Benching set Cecchini on path to greatness

The kid with all the promise sat glued to the bench. His eyes were fixed upon the baseball diamond, watching his teammates play the game he had loved all his life.

Gavin Cecchini never imagined his freshman year would go this poorly.

Prior to high school, he was a Little League star, leading his Lake Charles, La., squad to the 2006 Little League World Series. And he helped the team to its only win there by fanning seven and collecting two hits against Columbia, Mo.

Cecchini couldn’t wait to get to Barbe (Lake Charles, La.), where his dad, Glenn, was the head coach and his brother, Garin, was the star shortstop. And he was living the dream early on by earning the starting job at second base.

But Gavin struggled at the plate and he carried that over to the dugout after each at-bat, often throwing his bat and helmet in disgust.

Finally, his father had enough. Glenn’s philosophy is to always respect the game, and Gavin wasn’t doing that. So he found a seat on the bench for seven games.

“For the first time in his life, he was struggling,” said Glenn, who’s in his 25th year at the helm of the Buccaneers. “You’re always tougher on your own kids, but he’ll never do that again. He came back a lot stronger.”

“I was just immature,” added Gavin. “If I had an 0-for-4 game, I treated it like I wouldn’t have another at-bat. Instead of thinking about the game, I was thinking about the last mistake I made. I think that was the best thing that happened to me. I wouldn’t be the player I am today if he didn’t bench me.”

What Gavin has become is the nation’s No. 8 prospect in the ESPN 100 and a projected first-round pick in this year’s MLB draft. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound shortstop, who signed with Ole Miss, capped his high school career by leading the Bucs to the Class 5A state title on May 13, propelling the team to the No. 34 spot in the POWERADE FAB 50 as of press time. It was the school’s sixth state title overall, all with Glenn as head coach.

Gavin finished the year hitting .413 with a .527 on-base percentage, seven homers, 32 RBIs and 31 stolen bases. He was particularly impressive during the playoffs, batting .467 with a .566 OBP. And he did all that with a wooden bat after switching from the BBCOR aluminum model he was using early in the season.

Winning state was a dream come true for Gavin, who grew up around the tradition-rich Barbe program with the field serving as his second home. Not only was his dad the coach, his mom, Raissa, served as an assistant coach for 17 years and is now the team’s scorekeeper.

“He was a bat boy when he was 4,” said Glenn. “It was a way of life for him. He did his homework in the office and then played catch with the older guys.”

Gavin looked up to star Bucs like Joe Lawrence, who was a first-round pick by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1996. But he especially revered his brother.

“He tried to mimic him,” said Raissa. “Garin is such a good role model.”

“He’s not only my brother -- he’s my best friend,” said Garin, now a third baseman with the Greenville Drive, a Single-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox in South Carolina. “We hung out every single day.”

Gavin couldn’t wait to play with his brother in high school and hoped to one day win a state title with him. He nearly got his wish as a freshman.

Following his benching, Gavin played his way back into the starting lineup and helped the Bucs to the Class 5A state semifinals, where they were edged by eventual state champion Northshore (Slidell, La.), 11-10.

While the brothers were upset, they figured they’d have another opportunity the following year. But that went out the window just 14 games into the 2010 season when Garin tore the ACL in his right knee.

“I took it really hard,” said Gavin. “I usually don’t get emotional, but I thought it might be the last time I’d ever get to play with him again. But I knew I had to put the team on my back.”

Gavin took over at shortstop for Garin, who ended up getting drafted in the fourth round by the Red Sox that June. He nearly willed the Bucs to a state crown, but once again they fell short of their goal, losing by one run to Lafayette (La.) in the semis.

Barbe lost to Jesuit (New Orleans), 2-1, in last year’s quarterfinals, though Cecchini was named Gatorade State Player of the Year. He was the third Barbe player to earn the honor, joining Lawrence and Carmen Angelini.

This past fall, Gavin led the USA Baseball 18U National Team to the gold medal at the COPABE 18U/AAA Pan American Championships in Colombia. He hit .500 with 17 RBIs in 15 games.

“He was very confident in his ability on the field and was very competitive, which are two great traits to have,” said Team USA coach and former New York Yankees third baseman Scott Brosius. “He was one of the go-to guys on the team. Guys responded to him.

“He has that blue-collar mentality, and he brought it to the park with him every day.”

Gavin carried that mentality over to his offseason workouts, albeit a little too much. He trained three times a day, from taking BP to lifting weights to pulling tires. The regimen sapped all the energy from his body, though, and his hamstrings were so tight that he had to miss the first six games of his senior season.

“It was a lesson learned,” said his father. “He realized that more isn’t always better.”

After the time off, Gavin returned with a purpose. For starters, he wanted to prove to the upwards of 60 scouts who attended his games that he was worthy of a first-round pick.

“I’m just playing my heart out,” he said, “and whatever team drafts me, that’s going to be one of the best decisions they will have ever made. I’m not trying to come out as cocky, but I know teams are going to pass on me. All I know is the teams that pass on me are going to regret it.”

Gavin has always had an unwavering belief in himself on the field. And he was especially confident that Barbe would capture the state crown this year.

When the Bucs had finished celebrating their 3-2 win over Archbishop Rummel (Metairie, La.) in the Class 5A final, Gavin sought out his father, who had joined his team in the celebratory dog pile. The pair hugged each other and cried, knowing this would be the last time they’d share a moment like this again.

And it made Gavin’s benching his freshman year seem like a lifetime ago.

“It’s the best feeling ever, especially when you’re playing for your dad and it’s your last game and you go out with a bang,” said Gavin. “When we made that last out, it was like all the blood, sweat and tears I put in finally paid off.”