CORONA, Calif. – It was shaping up to be a pretty good week for Norco (Calif.) High School senior pitcher and slugger Matt Hobgood.
The projected first-round draft pick was flown into Baltimore over the weekend for a little workout.
“It went real well,” he said. “It was real exciting. They have the fifth pick in the draft and they seemed real interested. We’ll see.”
On Tuesday, when the first three rounds of the Major League draft takes place, he’ll see indeed. But that just starts Hobgood's festivities.
Wednesday is Grad Night followed by Thursday’s graduation.
“Doesn’t get much better than that,” Hobgood said.
Oh, but it does and it did.
It improved greatly Sunday night when unbeknownst to him a family dinner at Claim Jumper’s restaurant in Corona turned into a surprise party of sorts.
It wasn’t his birthday or family reunion.
Gatorade officials arranged a celebration feast to commemorate it naming him the National Player of the Year.
As Hobgood approached a back room full of about three dozen family and friends, 10 of his school- and teammates began a slow clap, a fun, spirited ritual usually relegated to players who do something goofy like trip or burp or stumble over their words.
This gathering was for nothing of the sort.
Hobgood looked surprised and confused as the entire room burst into giant applause. It wasn’t until Gatorade’s Tiffany Basnett announced that the bubbly 6-foot-4, 250-pound right-hander was chosen over more than 478,000 teens as the nation’s best player did he finally comprehend.
He already knew that he was selected as California’s top player last month, but was genuinely overwhelmed to be included among previous Gatorade national winners as current Major Leaguers like Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Casey Kotchman, Zack Greinke, Justin Upton and Clayton Kershaw to name a few.
And Hobgood is hard to rattle as he proved during a stellar senior campaign which featured an 11-1 record, 0.92 ERA with 101 strikeouts and 26 walks in 68.1 innings.
Beyond his 95-mile-an-hour fastball was a quick bat and powerful, smooth swing that produced a national-best 21 home runs to go along with .475 average and 55 RBI.
Still, being selected No. 1 among almost a half-million kids made Hobgood blink pretty hard.
He joined last year's winner Kyle Skipworth (Patriot High, Riverside) and former NFL quarterback and Major League reliever Chad Hutchinson (1994-95, Torrey Pines, San Diego) as the third Californian picked for the award.
“Wow,” he kept repeating. “This is really amazing.”
None of his team or classmates seemed all that surprised. Beyond the numbers, Hobgood is as good a character kid as you’ll find, they all said. Not in a goody two-shoes short of way, but as a humble and strong leader.
The Gatorade award is based equally on performance and character.
“He’s as down to earth as the come,” said senior reserve Shay Edwards, a 4.3 student who plans to study bio medical engineering at UC Riverside next fall. “He gets along with everyone and stays humble even with all the accolades he’s earned.”
Said Hobgood’s best friend and star fullback on the football team D.J. Wood: “Whatever he does he strives to be the very best so this doesn’t surprise me all that much. Just the way he approaches things is really inspiring. He’s a great player and a better friend.”
His dual ability as pitcher and hitter made him an obvious candidate for the award. Like the Cardinals' Rick Ankiel, if pitching doesn’t work out, he may be a major league hitter.
"I hope he gets drafted by a National League team so he's able to swing the bat," Norco coach Gary Parcell. "He's just got ridiculous power."
Parcell said Hobgood is "country strong," noting he isn't "buffed out or ripped."
But he is extremely athletic for his build.
“We’ve had a lot of good athletes at this school, but we’ve never had someone who can change the outcome of a game the way Hobgood can,” Parcell said. "He can go out there on any given day and strike out 12 batters and then turn around and hit a three-run homer to win the game. He’s just such an incredible athlete, especially for a guy his size.”
Hobgood has already accepted a full ride to Cal State Fullerton, which is headed to the 2009 College World Series.
It’s more than a good backup choice if he’s not selected in the first round of the draft.
“No matter what happens Tuesday, something great is on the horizon,” he said. “I’m looking forward to either a great college or pro career or both.”
For two hours at the restaurant, family and friends told stories about Hobgood, his childhood, large eating habits, humor and baseball prowess. He once ate a Costco-sized box of Fruit Loops at a single seating.
"The boy can eat," said Wood's mom.
He chewed up 90 minutes by roasting every person in attendance, cutting up good naturedly on their personality but then offering sincere, warm thanks, especially to his mom, four sisters, grandmother and many mentors who filled in when his father Rick passed away from colon cancer four years ago.
It was then Hobgood's mom Rebecca moved her quintet from Arizona to Norco to be near family.
She told Hobgood he didn't need to be the man of the family full of females, "but to just be himself."
"We're so lucky that's exactly who he is," Rebecca said. "I'm thankful every day for that. He's just got a strong sense of who he is and he's very good to people. His dad was the same way. Everyone loved him."
His only son especially. The two had many long chats during Rick's final days.
"He told me near the end of his life to watch after them," Hobgood said. "I think I tried to assume his role for awhile but mom told he that I didn't need to. I just tried to step up a little more. It was just rough for everyone. But that's life. Everything happens for a reason. We just had to deal with it our own certain way."
Parcell, a cancer survivor himself, said Hobgood dealt with it the very best way.
"I'm sure he felt a great burden and being 15-years-old, that's tremendous stress," he said. "I can't imagine what he went through. I don't want to imagine it.
"But when tragedy in life happens, you're on the edge. And you can go either way. You can feel sorry for yourself and hang out with the wrong people or you can do something about it. Fortunately for us and Matt and his family, he chose the right road."
Rick helped guide his son shortly before he passed, sharing his own rebellious days as a teen-ager and young man.
Rick told his son about one particular night, there was some drinking and driving, a rolled vehicle and a good friend endured brain damage.
That story has always stuck with Hobgood who has avoided peer pressures throughout a delicate age.
"I've just never got drunk or smoked because nothing ever comes good out of it," he said. "I've seen it for myself and I've got too much too lose."
He's turned his life over to a greater power, though is private about it. "God has given me all that talent so all the glory goes to him," he said.
Hobgood points to his dad in the sky after every home run and every once in a while asks for a little extra strength.
On deck before a playoff at-bat against Temecula Valley last month Hobgood wrote his dad's initial in the dirt. He then proceeded to blast a game-winning two-run homer, giving him 39 for his prep career, breaking the Inland Empire record of 36.
He's also set school marks in career pitching wins, shutouts and strikeouts.
None of which would have been possible without the village that helped raise him, most of them were in the restaurant room on Sunday. He acknowledged all of them then and does so each day.
“I couldn’t be in this position without my teammates and their support and all the hits and runs and friendship,” he said. “And it’s helped so much to have a strong family who is there for me every step whether I win or lose or am not very happy after I don’t play well. I just feel incredibly blessed.”
He felt even more blessed Monday when he was presented the Gatorade award at an assembly set up just for him in the Norco school gym. .
Hobgood expressed his gratitude to his school and classmate and family and the Gatorade organization before fearlessly professing his love to girlfriend Stephanie Badalamenti, drawing major "ahhhhs" from the female student body of about the 1,000 on hand.
He then played cheerleader and led a school cheer. Like a just-wed groom he posed for family pictures. Finally, like a goofy teen and good sport, he dressed up in a wig and danced with two school Cougar mascots.
"What a week," he said afterward. "And it's only Monday."
E-mail Mitch Stephens at firstname.lastname@example.org.