High School : : General
Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Penn Charter a host to history

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Zamani Feelings




2018 Northeast Region Preview2018 Perfect Game High School Preview Index

The teenaged ballplayers who slip on the William Penn Charter School Quakers’ uniform every spring go about their business playing on the open pages of an expansive, figurative history book. Everything about this K-12, coed school located in Philadelphia is historical by its very essence, and that includes a baseball program that dates its creation well back into the previous century.

“They can’t avoid it,” Quakers first-year head coach Justin Hanley told Perfect Game recently when asked if his players embrace the school’s long and distinguished history. “Not only with the baseball program, but the school itself is very old. They’re walking these halls that are hundreds of years old and it’s just baked into their everyday life at the school. …

“When you have a tight-knit alumni group that come by to a lot of the games, it’s tough to avoid that history aspect of it,” he continued. “The kids love that stuff when they have former (MLB players) and all of these college baseball players come back and let them bend their ear; it means a lot.”

The young players that will be wearing the Penn Charter uniform this year will be shouldering some pretty high expectations. When the Quakers held their first official practice of the spring on Monday, they did so occupying the No. 41 slot in the PG High School Preseason Top 50 national rankings; they are the highest ranked team in the PG HS Northeast Region (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont).

The 2017 season was a magical one for the Quakers, who used a senior-dominated roster to post a school-record 26 wins (against two losses). Graduation took a toll – 11 alumni of that team are now on college rosters, according to Hanley – but a solid group of returnees led by senior outfielder/team captain Mike Siani is ready to take the baton.

“Having the best record in Penn Charter history last year was pretty special because of how long we’ve been playing baseball at Penn Charter,” Siani told PG. “We’re right in the middle of the city and we’re right here in the middle of everything. We have a lot of people come out just because they’re curious of what we’re doing here.”

The center fielder Mike Siani and his brother Sammy, a junior right fielder, are the only returning fulltime starters from last season, although sophomore catcher Gavin Zavorski saw some playing time as a freshman in 2017.

Mike Siani is a special talent. The 6-foot, 195-pound left-handed hitter and pitcher is a Virginia signee ranked the No. 38 national prospect in the class of 2018 (No. 1 Pennsylvania); he is a two-time member of gold medal winning USA National 18u teams.

Sammy Siani is a Duke commit ranked Nos. 42/1 in the class of 2019. And there is a third Siani on Penn Charter roster this spring, freshman outfielder Jake. Hanley said it would be “cool” to put all three brothers together in the outfield during a game this season, but then quickly pointed out he has a very talented left fielder in junior Demetrius Deramus.

“But to have those three (Siani) kids here is special and Michael is the best high school player I’ve ever seen; he’s the real deal,” he said. “Just a real mild-mannered gentleman who doesn’t toot his own horn but just lets his game do the talking.”

“I’ve been playing with Sam my whole life, but now getting to play with Jake who’s a freshman … hopefully he’ll get some time on varsity and be able to compete,” Mike Siani said. “We’re getting ready to start up here in a couple of weeks and it would be really cool to be able to play with him out on the field whenever that may be.”

Other guys back who will be asked to contribute include senior right-hander/third baseman Will Samuel and junior right-hander/shortstop Tommy Snipes. Other players from all four classes – seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshman – will also be expected to step-in and step-up.

“I like to use the line, ‘punch above your weight class,” Hanley said. “I don’t care if you’re a ninth-grader, I want you to play like you’re a senior. One thing that we’re very proud about is that every year that we’ve been here we’ve had at least one freshman make all-league. If you can play, you’re going to play, and we like to throw our best nine out there.” That’s how history is made.

 

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JUSTIN HANLEY BECAME THE HEAD COACH AT WILLIAM PENN CHARTER SCHOOL
when his friend and mentor, Dave Miller, stepped aside to take over as the head coach at Philadelphia’s LaSalle University.

Miller and Hanley came to Penn Charter together in 2013, and Hanley spent the last five years as the program’s pitching coach/associate head coach. He called it a “no-brainer” for Miller to accept the LaSalle post, and when Penn Charter gave him the opportunity to take over as the fulltime head coach, Hanley called that a no-brainer, as well.

“I love the school, I love the kids and when you have the administration and the athletics department really behind the program … you can tell the school really cares about you; that’s not the case at every school,” he said. “It’s a special place and I was really fortunate to be offered the head coaching job.”

Charter schools, prep schools, private schools and parochial schools dominate the baseball landscape in the PG HS Northeast Region, and the head coaching job at Penn Charter ranks among the best in the neighborhood.

William Penn Charter School is a member of the prestigious and historic Inter-Academic League, along with Episcopal Academy, Germantown Academy, Haverford School, Malvern Prep School and Springside Chestnut Hill Academy; the league has existed in one form or another since 1887. It is widely believed that the football rivalry game between Penn Charter and Germantown is the oldest in the country.

The Penn Charter Quakers have won 35 Inter-Ac baseball championships dating back to 1930, including two this decade (2014, ’17).

“When you think about the Northeast or Philadelphia, you don’t really think about it being a hotbed of (high school) baseball,” Hanley said. “But it’s a massive city and when you have these six high-end academic schools in the Inter-Ac, you’re able to recruit and identify the best players in the area. … In our league, it’s a grind day-in and day-out, and the last two or three years it’s been us and Malvern going head-to-head.”

Siani noted that because the league is so competitive, and with the teams’ rosters chock-full of elite prospects, there is no shortage of college recruiters and pro scouts in attendance at the games. And that holds true for a postseason tournament Penn Charter also takes part in.

It is a member of the Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association (PAISAA), which holds an end of the season single-elimination tournament every year for its 40-plus members. It’s a three-round affair with the top seeds receiving first-round byes, and a state champion is ultimately crowned.

