ANNA – Anna freshman Rawley Hector is finally back home after over three weeks away — first, earning a spot on USA Baseball’s 15U team in North Carolina, then preparing for and competing in the 2017 COPABE Pan American “AA” Championships in Cartagena, Columbia, Aug. 9-21.

To top it off, Rawley and his teammates won the gold medal while there competing against 11 top squads from Central and South America and the Caribbean. The title game with the Dominican Republic on Aug. 19 was stopped after 3.5 innings due to rain and the teams were declared co-champions — but the 7-1 Americans, as the tourney’s final No. 1 seed, were awarded the gold.

It marked the third-straight year Team USA 15U has claimed gold at these Pan Am “AA” Championships.

“It’s still an indescribable experience,” Rawley said on Wednesday, Aug. 23, at Anna High School. “To be able to play with the best 20 players in the country, and playing against the best players in the world. You’ve got the Dominican Republic and Cuba … I was fortunate to be able to go down there and play.” He added, “It’s a great relief to be back home — and it feels even better to come home with a gold medal around your neck.”

Team USA and the other Top 5 finishers — the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Panama and Brazil — earned a spot in next year’s World Baseball Softball Confederation’s 15U World Cup in Japan.

In 11 innings of work at Cartagena, Rawley allowed one earned run and five hits while striking out six — for a wicked 0.82 ERA. Only one of the team’s 10 pitchers worked more innings than Rawley. Ten Team USA players hit above .300 during the competition, including Texans Masyn Winn of Kingwood and Tanner Witt of Houston. As a pitcher, Rawley was used sparingly at the plate but he made his appearances count with three hits in six at-bats.

The 6-2, 162-pound right-hander — who also plays infield — has been on the radar of major college programs for some time and will join the Anna Coyotes as a freshman this year.

A hug, then talk

Rawley returned to DFW International Airport on Tuesday, Aug. 22, and there to meet him was his dad, Joey Hector, head baseball coach at Anna High School. “Obviously, we had a big hug,” Hector said. “Then, instantly, he started talking about Cuba and the Dominicans and the teammates and the friends he made, the coaching staff and things like that. He probably spent two hours, nonstop, talking — just telling me as much as he could. To be honest, I just kind of sat there and listened. I enjoyed hearing the stories.”

Rawley’s sister, Maddie, now at Arkansas State University, missed the airport homecoming as did his mom, Amy, who teaches kindergarten at Anna’s Joe K. Bryant Elementary. Hector and Rawley attempted to surprise Amy in her classroom, but she walked in on them in the school office.

Rawley has been away since July 29 when he left for Cary, N.C., to try out for the 20-man 15U team. Over an intense week of evaluation there, Rawley made the cut from 72 players to 34, then from 34 to the final roster. Once the team was announced on Aug. 4, they remained in Cary four more days to prepare for the Pan-Am championships. Team USA departed for Cartagena on Aug. 9.

Hector said he and Amy stayed glued to streaming broadcasts of Rawley’s games while he was in Columbia. That included when Hector was fixing a flat between McKinney and Anna during the Cuba game. Amy, watching on her phone, offered play-by-play updates as Hector toiled. And, later, when things would get dicey for Rawley in a game, Hector said he had to stop watching. “That was the superstitious side.”

The Pan Am championship game was a rematch of Team USA’s 16-1 win over the Dominican Republic on Aug. 17. In that one, Hector pitched all five innings, allowing two hits, a walk and a run, with three strikeouts. He also collected two hits himself, including an RBI-double to left.

“To be honest with you, I came into the game really nervous,” Rawley said. “It was a must-win game. If we didn’t win that game we’re probably not looking at getting the gold medal.”

Team USA’s bats erupted early in this one, giving Rawley a 5-0 first-inning lead. “I was fortunate to get some run support,” he said. “I felt like I didn’t have my best stuff in the first inning — obviously, the first batter: a five-pitch walk… But when my offense gave me the five runs I was like, ‘OK, I’ve got a good shot.’”

Hector was even more certain: “I knew when they scored five it was over,” he said. “I knew he was good enough to beat them.”

Rawley’s double came against a 90-93-mph pitcher in that first inning with Team USA up, 4-0. “I was like, ‘I’m going to go up there and swing,’” he said. “The pitch he threw me was a first-pitch fastball.

“The feeling of beating the Dominican Republic was the greatest feeling ever,” Rawley said. “They were undefeated, their center fielder is going to sign for 2.5 million dollars. The pitcher they were throwing is going to sign for big-time money too. You’re going against guys that are about to be playing in the Major Leagues, hopefully, one day.”

Rawley added that the Dominican Republic had been highly favored to win. “It kind set fuel to our fire when we saw that. We were really determined, going into that game.”

Team USA was housed at a resort outside Cartagena, within “a few hundred yards of the beach,” Rawley said. At their hotel’s secure location, players relaxed during their free time with putt-putt, ping pong and chess. “We tried to get as much rest as we could. We knew if we got past our pool [games], the Super Round games were going to be really good. So we stressed relaxing a lot.” Rawley said that shortly after arriving in Columbia he realized it would be awhile before he had any Chick-fil-A or a Whataburger. “I missed the true American foods.”

Hector said that his son now has an even greater appreciation for teammates. “When you’ve got that many great players on one squad, it’s pretty easy to play the game — when you’ve got guys all over the field that are all-stars, the best in the country.” To be around that, Hector said, is “priceless.” He added that Rawley has always understood the value of a good work ethic as well. “To be the best you’ve got to be lucky, you’ve got to be blessed and you’ve got to work very hard.”

Has this extended trip on his own, the longest of his 15 years, changed Rawley? “I definitely became more thankful and more humble about everything,” he said. “You had to live their life a good two weeks. You come back home and you realize you have ‘the life’. They’re not begging for Wi-Fi down there like we are here. Wi-Fi isn’t the biggest thing. Just being with your family is… You feel much more protected here. Being able to walk around comfortably is a big thing. It feels great to be back.”