Step inside the front gate of Buchanan High’s baseball stadium and enlarged pictures hanging on the facility’s exterior stone wall offer an unmistakable representation of what’s been going on between the lines here for two decades.
Left to right:
▪ Jason Donald (Class of ’03) tagging out Derek Jeter as a Cleveland Indians shortstop.
▪ Garrett Olson (Class of ’01), the program’s first product to make the majors, pitching for the Baltimore Orioles.
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▪ Donald airborne while turning a double play for bronze medal-winning Team USA at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
▪ Justin Wilson (Class of ’05) pitching for Fresno State’s 2008 NCAA championship team (he won the final).
▪ Group shot of the 2011 Buchanan team that finished 30-2 and top-ranked nationally by ESPN RISE.
▪ Seth Moranda (Class of ’11), who went 12-1 and hit seven home runs on the 2011 team, after starring as a quarterback in football, and was named Cal-Hi Sports Division I State Athlete of the Year.
▪ Wilson, wearing jersey No. 61 in black and gold and flinging a left-handed pitch in his major league debut for the Pittsburgh Pirates in August 2012.
Additional stars are countless in a program that has won 78 percent of its games (437-121-4), eight Tri-River Athletic Conference titles and five Central Section championships in 18 years under coach Tom Donald, Jason’s father.
But National Players of the Year? No.
That could change as General Grant Gambrell has marched to the threshold of the honor.
“It means a lot,” says the Bears pitcher/first baseman, who has been on the CBS MaxPreps National Baseball Player of the Year Top 10 Watch for 2016 since mid-April. “Obviously, to be recognized among the top players in the nation is unbelievable. It shows all the hard work and dedication I’ve made since I was 7 has paid off.”
“The perfect demeanor for a pitcher,” Buchanan coach Tom Donald says of 6-foot-4, 225-pound Bears right-hander Grant Gambrell.
This accomplished, nationwide journey since childhood clearly has had an impact for the 6-foot-4, 225-pound right-hander, who will close his prep career for top-seeded and defending champion Buchanan (29-1) against second-seeded Clovis North (24-6-1) for the section Division I title at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Visalia’s Rawhide Ballpark.
Gambrell, who has signed with Oregon State and also projects as a top-eight round selection in the major league draft that will begin June 9, will enter with video-game type statistics: 11-0 record, 0.77 ERA, 23 hits in 64 innings and a .370 batting average with five home runs, 35 RBIs and a .610 slugging percentage.
Gambrell’s parents – Buchanan athletic director James Gambrell and Nichole – have made it clear to pro organizations they value college education and will demand first- or second-round slot bonus money ($1 million or more) even if their son is drafted in the fourth to eighth rounds.
This is what I’m most proud of as a father: what he has accomplished this season with all the attention, pressure, expectations and hype, that’s a hard thing to live up to.
James Gambrell on son Grant’s brilliant season for nationally No. 1-ranked Buchanan
Josh Labandeira, a former Fresno State infielder now scouting for the Boston Red Sox, says: “Grant has a big power arm with a body for durability, and we like to see these type of guys. If someone really likes him, I could see him jumping into the fourth through sixth rounds.
“You can’t go wrong with a body build like a Texas power right-hander. If he doesn’t go out (professionally) this year, don’t be surprised, three years later at a good (Oregon State) program, you hear his name in the top couple rounds.”
Statistical credibility soars for Gambrell when considering Buchanan’s competition: Of the 20 teams it has played (some, more than once), 14 have winning records, five have won 20 or more games and, collectively, they have a .569 winning percentage (329-251).
That ranges from Cal-Hi Sports state-ranked Clovis North (No. 7, 24-6-1) and Clovis (No. 20, 23-9) of the TRAC to Cal-Hi “bubble” state-ranked Woodcreek-Roseville (23-9).
And not to dismiss Bullard (21-9), which received a first-inning home run from Jacob Pizzo and reduced Gambrell and Buchanan to somewhat ordinary status in a 5-3 loss to the Bears in Tuesday’s semifinals at Buchanan.
It was then, following Pizzo’s no-doubt shot to left on Gambrell’s 12th delivery of the game, that the pitcher – perhaps more than ever this season, and on a day far from his best – gathered himself and responded with what his coaches and college and professional personnel deem most worthy: talent combined with internal fortitude and exterior calm.
“The perfect demeanor for a pitcher,” Buchanan coach Donald says.
All those summers while Grant was playing on elite, high-level travel teams and winning state and national championships … he was always one of the top three or four kids on the team.
James Gambrell on early signs of greatness from son and Buchanan ace Grant Gambrell
He makes this clear: Among all of his exceptional pitchers in recent years – Connor Loeprich, D.J. Martinez, Jack Wheeless, Dominic Topoozian, Moranda and Drew Merlo – none could remotely sling a fastball up to 95 mph, which Gambrell has on occasion while typically clocking in the 90-92 range.
But that’s not what is emphasized by Donald or Gambrell’s father, a former three-sport star (football, soccer, baseball) at Clovis High (Class of ’88).
They, again, draw back to an athlete who has not only played, but headlined, Buchanan-area youth all-star teams and elite state and national travel teams for all but the first six years of his 18.
James and Nichole Gambrell’s family itinerary reflects time, commitment and a rewarding trail for their youngest of three sons: Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, New York, Texas and Oregon, to say nothing of several tournaments and showcases in California.
“I saw this coming,” says Dad, referring to his son’s senior dominance, “only because every time, during all those summers while Grant was playing on elite, high-level travel teams and winning state and national championships – we’re talking with the best kids in the country – he was always one of the top three or four kids on the team. I always knew he had that in him just because he’s used to playing at a high level.
“And this is what I’m most proud of as a father: What he has accomplished this season with all the attention, pressure, expectations and hype, that’s a hard thing to live up to.”
Tom Donald points to the carryover of Gambrell’s youth résumé: “Grant has had to perform in big situations in front of important people for a long time. And I think the more you do that – not that you ever get used to it – you become acclimated to the bright lights, the big games, Friday nights in the TRAC.
“I think you’re more prepared because the game doesn’t speed up on you; you’ve been there, you’ve done that, and there’s a lot to be said for it.”
Not to be ignored are the family genetics of an athlete surely star-bound as a quarterback before he bailed from the sport following his freshman season because of knee and wrist injuries that required surgery in a two-year span.
In addition to Pops and brothers Madison (college wrestler) and Carter (college baseball player), there’s Mom – the former Nichole Dunn – who, while not competing in sports at Clovis West, once executed 153 consecutive pullups as a sixth-grader for Dry Creek Elementary in a district-wide physical education competition tournament.
“That’s not a story; that’s a truth,” says her husband and then-classmate.
“Mom,” Grant says, “was probably the best athlete in the family, to be honest.”
Central Section championships
At Rawhide Ballpark in Visalia
▪ Division II: No. 3 Redwood vs. No. 5 Tehachapi, 8 p.m.
▪ D-III: No. 6 Selma vs. No. 13 Porterville, 1 p.m.
▪ D-IV: No. 1 Firebaugh vs. No. 2 Immanuel, 9:30 a.m.
▪ D-V: No. 1 Central Valley Christian vs. No. 2 Chavez, 4:30 p.m.
▪ D-I: No. 1 Buchanan vs. No. 2 Clovis North, 7:30 p.m.
▪ D-VI: No. 1 Sierra vs. No. 2 Kern Valley, 4 p.m.