Inter-Ac schools Malvern Prep, Haverford and Germantown have combined to win the championship 11 of the last 12 years; Penn Charter’s only title at the event came in 2002.

“It’s a big deal to win that tournament because of the way it’s structured,” Hanley said. “It’s four days at the end of the year and if you don’t have the arms it’s going to be tough to make a run. … The tournament’s fun because it’s kind of like a pressure-cooker there at the end of the year.”

So, there it is, all laid out on the table. The Quakers head into the 2018 season with the two-pronged goal of winning a 36th Inter-Ac League championship and a second PAISAA state championship. Siani likes this team’s chances.

“We obviously lost a bunch of seniors from last year who were a big part of our team, this year’s team is very young, and we have a new head coach this year,” he said. “But the freshman and sophomores that are out there are really competing the first couple of days that we’ve been working out. … They’ve been working hard and they’re going to get a chance to prove themselves, and I think that’s a good thing; we’ve got everyone on the same page.”

When Hanley brought this year’s young team together for the first time, he walked up to a white board and wrote the words: “Why Not You?” He was looking at a group that, with only a few exceptions, was devoid of varsity playing time experience. That can make for a tough row to hoe for a team competing in one of the most challenging and prospect-rich leagues in Pennsylvania.

The “Why Not You?” question was posed to get the players thinking about their roles. Why can’t it be me that steps up to fill a big hole? Why can’t I be the one to show the tough mental makeup and possess the right mindset that will be required for the team to be successful?

“As proud as we are of last year’s season, the first thing I said to the team is, ‘Listen, forget about last season,” Hanley said. “Sure, we’ve got Michael (Siani) back – a potential first-rounder – but it’s next-guy-up now. That’s what I really target when I single out the freshmen and sophomores.”

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WILLIAM PENN WAS A 17TH CENTURY ENGLISH REAL ESTATE ENTREPRENEUR AND EARLY QUAKER
who founded the state of Pennsylvania. He was also one of the earliest advocates for the American colonies’ independence from England, although he didn’t live long enough to see that happen.

Penn founded William Penn Charter School in 1689 and it is recognized as the oldest Quaker school in the world; it’s elementary school is the fifth oldest in the United States. According to online sources, it was among the first schools to offer education to all religions and races, and young girls (all before 1770), and was among the first to offer financial aid.

That’s some heady stuff right there, and it can be difficult for adults, let alone high school students, to wrap their minds around all that history. A blossoming prospect like Mike Siani is able to process it through his baseball tunnel vision with his focus on the upcoming 2018 season.

“There are times you have to sit back and just think about what this place means,” he said. “… To think that you’re in a city like Philadelphia and knowing how special it’s been in the past and how much of an impact you can make on it … is something that would top everything else we could do.”

And then the young man who in November Perfect Game identified as the No. 70 overall (college, juco, high school) prospect in the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft, did some more reflection:

“I don’t think during my freshman and sophomore year that I really understood what they were talking about (Historically) and the extent of what they were talking about,” Siani said. “I knew that our school had been around for a while and I knew it was a special place.

“But playing last year, going 26-2 and having the best record in school history and having everyone (acknowledge) how special that season was for not only our team and coaches, but everyone affiliated with the school in any type of way … was definitely a big step in understanding it all.”

There are a lot of notable baseball alumni of the school, of course, including former player, Phillies general manager and current Mets first base coach Ruben Amaro Jr., and former Phillies president and current Phillies chairman and minority owner David Montgomery. Fourteen-year MLB veteran and two-time All-Star Mark Gubicza is an alumnus, as is Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.

Many of the school’s alumni – some more notable than others – take the time to stop by the school and talk to the current students about their past experiences. Hanley noticed that this year’s players are already doing a good job of interacting with young students and potential players at the program’s various youth camps and clinics.

“They really want to help these fifth, sixth (and) seventh-graders to reach their goals,” he said. “All of these (players), they’re a special group and that’s a product of the school and the environment; they certainly appreciate the history of it.”

Hanley acknowledged that this season could very well be “an uphill battle” for a team that is inexperienced but oozing with potential. The No. 41 national ranking PG has bestowed on the Quakers will bring more attention to the program, but a top prospect like Siani is able to keep everything in perspective.

“You’ve got to focus on yourself and not what else is going on around you,” he said. “Obviously, everybody is going to see where you’re ranked preseason and you’re going to be expected to do certain things. But last year we weren’t ranked in the top-50 preseason and nobody gave us any attention, and we went out did our own thing and did what we needed to do.”

Hanley, too, is appreciative of the ranking but doesn’t think his players focus on it all that much. They realize, he believes, that this year’s preseason ranking has a lot to do with the success enjoyed by last year’s squad and these guys haven’t earned anything yet.

“They understand that, and they’re willing to put in the work to put their own stamp on it,” he said. “It’s certainly going to be an exciting but challenging year with a lot of fresh faces and a lot of innings to be earned, and the kids are going to have to step in and mature very quickly.”

Siani and many of his teammates have made a name for themselves playing on the summertime travel ball circuit and have benefitted greatly from those experiences. But the springtime is different.

This is Siani’s final high school season and whether he ends up getting paid to play the game he loves as early as this summer, or he ends up at the University of Virginia, he’ll forever cherish the time he had at William Penn Charter School. It is, after all, a place where history is made.

“Playing for your hometown, playing with your best friends, playing with your little brothers, that’s something that you can’t take for granted,” he said. “You can’t take that away from me, that I got the chance to play with my two younger brothers, that I got a chance to play for a school that means so much nationwide … and playing for everything that’s special to you. I don’t think you can put that into words.”


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