High School | General | 3/8/2019

Citadels nice fit at Academies

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Kareh Valentin (Perfect Game)

HOOVER, Ala. – The late-game drama that unfolded was typical of any high school game that will be played at fields all across the country this spring.

With the score tied at 3 in the bottom of the seventh, the first batter singled to lead things off, stole second and moved to third on a wild pitch, standing there with still no one out. The next batter hit a hard ground ball that resulted in the inning’s first out, and the runner at third was unable to advance.

Members of the home team gathered at the dugout’s entrance closest to home plate, shouting encouragement at the next batter who, it turned out, was the lineup’s true leadoff hitter. “We need to get the ball into the outfield,” the head coach yelled from the third base coaching box. “Just some solid

And, presto! Just like that, the first-pitch hitting batter launched a flyball to right-centerfield that was hit plenty well enough to push across the winning run in 4-3 victory in a game played on a backfield at the Hoover Met Complex. The players celebrated on the field like they had just won a state championship game.

Just a typical high school game? Well, not really. It was part of the Friday action on opening day at the Perfect Game High School Showdown-Academies tournament, a 15-team event that features academy teams from eight states and Puerto Rico, including five from Georgia. This is the 6th annual PGHS Showdown-Academies; participating teams are not sanctioned by their respective state high school athletic associations.

So, with that regulation in mind, Friday’s game between a couple of academies based in Georgia – Citadels (Peachtree City) and Gwinnett (Buford) – was not really a typical high school game. Players on both teams attend classes at high schools from across Georgia (there was one out-of-stater on each roster) and many are home-schooled. In fact, 11 of the 13 players on the official Gwinnett Barons roster are home-schoolers.

Citadels Baseball Academy (the academy does not have a nickname and is often just referred to The Citadels) was the winning team in the game description above and head coach Esteban Maldonado and others at the academy have assembled a strong roster this spring.

“The players come and get us,” he told PG on Friday. “They find us and they approach us and we tell them what we do and what we’re all about as far as developing the players and helping them get into the summer ready to play and showcase themselves.”

Senior outfielders Elijah Hilton (home-schooled, uncommitted, top 500-ranked class of 2019) and Myles Holloway (Douglas County HS, UNC-Ashville, t-1000), and senior left-hander/infielder/outfielder Ethan Walker (Erskine College) are the veteran leaders of this group.

The roster’s star-power resides in the junior class with No. 76-ranked 2020 right-hander and Georgia Tech commit Marquis Grissom Jr. and No. 152 outfielder/right-hander and Maryland commit Jeffery Waters holding court; the 15-year-old Waters was invited to the PG 14u Select Baseball Festival in both 2017 and ’18. Grissom had some conflicts with school on Friday and was unable to attend.

Waters found about the Citadels Baseball Academy through his friendship with Grissom Jr. and has been playing his travel ball with Grissom Sr.’s MGBA program for the last year. The younger Grissom told him that he should check it out, that would provide an opportunity to play a little higher level of baseball than if he stayed with his high school team.

He enjoys a typical school day during the week, attending classes and hanging out with friends, and then heads over to practice with the Citadels every evening. After that, he returns to his home in Mableton, does a little homework and hits the hay.

“I’m just trying to play as much baseball as I can,” Waters said. “That’s what helps me get better and being out here I can look forward to playing against all the high-tier teams. … I go into every game thinking there is something you can learn. You can learn something from anybody just by watching.”

Maldonado explained that the players on Citadels’ roster come into the program for a variety of reasons, sometimes because they have other conflicts at their respective high schools or because they’re home-schooled and don’t have a team to play for in the first place.

The Citadels generally practice from 5-6:30 p.m. and their games are played at night so the baseball doesn’t interfere with their classwork or other school obligations. The program has been in existence for eight years now and a lot of the players learn about through word of mouth.

The program tries to schedule anywhere from 24 to 30 games during their spring season. They’ll play other academies and private schools from around the area while also trying to get to one or two special tournaments a year, like the PGHS Showdown-Academies.

The Showdown-Academies offers dual, non-conflicting opportunities to the players involved. First off, it allows them a chance to compete for a championship, something they wouldn’t have otherwise because they cannot compete for state high school association championships.

“This is something that the kids look forward to just because Perfect Game is always such a big name,” Maldonado said. “You know you’re going to measure yourself against good competition, and there are good teams coming from other states. It is our highlight; it’s awesome and we look forward to it.”

It also provides that ever-important exposure in front of the national scouting and college recruiting communities during a spring season when they might otherwise be overlooked.

“Of course you want to win,” Maldonado said. “We go out there and every time we step on the field I want them to win but I also want them to give 100 percent, leave it all out there and then things are going to happen.

“Yes, we talk to them about exposure, we talk to them about the opportunities that they’re going to be given and they shouldn’t waste (those), but when you come to a tournament you’re trying to win it.”

Waters was quick to add: “Exposure isn’t a real big deal for me; I just come out to play baseball. “If (the scouts) come, they come and that’s the way it’s going to be. You can’t be too focused on whether the scouts are watching you or not.”

Maldonado is originally from Puerto Rico and was a seventh-round pick of the Houston Astros in the 1996 MLB June Amateur Draft out of Lambuth University in Jackson, Tenn. A right-handed pitcher, he played five seasons in the minor leagues and one in an independent league.

“I decided to hang it up; it was time to raise the kids,” he said with a laugh. “I enjoy coaching, I enjoy passing (knowledge) along and teaching kids about the game of baseball and also about life, and how the way you approach a baseball game can help you in life. I enjoy that aspect of it and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

This group of Citadels players seems to get it. They communicate with each other well and that comes easily to them because most of them are from the same area in Georgia and have played with and against each other during the summer ever since they were kids. There is a leadership program within the academy and that helps teach valuable life lessons.

So back to that tournament-opener. A non-rostered player in both the box score and the play-by-play by the name of Joshua Paulding – he is not in PG’s database – led off the bottom of the seventh with a single and quickly moved over to third.

One out later, 5-foot-9, 150-pound switch-hitting sophomore Kareh Valentin stepped to the plate – the lead-off hitter had already singled and doubled and scored a run – and with his coach’s encouragement came through with a game-winning, walk-off sacrifice fly.

“I was just trying to hit the ball to the outfield so (Paulding) could tag and score,” the soft-spoken Valentin told PG after the walk-off. “I’m trying to hit the ball hard and do my work. … This has been a great experience.”

Waters took it all in and was part of the on-field celebration: “The main thing I love about the high school season is that you can just have fun,” he said. “You can work on all the things you need to work on but mainly you just have fun.”

The Citadels dropped a 4-3 decision to North Carolina-based Pro5 Baseball Academy in its second game Friday; Valentin tripled and scored in the loss.

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