Tournaments | Story | 6/29/2014

Doing it the SACSN way

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Months ago, when Frank Torre Jr. began to contact top underclass talent primarily from the class of 2016 to be a part of his second SACSN National Team all-star squad, he knew exactly the type of player he was looking for.

The kid had to be smart – both on the field and in the classroom – he had to be talented and competitive, and he had to be willing to give a little bit of himself back to the community. In other words, Torre Jr. was looking to fill the roster he would bring to the 16u Perfect Game BCS Finals national championship tournament with about 20 Dylan Lesters.

Dylan Lester is a 6-foot-2, 175-pound primary right-handed pitcher and infielder in the high school class of 2016 that in the fall will begin his junior year at Brenham (Texas) High School. He carries a 3.75 grade-point average at Brenham High and has performed well enough at four Perfect Game events over the last year – including the PG Junior National Showcase a couple of weeks ago – to earn the No. 257 national prospect ranking in the 2016 class. And he also performed well enough to catch Torre Jr.’s eye.

“It’s a big accomplishment … and an honor to be able to come down here and play with some of the top guys in the nation,” Lester told PG Sunday morning before Torre Jr. sent him out to start SACSN National’s fourth pool-play game of the tournament.

“It was definitely something I didn’t have to think about very long – a no-brainer – getting to play with the best guys in the nation, to come down here, have fun, play baseball and do what we do,” he said. “I’m really excited to come out here and play my best for them.”

As first reported by Perfect Game in September, the Student Athlete Community Service Network (SACSN) was formed a little over two years ago by Torre Jr. in alliance with the Joe Torre Foundation with the stated mission of showing student-athletes that the organization is a “great way to build leadership qualities, build volunteer hours, network within your community and ‘stand out’ during the college application process.”

“The whole mission of it is to get student-athletes out in their community and out doing good things off of the baseball field as far as performing community service in many different facets,” Torre Jr. told PG in September. The first SACSN National Team debuted that month at the 2013 Perfect Game/EvoShield Underclass National Championship in Goodyear, Ariz.

Torre Jr. has produced a second act this summer, and the result of his efforts is a roster filled with talented 16-year-olds from the same mold as Lester, eight of whom are ranked 289th or higher nationally and five of whom have already committed to NCAA Division I colleges.

One of the team’s leaders is 2016 shortstop Nick Derr from Geneva, Ill., who attends the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and is the country’s No. 70-ranked national prospect in his class.

Derr normally plays summer-ball with the Chicago-based Elite Baseball Training organization and plans to be on board with EBT at the PG WWBA 17u National Championship July 4-11 at Perfect Game Park South at LakePoint in Emerson, Ga. Like Lester, however, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to perform with SACSN National this week.

“This is a great group of guys,” he said Sunday. “We’re starting to know each other very well and we’re starting to play together as a team, and I think this is going to be an eventful week. We have a lot in common with each other and that helps a lot, and I feel like when we get to know each other and we get to talk to each other, we will all come together. We all have the same interests and it’s pretty easy to mesh with these guys, it really is.”

Torre Jr., who is the head baseball coach at William T. Dwyer High School in Jupiter, Fla., insists it doesn’t take much of sales job to convince the young prospects to be a part of the SACSN National Team for no more than a week as long as it doesn’t interfere with their other commitments.

He was even able to include a couple of his own Dwyer HS players on the roster: 2017 outfielder/right-hander Tyler Ahearn, a Florida State commit, and 2017 right-hander/catcher Shane Roberts.

“I reach out to these guys and kind of tell them what we’re trying to do with SACSN,” he said. “Every tournament that we’re involved with we try to do something out in the community … and get them exposed to something a little more than baseball. These kids all seem to be real responsive to it and they really think it’s a cool idea. Most of the time we have real good success with these kids trying to be a part of it, so that’s great.”

The SACSN National Team lost their first game at the 16u PG BCS Finals on Friday, dropping a 9-5 decision to the West Morris Minutemen out of Randall, N.J. The loss was unexpected but certainly not lethal after SNT came back to beat the Beyel Brothers Bulldogs (Rockledge, Fla.), 3-2, and the East Cobb Patriots (Atlanta, Ga.), 3-0, on Saturday.

