FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There are several challenges facing head coach Tim Layden and the Montverde Academy Eagles at this week's inaugural Perfect Game High School Showdown, but most of the biggest of those challenges were confronted and conquered long before the Eagles made the drive down from Lake County in north-central Florida.
Montverde Academy, with an enrollment of just more than 770 students, describes itself as an "international, coeducational, college preparatory school" and some of its diversity is on display with the baseball team. Six of the 17 roster spots are filled with players that identify cities or towns in Puerto Rico as their hometowns, and four of those prospects are considered among the best from the island.
The challenge for Layden is bringing all the kids together as one cohesive group capable of being competitive at a high-profile event like the PG HS Showdown.
"There are some cultural barriers that we have to overcome early on in the year," Layden said Thursday from the rain-soaked playing field at City of Palms Park. "Having the diverse population that we do (at the school) from Puerto Rico and the Dominican and the United States, as well; obviously everyone brings their own different culture, their own different way, their thoughts of life and their feelings on how to play the game.
"We're just trying to mold all of that into 'our' way. Not so much, necessarily, an American way or a Dominican way or a Puerto Rican way, but just the Montverde way; how 'we' want to approach it."
The Eagles ran into a buzz saw in their rain-delayed Showdown opener Thursday night, falling to Cartersville (Ga.) High School, 7-2. They smacked out five hits but struck out 13 times against Cartersville right-hander Hayes Linn, and neither of the runs they scored were earned.
Speaking before the game, Montverde senior catcher Luis Ciuro, one of the team's highly regarded Puerto Rican prospects, could barely contain his enthusiasm about the event, which pits four Florida schools against four Georgia schools in head-to-head play.
"I am so excited to be here right now," Ciuro said in very acceptable English, considering he learned the language just two years ago. "I was thinking about this tournament and I said, 'Perfect Game, oh wow,' so I've been waiting for it; we've got all these teams to play from (another state)."
Layden, too, could sense his players' excitement.
"This is something they were all looking forward to," he said. "A lot of them have a good history with Perfect Game as it is and I know they've been excited and looking at the schedule for a long time."
Montverde's top-ranked prospect is sophomore outfielder Bryan Scheker from Clermont, Fla. Scheker, listed at 6-foot-3, 190-pounds, is ranked 77th nationally in the class of 2015.
Most of the Eagles' other highly ranked prospects are native Puerto Ricans: junior right-hander/outfielder/shortstop Luis Alvarado, ranked 101st nationally and No. 1 in Puerto Rico (2014); sophomore shortstop Gabriel Garcia, ranked No. 2 in Puerto Rico (2015); senior right-hander/third baseman Angel Alicia-Nieves, ranked No. 10 in Puerto Rico (2013); and Ciuro, Puerto Rico's No. 14-ranked prospect in the 2013 class.
Academics is a point of emphasis at Montverde Academy, and the students are challenged in the classroom from the beginning of their careers at the school. Layden values the importance of a good education; he returned to Duke University in 2010 to complete his degree in Biological Anthropology and Anatomy after a seven-year professional playing career. He teaches Biology and Primates Zoology at Montverde's Upper School.
"A lot of the kids we have on the roster now we've had for two or three years," he said. "We have a lot of young kids that we bring in and, you know, it's all word of mouth down there. We've kind of built up a pretty good reputation and we have a bunch of kids that apply (for admission). If they're able to get in academically, then we go forward from there.
"Everybody has to be accepted into the school before we even consider anything about baseball," he continued. "That's first and foremost above anything else, given the academic standards of the school itself."
This is Ciuro's second year at Montverde Academy and he feels like he's grown as young man.
"Things are completely different now," said Ciuro, who started playing baseball in Puerto Rico as a 4-year-old and never slowed down. "When I came here I didn't speak any English, and now life's changed and I speak English and baseball is different now. You've got to work hard here, but I really like it."
Baseball is probably what comes easiest to the Eagles players: "Once they get out here, baseball is baseball," Layden said. "Baseball is kind of the universal language that brings everybody together. You even see it in pro ball all the time -- everybody's just right there together."
The idea is to get each kid into a college at any desired level where he can continue to study and play baseball. Alicia-Nieves has signed with Wabash Valley College, senior infielder Kevin Olmeda Ahedo from Clermont -- the No.-ranked infield prospect in Florida in his class -- with Alabama State, and senior catcher/outfielder Walter J Nieves with Alcorn State.
Two recent Montverde graduates -- Francisco Lindor and Alexis Rivera -- were drafted right out of high school and are playing in the minor leagues in the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals organizations, respectively.
"Whether it's college or pro ball, that's kind of in their hands and it's up to them," Layden said. "We try to set everybody up so they can get into the best college situation possible with the academic work that they do. That's really what we try to preach over there -- let them be a student-athlete and if the opportunity presents itself to go on and do bigger and better, at least they'll have the education and the background as a standby."
The Eagles will look to rebound from their Showdown-opening loss when they play Blessed Trinity Catholic High School from Roswell, Ga., Friday night at Terry Park. They'll be ready to go.
"Like every team, we've got our downs and ups, but we work together and we keep trying and trying; we work hard," Ciuro said.