In the world of club softball, there’s plenty of reason to tip one’s cap to the work done in Southern California, which for decades has produced stellar players and razor-sharp coaching minds that have accelerated the growth of the sport.
When considering the quality of play around the rest of the state, human nature might reach for a quick and careless answer about NorCal softball – the culture of San Francisco and the upper reaches of the Redwoods don’t foster the same competitive environment, some might think. But to overlook a program like Sorcerers Softball is to miss out on the skill set of dozens of players, as well as be unprepared for when the Sorcerers are in the opposite dugout, ready to humble one more squad that didn’t take them seriously.
With the 14u team taking second place at the Triple Crown/USA Nationals in Reno this July, the 18s coming in fifth at the same event, and the 16s taking third at the Independence Day Tournament in Boulder, CO., there’s plenty of fresh evidence that at high-profile tournaments, the Sorcerers have the depth and desire to make deep runs in the bracket. Some of that determination can be tracked to not wanting SoCal softball to be the last and only word.
“That’s certainly an ongoing deal. We’re always competing against them – the talent and coaching is amazing, and they draw players like crazy,” said Pete Aguayo, coach of the 18u squad that has all but one player signed to play college softball (and the one remaining doesn’t graduate until 2017). “We’re always trying to hold onto our players. But we get a fair amount of respect from those people. During showcase events, we seem to be put in with those teams, and we are always measuring ourselves by them.”
The Sorcerers were founded by the late, beloved Phil Mumma, who put a distinguished playing and coaching career topping 40 years into his vision for an academy in the late 1990s, in partnership with pitching instructor Delmar Himango. Before his untimely passing in September of 2013, the Sorcerers put hundreds of players into the college ranks at every level and through to the Olympic Games – the most well-known athlete is arguably Michelle Gascoigne, who pitched Oklahoma to the 2013 NCAA title and currently plays in the National Pro Fastpitch League with the Chicago Bandits.
From Aguayo’s view, when Mumma guided his 18’s to consecutive ASA National Championships in 2002-03, the Sorcerers had genuinely arrived. Those marked the first-ever national titles by a Bay-area team, and also the first time a program had repeat champions in decades. The 18s also won the ASA Gold Nationals in 2009 and was seventh in the 2013 PGF Nationals. This by-the-bootstraps construction of the club created a sense of fierce loyalty to Mumma, and in fact, current Sorcerers president Bill Schroll promised Mumma just before his death that Schroll would do everything in his power to sustain the Sorcerers’ name.
Fast forward to 2015, the talent of the Sorcerers 18s is eye-catching and an honor to Mumma’s design – if you took away the one player from that age category on the roster, the squad could have played as 16s this season.
“I don’t want to burst the bubble too early, but this (18’s) team has the potential to do something special over the next couple of years, if we can keep the young squad together and keep developing,” Aguayo said. “Believe me, we’re working hard on that.”
“One thing we are very focused on is being a pure program. We are not selling out and putting teams A through D in multiple cities – we have three teams in NorCal only,” said Gary Gascoigne, head coach of the 14u Sorcerers. “We want to be elite, premier, and not watered down.
“The Sorcerers have always had some of the best pitching in NorCal, no two ways about it. I give a lot of credit to Rich Balswick, a real pitching guru who has trained a lot of kids who went on to play D-I. And I am probably (a factor) with the Sorcerers; it looks like I’ve got 16 pitchers ready to come to tryouts for my team. One of the things I pride myself in is preparing kids to pitch instead of throw, and become prepared to excel at the next level.”
When it comes to shining a light on the philosophies and priorities that define Sorcerers softball, the one thing that comes into view first is the level of discipline expected by Aguayo, Gascoigne and 16u coaches Mike and Jenny Williams. This is not a destination for the faint of heart, or stamina.
“It was my first year, so it was nerve-wracking getting ready to play for them. But they really work on getting you ready for the next level and focus on the little skills,” said Lindsay Rood, one of the most accomplished Sorcerers players in program history, who is headed to Cal this autumn on a softball scholarship (and has been asked to play soccer for the Bears as well). “The coaches’ passion and attitude toward softball also inspired us; their dedication rubbed off on us.
“It was a great environment to be in. It was a little hard at first to get used to the effort they expected from us, but through that, you saw what it takes to be successful. We love playing the SoCal teams; it’s always a great fight, and we love how competitive it was. It’s even fun rooting for other NorCal teams when they play SoCal.”
“It’s run professionally and set up to give young players a chance to learn and succeed. One thing travel ball lacks these days is the teaching aspect and getting players prepared for college; and when it’s just about recruiting and being seen, you lose sight of that,” said Michelle Gascoigne, Gary’s daughter. “Phil was my coach, and I have a teammate on the Bandits who played for him as well. We tell stories and are really grateful we played for someone who was hard on us. You’re not going to get away with not hustling; it’s important to play where they will hold you to a high standard.”
This aspect of the Sorcerers is not likely to fade in importance in the years ahead. Coaches in multiple sports these days talk about the flightiness of young athletes, and how their flawed work ethic (often with parental enabling) makes it tough to build a devoted, dedicated roster.
You’ll find a throwback way of thinking with Aguayo and the rest of the staff, where success on the field and even later in life grows its roots on discipline, focus, consequences and team.
“From my perspective, I think it really starts with the parents. In a day and age where everyone thinks they are entitled to have something without really working for it … I’m getting ready to transition my team after the summer, and there are some kids I won’t be able to keep,” Aguayo said. “I could, but I’m not going to because I want to move with a grittier, more tenacious group when they practice and play. And when I found those (right) players, I find the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
“You can see it in how the kid reflects a work ethic, their standards, their grades, how they practice and work out on their own time. It has to do with their family. People say, oh aren’t you too hard on your kids, that and that. But these are the people who become successful. You learn to compete, get along with people to attain the same goals. That’s what we are doing right here. And I feel fortunate to have families who get it.”
The challenges of running a top-flight program are always there, and always evolving. At the lower levels, people start new teams because of frustrations with their current squad – watering down the talent in town – and there’s the constant concern with expenses and what families have to juggle to afford top-flight instruction.
“But our parents expect us to put their kids in front of the same competition they’ll face in the SEC or the Pac-12,” Aguayo added. “And that’s why they’re here. They want to face that.”