored and five RBI.
“I was just feeling good; that was the best tournament I had that year,” he said Friday. “I knew there was a ring in it for us and I really wanted to win that ring.”
And, like Botsoe, he’s looking forward to this weekend with the added incentive of playing in front of college coaches and recruiters. Thomas is uncommitted.
“You get to come out here and play on these nice fields and play against all this good competition from the West,” he said. “We’re pretty good, so I want to play against some pretty good competition. A lot of scouts should be out here so it maybe might be an opportunity for me to go to a good college; there are some good schools down here.”
Although Botsoe has already committed, he still looks forward to getting in front of the scouts. He attended the PG Junior National Showcase in Minneapolis in June so he’s been in front of plenty of scouts and been around plenty of other outstanding players, but it’s hard to get enough of a good thing.
“All the scouts that are here and the competition is real good, too,” Botsoe said of the positives this event offers. “This is probably the best competition that we play, in all of these Perfect Game tournaments against the best players around. It’s the best pitching and the best hitting that we’ll see, so it makes us come out and play a lot harder than we usually do; the competitive mentality comes out in all of us.”
Sorce speaks highly of his pitching staff, of which Sloan is the centerpiece. It was mostly pitchers he brought on board for this tournament and he was quick to say, “I love this group” when asked about its makeup.
“We actually kind of revamped our team at the end of the summer season,” he said. “We picked up some more pitching, some quality arms, but for the most part it’s the same core of guys. This summer was kind of a tough year for us – the year before we had great chemistry and all of a sudden this summer we kind of lost that chemistry. It seems like when we picked up these new guys and brought a couple of guys back from (2012) the chemistry is back. I’m really interested to see how these guys do out here.”
Gravel baseball certainly looked good in its opener. For some of the players new to the roster, this event is a whole new ballgame.
“Some of the new guys we picked up probably haven’t played at this level before, so it’s good for them to get their feet wet and see how they do,” Sorce said. “It’s a good experience. Half the team is really experienced at it – they played in that 15u World Series in Marietta – and the other half it’s brand new to them. So it’s kind of a mixture, kind of a meld.”
Sorce will not lower his expectations for this team, however. He fully expects to be playing on Monday when the PG/EvoShield Underclass’s final four teams take the field for the semifinals games.
“If we didn’t think we were going to be competitive, we wouldn’t come – why waste the money. If I wanted to go on vacation I’d go by myself, not with 18 other guys,” he concluded with a laugh.