Arizona State designated hitter Nathaniel Causey peered out from the dugout earlier this season and was struck by what he saw.
There was his high school teammate from Gilbert, Drew Stankiewicz, playing shortstop for the Sun Devils. Max Rossiter, who went to rival-Highland, was at catcher. The outfield was dotted with faces he’s known since adolescence.
As Causey’s eyes darted to every position, it became clear — ASU may have a national baseball program, but this season, it has a distinctly local flavor.
The Sun Devils will head into this weekend’s NCAA regional at Cal State Fullerton boasting a lineup with eight East Valley high school products. Two months ago, when former Brophy first baseman David Graybill was starting, all nine spots were held by a former EV standout.
In addition to Causey, Rossiter, Stankiewicz and Graybill, Michael Benjamin (Basha), Kasey Coffman (Brophy), Jake Peevyhouse (Pinnacle), James McDonald (Chaparral) and Trever Allen (Corona del Sol) are all integral contributors to ASU’s fortunes.
“Earlier this year somebody from Arizona was pitching, and we were like, ‘Whoa, every single kid on the field is from Arizona,’” Causey said. “That’s kind of cool.”
Arizona State has always had hometown stars, but the starters have usually included out-of-state talent as well.
While some of this year’s lineup composition is by chance, there is a little more to it.
A consequence from the recruiting violations under former coach Pat Murphy left Arizona State with only nine full-time scholarships instead of the usual 11.7. Coach Tim Esmay has also emphasized looking for local talent first, and he said the pool is growing.
“It’s kind of a perfect storm,” he said. “When you’re sitting at nine instead of 11.7, you have to try to get more bang for your buck. Then you also have the growth of Phoenix. There are more kids playing the game, and it’s a trickle-down effect. There’s always been quality kids, but there’s more quantity adding to that quality. (Having eight East Valley starters) is not necessarily a coincidence.”
Stankiewicz originally signed with Fullerton but changed his mind after a coaching change prior to his freshman season. He said the Sun Devils were an easy choice once his possibilities opened back up, with the familiar faces playing a pivotal role.
He remembers competing in both football and baseball against Benjamin in high school and a friendly rivalry with McDonald, who played the same position as him — shortstop — with the Firebirds.
“We always bring up the past a little bit, like, ‘Hey, James, remember when you struck out? Or remember when I made that diving play against you?’” Stankiewicz said. “It’s all in good fun.”
Esmay said the advantage to recruiting locally is two-fold: The players have already developed a rapport with each other, and many have already been to the ASU team camps growing up, so they know the coaching staff and the ins and outs of the program.
“The first day of school when they introduce themselves, it’s not a lot of foreign names,” Esmay said. “That always allows the clubhouse to be a little better. You don’t have to break the ice.”
Coffman is the team’s top hitter, with a .963 on-base-plus-slugging-percentage, seven homers and 43 RBIs. Benjamin is batting a team-best .349 with eight homers and 44 RBIs. Allen leads the Sun Devils in homers (9), triples (6) and RBIs (48).
Even though the lineup is full of locals, there is one big fish that got away.
Arizona State will face off with No. 3 seed New Mexico in the regional opener on Friday. The Lobos boast one of college baseball’s best players in third baseman D.J. Peterson, a Gilbert High product who is expected to be taken among the top 15 picks in the June 6 MLB draft.
Peterson, who is batting .411 with 18 homers and 70 RBIs this season, originally signed with Arizona before getting dropped by the Wildcats. Arizona State tried to get in the mix late, but he chose New Mexico.
The Sun Devils, though, have secured a commitment from his little brother, Dustin, a projected first- or second-round pick from Gilbert who will be an impact player if he chooses college.
With the likes of Reggie Jackson, Barry Bonds and Dustin Pedroia among the out-of-state stars to play for ASU, it would be foolish to purely recruit locally, but having the built-in base that Arizona offers is a nice starting point each season, and the Sun Devils’ lineup illustrates it.
“There are a lot of good kids,” Causey said. “You see some of them go to UA or different schools in California, but if you can get the best talent out of the East Valley, you’re going to be good every year.”