High School : : General
Thursday, March 08, 2018

Montverde: 'We Are Family'

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

EMERSON, Ga. – The Pittsburgh Pirates won a World Series championship in 1979 led by All-Stars Willie Stargell, Dave Parker and Manny Sanguillen, among others, and driven by the pulsating beat of the Sister Sledge hit “We Are Family," which became the Buc's official theme song,

The Montverde (Fla.) Academy Eagles, at Perfect Game Park-LakePoint for this week’s 6th annual PG High School Showdown, should consider rebranding that 40-year-old disco classic and claiming it as their own.

Under the direction of first-year head coach Victor Valencia and led by the extraordinary talents of 2017 PG All-American senior shortstop Nander De Sedas, the Eagles just might be the “First Family” at the 26-team PG HS Showdown or, at the very least, certainly like to look at it that way.

“We have a lot of talent on the team, but the best thing that we have is (a sense) of family,” Valencia told PG from cold and windy LakePoint on Thursday. “We have a lot of heart and we try to play the game with respect; that’s the most important thing for us.”

This is the fourth appearance at the PG HS Showdown for Montverde Academy, having been here previously in 2013, ’14 and ’16; the Eagles went 1-3 at each of those events.

Armed this year with a deep and talented roster that includes four seniors and one junior ranked in the top-400 nationally in their respective class (three in the top-150), this year’s outlook is much more promising; the Eagles were 7-0 this season before playing the first of two games on Thursday.

Everything about the 6-foot-2, 190-pound slick-fielding, switch-hitting De Sedas screams “BALLPLAYER!” and he arrived in north Georgia holding down the No. 3 position in PG’s class of 2018 national prospect rankings. He draws inevitable comparisons to 2010 PG All-American and current Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor, a 2011 graduate of Montverde Academy.

A Florida State signee considered a certain first-rounder in the upcoming MLB June Amateur Draft – Lindor went eighth overall in the 2011 draft – De Sedas is completely in line with Montverde Academy’s all-in-the-family approach to this team and this season.

“At Montverde we really take a lot of pride in our (program),” he told PG Thursday. “We always call ourselves a family because we’re brothers. … We spend a lot of time together and we stay together all the time; we support each other and we back-up each other. … It makes it easier and you feel more comfortable knowing someone is going to back you up, and it makes the game of baseball way easier.”

De Sedas doesn’t have to shoulder the “senior leadership” responsibilities by himself. Right-hander Kerry Wright (No. 147-ranked, Louisville signee), right-hander Saul Gonzalez (No. 335, Alabama State), outfielder Trevor Candelaria (No. 401, Davidson), outfielder Francisco Mateo (No. 483), catcher/infielder Alejandro Rodriguez (top-500, Eastern Florida State) and catcher/third baseman Diego Millan (t-1,000, Miami-Dade CC) are other prominent upperclassmen.

The kingpin of the junior class is Jake Holland, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound primary catcher who has committed to Miami and is ranked No. 22 nationally in the class of 2019; outfielder Caleb Cali (top-500) is another prominent junior.

With his PG trophy case already bulging with 11 all-tournament citations and his inclusion on four showcase Top Prospect Lists – two at each of the last two PG Junior National – to go along with his No. 22 ranking, it would appear Holland is well on his way to being invited to the 2018 PG National Showcase and ultimately the 2018 PG All-American Classic.

He plays his summer ball with the prestigious South Florida-based Elite Squad organization, a program that consistently puts national championship-caliber teams on the field, but there remains something special about playing with his high school friends while wearing a Montverde Academy Eagles uniform.

“In summer ball you get to play in a couple of tournaments, but you don’t really make the same connections,” Holland said Thursday. “Here, you see these guys every day, they come over to your house, you mess around, you have a good time. … We have a lot of good guys this year – special guys, special talents, special personalities – and we’ve all bonded (well) so far.”

Montverde, Fla., sits on the western shore of Lake Apopka, about 25 miles east of Orlando. The Academy is an extremely diverse enclave in and of itself, with more than 830 students in the “upper school” and with more than 350 boarding students from over 80 nations.

And that’s something every player on the 16-man Eagles’ roster embraces whole-heartedly: its diversity. Five of the spots are filled with players that identify Puerto Rican cities as their hometown, and many of players that list hometowns in Florida started their journeys to the Academy someplace else.

“We have a lot of Hispanic kids and that’s good, and then we have a couple of white boys and you have everybody from everywhere,” said Holland, who just happens to be one of those “white boys” he laughingly referred to. “We have guys from all parts of the world come together and we all love each other; it’s good.”

By Holland’s estimation, these guys spend on average about 12 hours a day together, and that’s a number that doubles when they’re on the road at an event like the PG High School Showdown. They’re riding on a bus together for hours at a time, and even though they’re used to visiting each other’s living quarters, now they’re all bunking together in hotel rooms.

