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Baseball's fab five

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Posted: Tuesday, April 18, 2006 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:52 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

April 19, 2006 - T.J. Steele sat in a metal chair just outside of the University of Arizona dugout in Sancet Field moments before practice on April 12, and looked up at teammate Ryan Perry.

"I never faced Ryan Perry in high school," said Steele with a wry smile and a wagging finger.

The reserved Perry, who is as shy as he is tall, had just one deadpan retort for Steele.

"You're lucky," said Perry.

The two freshmen are among five former Northwest and Foothills players making their debuts with Arizona baseball this season. Matt Denker, John James and Tyson Moll join Steele and Perry on what is one of the youngest Wildcat squads to take the field during the five-year tenure of head coach Andy Lopez.

"It's an extremely, extremely young team, probably the youngest team in the Pac-10, without a doubt," said Lopez, whose squad features 22 first-year players to the program, 17 of whom are freshman.

Among the four or five freshman who have slipped into starting roles is Steele. The 2005 Canyon Del Oro High School grad turned down an offer from the Houston Astros, who took him in the 22nd round of the amateur draft.

After a successful start to his collegiate career, Steele began to struggle as the season progressed. Despite struggling, hitting .225, Steele has started 24 games for the Wildcats in centerfield and shown promising signs of things to come. In 89 at bats, he has registered five doubles, four triples and 16 RBI.

"I really think he's going to be a good, good player," said Lopez. "I mean a dynamite player when it's all said and done."

James, one of the most dominating pitchers ever to come out of Catalina Foothills High School, will red-shirt this season. Although he won't be able to play in any games, he is allowed to participate in every other aspect of the team, including traveling, inter-squad scrimmages and practices. James left Foothills as the all-time leader in wins (25), strikeouts (189), complete games (19), shutouts (9) and ERA (1.60).

When it comes to live arms, however, Perry may have been the biggest sleeper of this year's class.

While his four new teammates were wowing scouts from around the country, Perry was flying under the radar. The lanky right-hander pitched a total of 20 innings in each of his junior and senior seasons at Marana, relegated to playing shortstop instead because of shoulder tendonitis.

Despite his lack of hill time, Perry landed a spot on this year's Pima Community College team. It was while playing in a developmental league this summer with other Pima recruits that Perry caught the eye of UA recruiters. A month before school started, the UA made an offer he couldn't refuse, inking the 18-year-old to a scholarship. After getting his schooling in line, Perry finally joined the squad this spring.

"I always wanted to play here so this is the only place I wanted to go," said Perry. "It was a big shock to me; I'm not turning that down."

Perry's fastball tops out around 93 mph, but the ability to throw hard will only get him so far on the college level. Coaches are working with him on developing a slider.

"Those two young guys probably have the highest ceiling in their future in terms of baseball," said Lopez of Perry and Steele. "The other guys are going to be good players for us, but Ryan Perry and T.J. Steele have the makings of being real dominant players when all is said and done."

It doesn't take much to recruit local kids. All five Northwest and Foothills players dreamed one day of donning the Wildcat uniform.

"Since about age five, pretty much UA has been it," said Denker of his lifelong goal to play at Arizona. "I used to come down here a lot when I was in Little League; it was pretty sweet to see how hard the guys were throwing."

While most of Lopez's first year players join the Wildcats straight from high school, others transfer in after a year or two playing for a junior college. That's the route Denker and Moll took.

Denker comes to the UA after a season playing for Eastern Arizona College where the Ironwood Ridge High School grad was co-MVP of the Gila Monsters. Moll - a sophomore at CDO when Steele was sophomore playing on varsity - spent two years at Central Arizona College.

Denker has seen time behind the plate, while Moll has helped out in a pinch hitter role.

Whereas James, Perry and Steele join the squad right out of high school, Denker and Moll may have a tougher task ahead of them.

"This is the toughest place I've ever coached for a JC player to come in and stay academically alive, so to speak," said Lopez, who has coached Division I baseball for 25 years. "Prior to being here, I probably would have said yes, it's a good route to take, but not necessarily at the University of Arizona. I would say the best way to get here would be right out of high school."

Next season, two CDO players will attempt to play for the Wildcats straight out of high school. Steele lights up when he hears that his former CDO teammates put up 14 runs in the third inning the night before to beat rival Ironwood Ridge High School. Two of those players - pitcher Taylor Lewis and catcher Mike Weldon - are scheduled to rejoin Steele next fall on full baseball scholarships.

"I talk to them and they're looking forward to it," said Steele of a reunion with his former Dorado teammates. "You just tell them that it's a lot of hard work, but in the end it's definitely worth it."

Having local players on his roster isn't new for Lopez. Past teams have included players such as CDO's Brian Anderson and Sunnyside High School's Moises Duran. This is the first year that Lopez has had five local players.

Lopez's squad only has two seniors, but that doesn't cause the coach to lose much sleep. In college baseball, lots of seniors doesn't always equate to success.

"You'd love to have seniors but if you have too many seniors, it means you didn't do very well," said Lopez, who has taken the Wildcats to three straight NCAA regional tournaments and the school's first appearance in the College World Series since 1986.

Arizona lost seven juniors to last year's draft, the most players selected in one draft in the program's history. As the next three years unfold, perhaps one, if not all five, will get the chance to accomplish another lifelong dream and play ball at the next level.

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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