They blanked the Banditos Houston, 6-0, in the game Lester started Sunday morning. The right-hander worked five strong, shutout innings, allowing only two hits while striking out four and walking one.

That first SACSN National Team that played at the Perfect Game/EvoShield Underclass National Championship in September of last year ended up leaving the desert with a PG national championship trophy and PG national championship rings, by the way. The SACSN National Team has a short history but it’s an already memorable one.

“This is our second SACSN National Team and we had really good success with the first one,” Torre Jr. said. “We come in here with a good group of kids, and in that first game (on Friday) – it’s hard when you put a team together and they don’t know each other. We were just a little bit sloppy but we’re playing much better now.

“I’m looking forward with all these kids just to have the opportunity to coach them,” he continued. “It’s a great group of talent, and they’re all just good kids, too.”

One of the biggest challenges facing a coach who is putting together what is essentially an all-star team is getting the kids to, well, play together. It helps that the roster is filled with naturally born leaders like Derr, Lester and many others.

Wyatt Featherston is a top 2016 outfielder from Lakewood, Colo., and Green Mountain High School where he carries a 3.5 GPA and is ranked 189th nationally; Henry Ryan is a 2016 right-hander/third baseman from Charlotte, N.C., who totes a 4.4 GPA at Ardrey Kell High School, has committed to North Carolina-Chapel Hill and is ranked 251st.

Just a couple of more: Shawn Kelly is a 2016 catcher from Sweeny (Texas) High School who carries a 3.8 GPA and is ranked No. 265; Connor Manous, a U. of Miami commit, is a 2016 catcher from Munster (Ind.) High School with a 3.4 GPA and a No. 266 national ranking.

“We’ve got a lot of leaders on this team, so whenever we get (to the field) and we’re ready to play, we always feed off each other for energy, trying to make each other play better and get ready for the game,” Lester said. “Whether it’s pregame, taking ground balls (or) just playing catch, we always see who can throw the farthest or who can throw the hardest – we’re always trying to feed off each other. It’s a lot of fun.”

“It doesn’t take them long,” Torre Jr. said of the players getting acclimated to one another. “Our second game we were playing much better and much more relaxed then our first, and I told them to just do your thing and let your instincts take over and just play the game like you normally do. The communication has been much better and Nick (Derr) is one that’s done a great job with that.”

What’s interesting is that when a collection of nearly 1,600 teenage brains are brought together at a tournament like the 16u PG BCS Finals, these MLB player development complexes almost turn into one big laboratory; the young players – not unlike young, budding scientists – are willing to listen, learn and even experiment in an effort to improve their games. A squad like the SACSN National Team is a microcosm of the group as a whole.

“I feel like I’m getting better every single day but I’m still trying to work as hard as I can every single day to get even better,” Derr said. “My main goal is to get better every single day and every time I step on the field, and this is good competition right here; I think this is going to ‘up’ my game a little bit. Playing in these Perfect Game tournaments, it always gets the best out of me.”

As of mid-afternoon on Sunday, when nothing had been decided at the 16u PG BCS Finals in terms of a 32-team playoff field, the SACSN National Team was confident that stubbed-toe in the tournament-opener wouldn’t turn out to be a broken foot.

“This is what it’s all about,” Torre Jr. said when he considered the next set of three pool-play games. “We came here to win; that’s the goal. We’re lined up pretty good with these next games – we’ve got pretty good pitching depth – so we should be in pretty good shape; we’ve just got to play good baseball.”

Added Derr: “I’ve wanted to win this tournament since day one; I thought we’d have a good chance. If we play together and we stick together, I have a good feeling about this tournament. I have high expectations for how this tournament is going to end up.”

And leave it to a level-headed young man like Lester to put it all in perspective:

 “We’re just out here trying to play our best and have fun. We’re definitely looking to have a big impact here at this tournament and definitely going to go pretty deep into the (playoffs). We kind of messed up in that first game, but that was just practice.”

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