FORT MYERS, Fla. – They were brought together about five years ago now, a group of young Georgia ballplayers who were being schooled at home and didn’t have high school teams to play for during the spring baseball season.
Welcomed in by Home Plate Baseball in Peachtree City, Ga., and anchored by at least one exceptional eighth-grade talent, a competitive team was not only born, but matured and prospered. The Home Plate Citadels have been in existence for five years and former minor league right-handed pitcher Esteban Maldonado has been their head coach for the last four.
Maldonado has his team in Southwest Florida this weekend for the inaugural Perfect Game High School Showdown-Academies, a nine-team tournament that includes several teams that don’t have specific high school affiliations. Those teams include SBO Storm Puerto Rico, the Ontario Blue Jays from Canada and Future Stars Baseball from the Virgin Islands.
“They get to see a high level of baseball at tournaments like this,” Maldonado told PG Thursday afternoon when asked about what benefit the Citadels will get from their participation. “Also, you get to see international teams and the international touch, which is a different kind of baseball in itself. It is very good for them to experience it.
“It is a combination of (the exposure) and the high level of baseball that they get to play,” he said. “The exposure is very important for these kids – some of them are going to college and some of them are still looking – but for them to put themselves on the map can only help them.”
One of the Citadels’ top players who has already been on the map for the past five years is home-schooled 2014 outfielder and first baseman Kel Johnson from Palmetto, Ga. Johnson is an alumnus of the 2013 Perfect Game National Showcase in Minneapolis and also played in the 2013 Perfect Game All-American Classic in San Diego.
A Georgia Tech signee, Johnson is ranked the No. 38 overall national prospect in the 2014 class. He was one of the first members of the Home Plate Citadels when the team was formed in the spring of 2010. “I’ve been coaching for four years and Kel Johnson has been with us for the last five,” Maldonado said.
“It’s been a great experience playing with this team and playing for Esteban – I love Esteban and it’s just been awesome,” Johnson said Thursday, his usual enthusiasm for the game obvious in every word he spoke. “This has been a great time for development. In the offseason, Home Plate has a great facility – you can go in there and they have ‘Iron Mike’ pitching machines and you can crank those things up to like 95 (mph) and ‘Pow!’ so that’s awesome.
“(Playing with the Citadels has) definitely been a time of development and getting better, and getting better for the summertime and all the Perfect Game events that I do then.”
Right-hander Casey Lenoch, a home-schooled 2014 from Newnan, Ga., and a Kennesaw State signee who also attended the 2013 Perfect Game National Showcase, is in his second year as a member of the Home Plate Citadels. He played traditional high school baseball at East Coweta High in Sharpsburg, Ga., for most of four years as an eighth-grader, freshman, sophomore and junior.
He was young for his high school grade so his parents, who were home-schooling him, held him back and he began playing for the Citadels as a junior in the spring of 2013.
“The main person who told me about it was Kel, because I grew up playing with Kel and we’ve been pretty close since were about 10 years old,” Lenoch said. “He said, ‘Listen, if this is what you want to do, come and play with us. We’ve got a pretty good program.’ I started talking to him about it and it just kind of fell into place and I ended up coming over here and it was probably the best decision that I’ve ever made.
“The competition is pretty much the exact same thing at a normal high school, and these guys, I just love playing with them because we are closely knit and it’s just a great team.”
The Citadels started out as strictly a place for home-schooled kids to become a part of their own team, but that is changing. The group is in the process of making the transition to more of an academy, and is welcoming players that attend a high school. The roster at the PG HS Showdown-Academies includes 11 players that attend high school along with 10 home school players.
Of the most highly regarded prospects on the Citadels’ roster, 2014 right-hander/first baseman Caleb Kunkel and 2014 corner-infielder Ryan Goodman join Johnson and Lenoch as being home-schooled; 2014 shortstop Matthew Rhodes (ranked No. 300 nationally) attends Whitewater High School in Fayetteville, Ga.
