Tournaments | Story | 12/13/2011

Sports Zone chief in central N.Y.

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game
They’re still out there, those hopeless romantics who believe that one summer day in 1839, Abner Doubleday sat down in cow pasture within the city limits of Cooperstown, N.Y., and wrote down the modern rules for the game of baseball.

It didn’t happen that way, of course, but legend and lore have nonetheless cemented the notion in the minds of people that central New York State was where the game was born. And amateur baseball in central New York is very much alive with the emergence 16 years ago of the Sports Zone Baseball organization in Syracuse, about 95 miles northwest of Cooperstown.

Dick Woodridge Sr. planted the roots for Sports Zone Baseball in 1992, but Syracuse Sports Zone, Inc. wasn’t officially established until 1995. Woodridge’s son Dickie Woodridge Jr., is now the owner of the organization.

Woodridge Jr. and Tim Alexander were once heavily involved with Babe Ruth level baseball in the Syracuse area before deciding to upgrade the competition by getting into travel baseball. Sports Zone Baseball soon grew from one team in its first year of operation in 1995 to 14 teams in 2011.

Sports Zone Baseball features three high school-age teams, starting with the 18u Chiefs. The Chiefs’ roster typically includes prospects that have already made college commitments, most of them graduated or current seniors in high school.

Syracuse Sports Zone also features two junior teams, the Braves Red and Braves Blue, and a sophomore team, the Athletics.

Mike Pirro, an associate scout with the Houston Astros, took over as the manager of the Chiefs this year for Tim Alexander, who moved on when he accepted an area scouting position with the Tampa Bay Rays. Alexander did coach the Chiefs team that went to the WWBA World Championship in October.

Pirro has great respect for the history of baseball in the region and the goals Syracuse Sports Zone sets out to achieve.

“Baseball in central New York has always been a good brand of baseball,” Pirro said in a recent telephone conversation with Perfect Game. “The way college recruiting has changed, we don’t feel like we’re a travel program, we’re more of a college placement program. Our mission is to find our kids a home that is best suited for them.”

College placement and the promotion of prospects from central New York is foremost on Woodridge Jr.’s mind.

“Our main goal is to develop the kids in our area and get them in a position where they can be in front of college coaches because college coaches rarely come to the Northeast to watch us play,” he said in the same telephone conversation with Pirro and PG. “That is why our relationship with Perfect Game over the years has been fantastic because they have great tournaments, they’re well-scouted and they take care of us.”

Syracuse Sports Zone sent its 18u Chiefs team to five Perfect Game tournaments this year: the 18u Northeast Father Day’s Invitational in Yaphank, N.Y.; 18u BCS Finals in Fort Myers, Fla.; WWBA 2011 Grads or 18u National Championship in Marietta, Ga.; WWBA Northeast Qualifier #2 in Yaphank and the WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla.

The Chiefs finished second at the NE Father’s Day Invitational in mid-June with a 5-1 record, and then really set sail in July. They finished 5-2 at the WWBA 18u National Championship after a second-round playoff loss to the eventual champion San Diego Show July 2-8, and essentially the same roster of players advanced to the final four at the 18u BCS Finals July 17-22.

The Syracuse Sports Zone Chiefs were ranked 12th in the final Perfect Game 18u Travel Team National Rankings, the only team from the New England Region in the top-25.

“Being ranked 12
th nationally, I think that speaks loudly of the character of these kids and their level of play,” Pirro said. “We have kids that all went on to D-I schools so we had a pretty talented group of players, and I think it was evident with the results that we got and the teams that we beat.”

The squad Sports Zone Baseball sends to Jupiter, Fla., for the PG WWBA World Championship each year is an entirely different animal. That roster includes a handful of Sports Zone players from the summer supplemented with prospects from across the Northeast that have played at the East Coast Pro Showcase or on the Northeast Area Code Games team.

