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Pure hitter

Posted: April 1, 2008 3:40 a.m.
Updated: June 2, 2008 5:02 a.m.

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The fastball that Robert Stock threw in 2005 was accompanied with a sound.

At 95 miles per hour, it came with the hiss of a snake.

At the time, the Agoura High junior was one of, if not the most talked about prep players in the country.

He wasn't exactly the kind of pitcher a 14-year-old would want to see in his first high school at bat.

Yet Zachary Vincej, who already pulled off the difficult accomplishment of being named a varsity baseball team's starting shortstop while being only a freshman, had the task of facing what would become Baseball America's Youth Baseball Player of the Year.

Before the game, Vincej's stomach ached.

It ached like it did in the summer, when he was competing for a spot on any Saugus High baseball team, be it freshman, junior varsity or varsity.

But he knew enough about Stock to come in with a game plan.

Choke up.

Start your swing early.

Make contact.

Stock, at 6-feet tall, peered into the strike zone, then unfurled pitches Vincej had never seen before.

The 14-year-old fouled off Stock's best.

"Being the little freshman, I was just swinging - trying to stay alive," Vincej recalls.

Stock dealt a hissing fastball, right in Vincej's zone.

The Saugus freshman got around on it and lined it to right-center field for a single.

It was a monumental moment in the beginning of what could be one of the great prep baseball careers in Santa Clarita Valley history.

Now a junior, the 16-year-old Pepperdine-bound Vincej is one of the steadiest hitters to come through the valley this decade.

His .542 batting average as a sophomore was the second highest this decade. Now it's Vincej with a sound linked to his baseball capabilities.

It's the sound of aluminum meeting a cowhide ball with force.

"You don't," said Valencia head coach Jared Snyder on how you pitch to Vincej. "He hits fastballs, curveballs, changeups because his hands are so fast and balanced through the zone."

Vincej credits early teaching from his father Terry for his success.

"He's helped me with every aspect of the game," Vincej says. "He was my coach from when I was 7 (years old) until high school started. We usually go after the game and talk about things I did right and things I did wrong in a calm manner."

Vincej adds: "We're best friends for sure."

Attitude sets Vincej apart from other high school athletes, says his head coach John Maggiora.

Maggiora calls Vincej one of the most humble kids he's ever been around.

It's something he saw early.

Maggiora took over as Saugus varsity head coach in 2006.

He knew he had to make a statement for the program early.

"Why not establish (the program) around him," Maggiora recalls thinking. "He represents everything we want a player to be. He's coachable, he's got a great work ethic and does well in the classroom."

So Maggiora installed him as the starting shortstop on varsity, despite his age and lack of experience.

Vincej tried out for Maggiora in the summer of 2006 as a catcher.

The wiry kid played the position, along with pitcher and shortstop in PONY league.

He was soon moved to shortstop where he quickly asserted himself as a candidate for the varsity.

Vincej says playing on the varsity as a freshman wasn't even a remote hope.

In fact, he felt the level of competition from PONY ball to freshman ball was so vast.

"When I was in eighth-grade, I was going to freshman games and seeing the difference in competition between PONY ball and freshman ball. I had no idea I'd go up to varsity," Vincej says. "I was shell-shocked when it happened."

Maggiora didn't doubt Vincej.

It turned out, as a 14-year-old facing most 16-, 17- and 18- year-olds, he could hang.

Vincej ended up batting .356.

Some of that success is correlated to his baseball studies.

Vincej understands the history of the game and cites Tony Gwynn and Ted Williams as idols.

Vincej was given the Ted Williams book, "The Science of Hitting," by his hitting coach Brandon Hernandez.

He studied it and implemented the tools of who many consider to be the greatest hitter who ever lived.

"Just the mental aspect," Vincej says he learned from the book. "Going up there with the right plan. Ted Williams tried to hit it up the middle all the time. Hit the ball square every time."

Vincej is inspired by the fact that Williams was the last Major Leaguer to hit .400.

That was his goal going into this season - try and hit at least .400.

He's now at .357, having raised his batting average 85 points in the last three games.

His biggest accomplishment, though, came outside of the country.

Like Stock, Vincej made the U.S. Youth National Team.

Vincej had to compete with 37 other baseball players from across the country to represent the U.S.A. at the 2007 Youth National Games in Barquisimeto, Venezuela.

He did so, and once in Venezuela, his bat heated up with the temperature.

Vincej hit .583 while helping lead the United States to a gold medal.

In the semifinals against Cuba Aug. 23, Team USA was down 5-1 in the top of the sixth inning.

Vincej led off the inning with a pinch-hit double and would come around to score.

He went 3-for-3 in the game and Team USA would win 11-6.

Vincej went 1-for-2 in the championship game against Brazil and scored the first run in an 8-2 victory.

"Oh man, it was a blast," Vincej says of his experience. "Every minute, every second I was out there, I was enjoying it."

Maggiora says, with all the accomplishments under Vincej's belts and with one and a half varsity seasons left, he'll be one of the valley's all-time greats.

"But the finished product will be five years after high school," Maggiora says. "There are a lot of great kids in high school, but where are they after high school?"

He answers the question in regard to Vincej.

"He'll be playing this game for a long time."

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