PHOENIX -- The Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High School Gaels are in the Valley of the Sun this week playing in the prestigious Coach Bob National Invitational Tournament to not only begin a new season but a new era as well.
For the first time in four years, the Gaels will be playing without 2011 Perfect Game All-American and 2012 Arizona Rookie League Player of the Year Joey Gallo in their lineup. Gallo was such a presence throughout his mind-bending high school career at Bishop Gorman that he truly ranks as one of those players that will be impossible to replace.
Yet the Gaels, winners of seven straight Nevada Interscholastic Athletic Association (NIAA) Class 4A (big-school) state championships, came to the desert fully expecting to return home as the favorites to win an eighth straight NIAA state title later this spring. Call it the start of a "journey without Joey".
"It can definitely continue," Bishop Gorman head coach Nick Day said Wednesday before his Gaels played host Sandra Day O'Connor High School in the last of each team's three pool-play games at the Coach Bob Invite. "Obviously, the type of power (Gallo) provided is going to be missed and that kind of velocity off the mound he provided is going to be missed, but we'll keep throwing new guys in there and getting better and better, and we should be able to keep it rolling.
"It's always an adjustment but we've had guys that have been waiting for their chance to step up," Day continued. "And it's not just Joey; we had 15 seniors last year and now guys are finally getting a chance to prove themselves and they're doing well."
Day served as an assistant coach for the Gaels during their Nevada state championship runs in 2009 and 2010, and has been the head coach for the last two in 2011 and 2012. They finished 35-4 overall in 2011 and 40-3 last season, and finished No. 2 in Perfect Game's final 2012 National High School Team Rankings.
Just five games into the 2013 season, the Gaels had already lost nearly as many games as they did all last season. Day O'Connor rallied for a 10-9 win Wednesday afternoon, and outcome that left Bishop Gorman 3-2 on the young season and out of Thursday's Coach Bob Invitational National Division championship game.
The Gaels will play in a consolation game Thursday against Boulder Creek (Ariz.) High School -- Day O'Connor faces Broken Arrow (Okla.) High School for the Coach Bob National Division championship Thursday afternoon -- but that doesn't mean their visit to the Valley is over.
They will play four more games before returning to Las Vegas, even though those games have no bearing on the tournament championship. It's just a way to get the teams as many games as possible and make their trip to the Valley all the more worthwhile.
"It's always fun to get out of town and concentrate on baseball for a whole week straight," Day said of the entire Coach Bob experience. "This is really the very start of our season so we're really excited about being here."
Even with Gallo now playing professionally, the Gaels still have some top prospects on their 2013 roster. Senior shortstop/outfielder Kenny Meimerstorf from Henderson, Nev., is ranked in the top-500 nationally in the class of 2013 (No. 4 in Nevada) and has signed with the University of Arizona. Senior outfielder/left-hander Jerrall Latham is another top-500 guy (No. 7 in Nevada), and has signed with Brigham Young.
Junior catcher Mike Blasko and junior corner infielder Cole Krzmarzick are also guys scouts are keeping an eye on, as is freshman right-hander Jack Little.
"We have pretty good team chemistry and good senior leadership and pretty good balance throughout all nine in the lineup -- it's always nice when you're seven, eight and nine hitters can produce runs and get things going," Day said. "We have a lot of pitching, which is always nice to have; we're very young so I'm hoping as the year goes on and on we're a lot better next month and then, obviously, in May we're a lot better than we were in April."
Meimerstorf attended four PG events in 2011 and 2012, including the 2011 PG West Coast Top Prospect Showcase in San Bernardino, Calif., and the 2011 PG National Underclass Showcase-Session 1 in Glendale, Ariz. He enjoyed a terrific junior season at Bishop Gorman, hitting .405 (45-for-111) with nine home runs and 47 RBI.
Like all of his teammates, he was happy to be Arizona this week and playing at the Coach Bob Invite.
"It's a fun thing to be able to come down here to Arizona and play baseball and not have to go to school," Meimerstorf said with a smile. "Just waking up every day and being able to play the game that you love."
Latham is another interesting prospect. Hitting from the leadoff spot, the 6-foot, 180-pound left-handed swinger with a strong arm hit .462 (30-for-93) with 14 doubles, four triples, two home runs, 41 RBI and 30 runs as a junior. He also stole a team-high 15 bases.
A PG scouting report from earlier this week called Latham "a real good all-around prospect" with a lot of upside who loves being part of Gorman's winning tradition.
"This is a great team and it's been a great team for the last four years and all the years that I've played on varsity," Latham said. "We have great team chemistry and we get along real well; we talk a lot on the field and off the field. It's just good team-bonding."
Latham's father, Chris Latham, played in 110 games in the major leagues between 1997 and 2003 with the Twins, Blue Jays and Yankees. That experience has had a profound influence on young Jerrall.
"He's had a great impact on me," Latham said. "I didn't start playing baseball until I was 8 years old, and that was after spending the season away with him and seeing the things that he was doing. I kind of wanted to follow his footsteps so I started playing baseball. He's always on me with my swing and stuff, which can be rough sometimes, but in the end it will all be fine."
There is no question that Gallo had a profound impact on his younger teammates during his time at Bishop Gorman. In his junior and senior seasons alone, Gallo combined to hit .489 (115-for-235) with 46 home runs, 158 RBI and 130 runs scored. He also possessed a 95 mph fastball which made him a dominant force on the mound.
He was named the Most Valuable Player at the 2011 Perfect Game All-American Classic in San Diego after leading off the bottom of the second inning with a 442-foot bomb into the deep right-centerfield seats at PETCO Park, which at the time was the 10th longest home run ever hit at the home of the San Diego Padres.
"Joey Gallo was a great kid," Meimerstorf said. "Just being around him with his demeanor -- everything about him was special. Now we're watching him on TV playing and it's a great thing that we played with a pro guy and he's doing great things at the next level."
The task at hand now is to carry on Bishop Gorman's storied tradition without a talent of Gallo's caliber in the lineup. There's a lot of pressure on the kids; even the seniors were only in fifth grade when the Gaels began their streak of winning state championships.
"There might be (some pressure) a little bit because everyone's saying this is the year we're going to lose and this is the year someone's going to take it from us," Meimerstorf said. "Our team is pretty young and we were kind of timid our first game, but now we're starting to loosen up and as the season goes on we'll progress and we'll be just as good as we always have been.
"It's been really fun, actually, just being able to compete at top-notch levels," he continued. "It feels almost like a college-type (program), even though it's not. But still, the competition we've played -- we're always (ranked) the top in the nation and playing against the best people out there."
Added Latham: "I think it effects the teams that we play because they're thinking, oh, these guys have won a lot of state championships. I think that kind of makes them more nervous and it gives us more confidence knowing that we have a legacy to defend. That makes us play even harder."
Coach Day, from his perspective, sees it as two-way mirror.
"(The players) take a lot of pride in (the tradition) but at the same time they feel a lot of pressure to win," he said. "I also think that pressure and that pride have made us win some games that maybe we shouldn't have. They believe that they're going to win every game and they don't ever feel like they're ever out of a game, just because we've done it so many times. That's a nice thing to have in your back pocket, that extra confidence."
The Gaels won't win their first Coach Bob National Invitational Tournament championship this week. That doesn't mean an eighth-straight NIAA Class 4A championship is also out the window -- the season has, after all, just gotten started.
"I feel like we can pull it out again; if we come together as a team, I know we can do it," Latham said.
"We can keep it going for sure," Meimerstorf said. "It's a young team but as long as they keep progressing and keep getting better every single day and keep doing what we're doing, we're going to be fine."