“Once you room together, you’re going to know if you really like each other or not,” he said with a laugh. “If we still like each other after this, we’re going to know that we’re a really good team.”

The coaches at Montverde Academy start acclimating the players to the program’s culture from the very beginning, setting the tone from the first day. The message that is both stated and conveyed in unspoken actions is that it doesn’t matter what your name is or where you’re from, this is one baseball team and one big family.

The players are required to buy into that notion because that is the only way this collective will work, the only way it will be able to function as one entity and win some ballgames.

“I tell the kids that the main thing is we need to (work hard) every single day if we want to keep moving forward,” Valencia said. “We have a lot of talent – a lot of ranked players – but those kids are hungry, and they want to keep moving forward.”

Valencia played 11 seasons (1995-2004, 2006) of professional baseball – he reached the Triple-A level in three of those seasons – and played five seasons of winter ball in his native Venezuela. He has also done work in the Yankees’ minor league system as both a hitting and catching instructor.

Based on his own experiences, Valencia realizes that his young players have a lot of other things on their mind besides baseball, with the most pressing being their schoolwork. These guys go to class every morning and early afternoon before reporting to the field at 2:30 p.m. on non-game days, and at that time Valencia tries to get them to both relax and focus.

“I try to keep it simple and fun,” he said. “When we come to the field we have fun, but we work hard, too. Business is business, but you also don’t want to create more stress. … Our goal every year is to go 25-0 but our main thing is, we need to stay together; we need to work together. … You play with respect for the game every single day, and no matter what happens in the game, you always play that way.”

The PG HS Showdown offers the Eagles a unique opportunity to prove to themselves and others they can hold their own when the spotlight finds them playing on a national stage. The field consists of 16 schools from Georgia, four from Alabama, three from Florida and one each from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, so there is plenty of out-of-Florida competition for Montverde Academy to bite its teeth into.

And that’s the whole point of being here. Valencia acknowledges there are a lot of good teams his squad can tangle with closer to home, but he also believes an experience like this one will only make his players better; his top players agree with him.

“We have good competition back home, but here it’s at another level,” Holland said. “You get to come here and really see what you’re all about.”

The Eagles were challenged right out of the gate in their opener late Thursday afternoon, needing an RBI double from unheralded Johan Campines Chacon with one out in the bottom of the seventh to escape with a 2-1 victory over the Mountain View Bears (Lawrenceville, Ga.).

Chacon and Candelaria accounted for all four of MA’s hits; senior right-hander Ernesto Alonso Hidrogo and senior lefty Alfredo Caraballo combined on a five-hitter. It might not have been an eye-catching victory, but it was a victory, nonetheless, and sent the Eagles into the nightcap against the Redan Raiders (Stone Mountain, Ga.) with a 1-0 record.

“We always have high expectations; we always want to come here and compete,” De Sedas said. “We’re going to give 110 percent every day that we go to the field, and we’re going to go out there and compete. We’ve been working really hard since the fall and the time is here to go out and compete no matter who it is that’s in front of us.”

There is a lot in front of De Sedas this spring, and he is fully aware of it. There is no way to avoid the “first-round draft talk” but he makes his best effort to isolate it in the back of his mind. It’s not something he’s going to worry about, instead opting to take the field, play the game he loves and have a lot of fun doing it.

“There’s no better place to be than out on the field … and I’m going to enjoy my teammates – it’s my last year with them,” he said. “Coming into my senior year, I’m looking forward to a big-time (season). This team has been together for three years and we’ve kind of been like a family since 2015. We’ve come a long way and we kept getting better every single year.

“This year we got together, and we’ve had meetings and we’ve (talked about) what we have to do to get better and become a big-time program in the country.”

Valencia had this to say about his star shortstop: “The most important thing with this kid is he has a good heart. He’s here to win, and he’s not going to concentrate on what’s going to happen with the draft. … He wants to work, and he wants to get better every single day.”

De Sedas described every Perfect Game event that he has attended – this is his second HS Showdown – as a “learning experience.” He also treats them as opportunity to catch up with his non-Montverde Academy baseball-playing friends, and he’ll have ample opportunity to do that this week.

Fellow 2017 PG All-Americans Will Banfield (Brookwood), Anthony Seigler (Cartersville), Xavier Edwards (North Broward Prep), Parker Meadows (Grayson) and Cabera Weaver (South Gwinnett) are all playing in the Showdown.

Everyone of those guys are proven winners, just like De Sedas and Holland and every other high-profile prospect in attendance at the Showdown.

When Valencia tells his guys – all of them – what he wants them to take away from this experience, his message is a simple one: leave here knowing you gave 100 percent and left everything you had out on the field, just like those PG All-Americans do every time out; do it for the Montverde Academy baseball family.

“The chemistry that we have, that’s very important for us,” he said. “We are like a family – we win and we lose together. We do everything together and I think that’s what makes us different from other teams. The communication and the trust that we have with each other, I think that’s our main (advantage).” We Are Family, indeed.

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