“We probably do it a little bit differently than most of the better programs in the country do it,” Woodridge said. “Up until our 18u (team), it’s pretty much kids within an hour drive from where we’re located here in Syracuse. And from our 17u and down, it’s really all about exposure to college.”

Pirro takes special pride in having all 15 players from the class of 2011 who were on the Chiefs’ 2011 summer roster on NCAA Division I campuses and baseball rosters this school year.

They include 12 players who were on the Chiefs’ roster at both the WWBA 18u National Championship and 18u BCS Finals:

Shortstop Tyler Mauntner (Buffalo), SS/RHP Zach Lauricella (St. John’s), RHP/3B Joey Maher (Northeastern), RHP/MIF Kevin McAvoy (Bryant), RHP/OF James Murray (Siena), RHP/3B Matt Pirro (Wake Forest), RHP Reid Van Woert (Monmouth), OF Zach Blanden (Binghamton) and OF John Norwood (Vanderbilt). Norwood was a 12th round pick by the Blue Jays in the 2011 draft but headed for Vanderbilt instead of signing professionally.

Three other 2011 Chiefs from New York signed with Division I Fairleigh Dickenson University: OF Riley Moonan from Liverpool, 1B/OF Corbin Gapski of Clay and C Pat McClure from Fayetteville.

Ryan Clark, a 2012 RHP/1B from Johnson City, N.Y., who has signed with UNC-Greensboro, is the only prospect who was included on the Chiefs’ roster in all four major Perfect Game upper class tournaments: the WWBA 18u National Championship, the 18u BCS Finals, the WWBA Northeast Qualifier #2 and the WWBA World Championship.

Another 2012, RHP/UT Steve Klimek from Greece (N.Y.) and a St. Bonaventure signee, was on the roster at the WWBA Northeast Qualifier, 18u BCS Finals and WWBA World. 2012s Kenny Hostrander (Eastern Kentucky), Alex Caruso (St. John’s), Zach Tucker (Le Moyne) and Matt Portland (Northwestern) have also signed with D-I schools.

All of those players except for Maher (Bedford, N.H.) hail from New York State.

“When you compare Upstate New York to New Jersey, there are just a lot less kids,” Pirro said. “In New Jersey, there are hundreds of travel teams where here in central New York there is less than a handful. We draw from as far as Buffalo to Albany and downstate a little bit, but if you look at our Chiefs roster from the summer it was comprised of mostly central New York players.”

Teams playing under the Syracuse Sports Zone Braves Red banner competed at the WWBA Underclass World Championship in Fort Myers and the WWBA 2012 Grads or 17u National Championship in Marietta. Syracuse Sports Zone Braves Blue squads were at the WWBA 17u National Championship and the 18u Northeast Father’s Day Invitational.

The Sports Zone Athletics and a team called the Syracuse Sports Zone Select were both at the WWBA 2013 Grads or 16u National Championship in Marietta.

Top 2013 prospects SS/RHP/OF Juan Carlos Pena from Syracuse, RHP Mark Armstrong from East Syracuse and SS/RHP Dylan Manwaring from Horseheads often populated one of those rosters. Pena, ranked No. 201 nationally in his class, was also on the Chiefs’ roster at the WWBA Northeast Qualifier #2 and WWBA World Championship.

The Syracuse Sports Zone Baseball organization will continue to draw the best available from around the Syracuse area, a method of operation with a proven track record.

“It comes down to the commitment that these kids have,” Pirro said. “A lot of these kids have given up a second sport that they love … just to focus on one sport. They know that’s what it takes today, when you have kids playing baseball the year around all across the country.

“It’s well worth it when you take a look at the kids and see where they ended up going. It’s a nice, satisfying feeling to see that at the end.”

It’s all about building and maintaining relationships, Woodridge said.

“Quite honestly, we probably couldn’t do this without Perfect Game,” he concluded. “I think what sets us apart is that we have real good relationships with a tremendous number of college coaches that trust our opinion … and our players have gone off to these schools and done very well. The fact that we’re committed to going to events like Perfect Game makes it well worth it.”

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