This was what Matt Hobgood had been waiting for.
Hundreds of fans and dozens of scouts crowded into Hart Park in Orange, Calif., to watch the 2008 Southern Section Division I quarterfinals showdown between his Norco squad and perennial power Orange Lutheran.
Of course, most of the spectators weren't there for Hobgood. Sure, he was in the midst of a
dominant junior campaign and had already
committed to Cal State Fullerton, but Orange Lutheran's Gerrit Cole was the main attraction. Arguably the nation's top high school pitcher last year, Cole could hit triple digits on the radar gun and would eventually become the New York
Yankees' first-round pick in the 2008 MLB Draft.
But on this day, Hobgood was better.
The 6-foot-4, 245-pound righty threw a
complete-game, five-hit shutout to propel Norco into the semifinals with a 1-0 win.
"A lot of people at that game said it was one of the best high school games they've ever been to," says Mike Grahovac, the coach of Orange Lutheran at the time and Hobgood's travel ball coach the past two summers.
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The victory stamped Hobgood as one of the best prep players in the country and a true bulldog on the mound.
"I like pitching under pressure," Hobgood says. "The bigger the game, the better I pitch."
After the Cougars scored the game's only run in the top of the fifth, the Lancers put two men on in the bottom of the frame before Hobgood got a strikeout to end the rally. Lutheran didn't threaten again.
"As soon as we scored a run, I smelled blood and wanted to finish," says Hobgood, who throws a mid-90s fastball, a nasty 12-to-6 curveball and a changeup.
The Cougars' season ended the next game with a 5-3 loss to Long Beach Wilson, despite Hobgood's 3-for-3, three-RBI performance at the plate.
Hobgood finished with one of the best prep
seasons in SoCal history.
Not only did he go 10-0 with a 1.32 ERA and 98 strikeouts in 74 innings pitched, he was a beast at the plate as well, cracking a school-record 15 home runs (third most in the state) while posting a .489 batting average and 45 RBIs. Thanks to that combination, the pitcher/first baseman was named Los Angeles Times Player of the Year, beating out five players who were among the top 75 picks in last year's MLB Draft.
Despite all the stats and accolades, it's Hobgood's ability to shine when the spotlight is brightest that
sets him apart. Perhaps that's because Hobgood's
definition of pressure is likely a little different than yours.
Starting a playoff game? Stepping to the plate with your team down a run, a man on third and two outs? Please. That's not real pressure.
Real pressure is manning up as a 9-year-old when your father gets diagnosed with colon cancer. It's becoming a rock for your mom and four sisters as things get really bad over the next four years.
It's promising your dad as an eighth-grader you'll hit a home run for him when he can't make it out of bed to watch you in person -- and delivering with a game-winning blast, then giving him the ball just two weeks before he succumbs to the disease.
To this day, Hobgood points to the sky after hitting a home run -- which some misinterpret as Bondsian showboating -- in tribute to his dad.
The Hobgoods moved from Arizona, where Matt and his sisters had grown up, to Norco so his mother could be closer to her family following the death of her husband. Once again, Hobgood faced real pressure. After being home-schooled through the seventh grade, he needed to adjust to a new town and a new school.
So no, Hobgood isn't fazed by high stakes on the diamond.
His ability to escape on the field might account for the childlike joy he plays with each day, whether it's a preseason scrimmage or a postseason game against a future first-rounder.
"Matt has a lot of fun playing the game," Norco coach Gary Parcell says. "His energy is real visible for everybody to see."
When he's on the mound, Hobgood turns it up a notch, punctuating big outs with a Tiger-like fist pump.
Cal State Fullerton assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Sergio Brown knows Hobgood may have pitched his way out of college and into the draft with his junior season. But Brown thinks the Titans still have a shot of landing Hobgood on
campus because of the hurler's love for the game.
"Matt is the epitome of what a college baseball player is all about," Brown says. "He has a great
attitude, he has fun out there and he's the ultimate team guy."
There are countless stories about Hobgood
having fun on and off the field. Parcell will never
forget the season opener during Hobgood's
sophomore year when his future star got everyone's attention for the wrong reason.
Hobgood wasn't playing that day, and while sitting on the bench, a foul popup drifted toward the Norco dugout. Hobgood reached over the
railing and onto the field of play to catch the ball. What he didn't realize was that the Cougars' third baseman was waiting to catch the ball.
"He looks at me with this big grin and is like, 'Coach, I caught the ball,'" Parcell says. "He just couldn't help himself and didn't realize what
he'd done. I could've killed him, but he's such a good-hearted kid."
It's hard to find fault with Hobgood, not only because he's a good kid but because he constantly delivers on the field.
Now comes the hard part: matching last season's numbers. Scouts are watching. Fans are expecting perfection. And opposing teams are itching for a shot at him.
But do you really think he's going to be bothered by the pressure?
Ryan Canner-O'Mealy is a senior writer for ESPN RISE Magazine.