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Tournaments | Story | 10/22/2015

Syracuse finds Zone in Jupiter

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

JUPITER, Fla. – The last time Syracuse Sports Zone head coach Dickie Woodridge had an opportunity to speak with Perfect Game, he had a little more on his mind than baseball. The SSZ Chiefs were wrapping up play at the 2012 PG WWBA World Championship at the time and Woodridge was scrambling to get his players back to their homes in the Northeast ahead of Hurricane Sandy.

“We ended up having to spend a night in the Atlanta airport but we all eventually made it home safely,” Woodridge said Thursday morning.

He was speaking from the Miami Marlins quad at the Roger Dean Stadium Complex while his Syracuse (N.Y.) Sports Zone team prepared to help kick off the 17th annual PG WWBA World Championship with an exhibition (non-pool-play) game against the Upstate Mavericks out of Lyman, S.C.

This is the sixth year Woodridge has brought a Sports Zone squad to the prestigious, 85-team WWBA World Championship, and on this sunny, breezy and very comfortable morning he was much more relaxed talking about hurricane-force heaters instead of hurricane-force winds. The conditions were perfect and it was time to get after it at the most heavily scouted high school-level tournament in all of amateur baseball.

“There are a lot of events that Perfect Game runs now in places like Atlanta and Fort Myers that are really good,” Woodridge said. “This is really kind of the last one (of the fall season) and it’s really the biggest of them all, so there is always a lot of anticipation leading up this one.”

By md-day on Thursday, most of the hundreds of golf carts had been claimed by MLB scouts and college coaches/recruiters, and were seen zipping around the 13-field Roger Dean complex that serves as the Grapefruit League spring training home of the Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals.

For five days in late October, it represents a virtual holy land for more than 1,800 of the country’s top high school prospects, each of whom is hoping to catch the eye of someone capable of being a difference-maker in their baseball future.

“There are so many kid that want to come to this tournament that play for us or just play in our area, and not everybody can come nor should everybody come,” Woodridge said. “These are kids that are high-level players that all do something exceptionally well, whether it’s run, bat speed, hit – whatever it is. We want to showcase them in front of some of the top schools in the country and a lot of the pro scouts, too.”

Syracuse Sports Zone 2016 first baseman/left-handed pitcher Ryan Popp played at last year’s PG WWBA World Championship with the Voorhees, N.J.-based Tri-State Arsenal and feels like he came into play on Thursday with a better understanding of what to expect than he had a year ago.

“I know there are a lot of people watching these games and you can’t really play outside yourself; you’ve got to play within yourself,” said Popp, a Villanova University recruit from Rye, N.Y., ranked in the top-500 nationally. “You’ve got to really leave it all on the field and you can’t keep anything in reserve.

“With the great competition here, with all the great teams that made it through the qualifiers and just seeing all the people behind the fence watching, I just love being here.”

This SSZ team was assembled from the ground up starting with Woodridge’s top five or six guys from his Syracuse Sports Zone summer squad. Eleven rosters spots are filled with prospects from the Northeastern states of New York, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island; others are occupied by players from Louisiana, Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico. Woodridge found the outliers through his contacts with numerous people in the scouting community and came here with the best team possible.

It's a roster with a nice blend of high school seniors (class of 2016) and juniors (2017) and one talented sophomore (2018). The 2016s are led by Popp; right-hander Aaron George from Calhoun, La. (top-500, uncommitted) and right-hander Ben Anderson from Rexford, N.Y. (top-1,000 Binghamton U.).

 Outfielder/left-hander Duke Ellis from Nacogdoches, Texas (top-1,000, uncommitted); left-hander Trevor Delaite out of Bangor, Maine (unranked, U. of Maine); and left-hander/first baseman Christopher Wright from Cumberland, R.I. (uncommitted, Bryant U.) are other notable 2016s.

Outfielder/shortstop Leugim Castillo is an uncommitted 2017 from Lancaster, N.Y., who has risen to No. 26 in PG’s class of 2017 national rankings, and heads the list of talented underclassmen on the Sports Zone roster. This is his first visit to the PG WWBA World Championship.

“We want to go out and play hard every single inning and win a bunch of games here,” Castillo said Thursday morning. “I love playing in big events like this … and we always expect to do well; you come out here and play your hardest, right? We feel pretty good and pretty confident and we’re ready to see what happens.”

University of West Virginia commit Connor Hamilton, a catcher/outfielder from Forestport, N.Y., has risen to No. 142 in the class of 2017 national prospect rankings; uncommitted first baseman/outfielder Davey Moffett from Oneida, N.Y., is ranked No. 207 in the class of 2018.

They are all part of a 16-man roster that is looking forward to tangling it up with the best travel ball teams in the world with the intention of learning something every step of the way.

“Some of the guys on this team I’m just meeting for the first time today, and it’s pretty cool to see where they come from and learn about their backgrounds,” Popp said. “Playing against teams from all over the country is definitely a great experience, getting to know all these people and see where they come from.

“You can take things away from the game that maybe you don’t see from your part of the country – maybe they play at different pace or a different speed, and it’s just fun to see.”

Syracuse Sports Zone is in Pool K at the 17-pool event, a pod that also includes historically strong Elite Squad Prime, SGV Arsenal and Lids Team Indiana.

In the pre-tournament pool preview put together by members of PG’s scouting department, PG National Scouting/Event Coordinator Andrew Krause identified Syracuse Sports Zone as the “dark horse” to emerge as the pool champion, noting that it’s a team with “a lot of physical players on both sides of the ball.”

Woodridge said the secret to having success here is to not differentiate too much from the variables that brought previous successes. He knows it’s likely that at some point his lineup may be facing a pitcher who is considered an early round draft prospect, one of those special guys that has command of three pitches and is capable of delivering a fastball that comes in at a hitter at 95 mph.

To Woodridge’s way of thinking, it is important the hitter does not back down. He must understand that the pitcher is still going to have it throw it over the plate in order to get him out. If a hitter stays back and sticks with his approach, there shouldn’t be any problems.

“My main goal in bringing these guys down here is for them to compete against the best and see where they’re at,” Woodridge said. “For a lot of these guys from the Northeast, it’s a different baseball game up there. To bring them down here, I want them to (realize) that there are other really good players and to compete against them they have to be mentally tough and go out there and do what they do best.”

The players themselves are even more philosophical about the Jupiter experience: “You never know where life is going to take you after this,” Castillo said. “I mean, if you think about it, you might see more than half of these guys later (in life) playing pro ball, and it should be a lot of fun.

“I want to take away from this everything from the exposure aspect and hopefully some long-term friendships with some of these guys.”

Concluded Popp: “This is the best way to finish off your fall season. After coming off a big summer of travel, I can’t think of a better way to end the season them with this huge tournament right now.”

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