“Right now we’re having kids come in from different high schools where they’re (looking for better opportunities) or maybe they’re being limited in the number of games they can play during the year,” Maldonado said. “They come to our team and we play a pretty good schedule – we have between 40 and 45 games – and that makes a better transition for them going into the summer.”
A typical Citadels schedule will consist of dates against a lot of private schools and academies, both inside and outside of Georgia. The team does travel to North and South Carolina for tournament opportunities during the spring.
“Our best competition comes from tournaments like this with Perfect Game,” Maldonado said. “We have to come down here so we can see the best competition for the kids to compete at a high level at a tournament. We are going to go out there and give it our best and compete at the highest level. That is what we expect from them.”
The Citadels got off to a bumpy start at the PG HS Showdown-Academies on Thursday, losing to Faith Baptist Christian School from Brandon, Fla., 9-2 at the Player Development 5-Plex. Home Plate managed only six hits – three of them singles from 2014 home school Matt Bollinger from Sharpsburg – and were victimized by four errors that led to five unearned runs.
Maldonado sends Lenoch to the hill for the Citadels’ second game of the tournament Friday against the Ontario Blue Jays and 2013 PG All-American Gareth Morgan.
Lenoch is in a unique situation in that he has played on both a traditional high school team and is now playing with the less traditional Citadels.
“I liked playing at an actual high school just for the atmosphere and stuff like that, but all the guys on this team, we’re all just like brothers,” he said. “I could stay with any of them anytime during the week and it would just be like any brother that I could have had.”
Lenoch and Johnson also have extensive histories playing for Marietta-based East Cobb Baseball during the summer months, primarily with the elite East Cobb Astros and East Cobb Braves.
“Me and Casey actually go way back and we played together when we were knee high to a grasshopper,” Johnson said with laugh. “We’ve played together forever, and come about 14 or 15 (years old) I hit up Casey and I said, ‘Man, you’ve got to come out here and try out with East Cobb.’ He came up his 16 year and played for Guerry Baldwin; that was his first year and he’s been there since.”
“The thing with East Cobb is that a lot of times the guys that we had, a lot of them would be from different states and you didn’t know them as well,” Lenoch said. “But here, I’ve known a lot of these guys since I was a little kid. I grew up playing with them in rec ball when I first started when I was 10 years old, and then I come here and they’re still playing ball and I end up playing with them again and we kind of got right back into it.”
This tournament is the 30th Perfect Game event Johnson has attended since he showed up at his first one as a 14-year-old in June of 2010. Most of that participation came at PG WWBA and PG BCS tournaments with East Cobb, but he was also at the two most prestigious showcase events PG can offer: the National Showcase and the All-American Classic.
“I think it’s funny when you go to my Perfect Game profile, you can scroll down for awhile; it’s been an awesome ride with Perfect Game,” Johnson said, laughing at the thought. “I don’t know if this is my last event, and I’m just having fun playing.”
He has his dream scholarship at Georgia Tech in his pocket but will also have to pay close attention to June’s MLB First-Year Player Draft. Perfect Game ranks Johnson as the 103rd overall (high school, junior college, college) prospect in this year’s draft, a number that could translate in a late third- or early fourth-round selection.
“The main thing that I’m doing is just going out and playing the game like I always have and having fun playing like I have since I was 4 years old,” he said. “I really like my coaches at Georgia Tech … and I have a great relationship with them. College baseball has always been my dream and hearing from all the pro teams is just crazy to me. I’m definitely keeping all my options open and I’m excited to see what God has in store for me.”
And Johnson will always be able to look back fondly at his days playing with the Home Plate Citadels.
“It started off as just a home school program with only home school guys, and that’s what it’s been for the past four years until this year,” he said. “We’ve opened it up and it’s become more of a club team … and this is a quality alternative with good coaches; that’s the big thing.
“It’s like a family, and people love each other. People bicker every now and then but it’s all good baseball and it’s all fun.”