Tournaments | Story | 10/28/2012

Ciuffo a WWBA World 4-timer

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

JUPITER, Fla. -- Nick Ciuffo remembers the first time he witnessed what legendary Diamond Devils founder and head coach John Rhodes referred to as "the wave."

Ciuffo was a 14-year-old high school freshman from Charleston, S.C., playing with the Diamond Devils at the 2009 PG WWBA World Championship at the Roger Dean Sports Complex. As the team settled in at one of the Florida Marlins' practice fields before its first game, Coach Rhodes pointed over to an adjacent field at which a game was already being played.

"There were golf carts lined up all the way down the foul lines -- four or five golf carts deep, with (scouts) piled in each one," Ciuffo recalled from one of those same Miami Marlins practice fields at the complex. "The thing that Coach Rhodes called 'the wave' was all the (scouts' radar) guns going up and down with each pitch."

That was three PG WWBA World Championships ago for both Ciuffo and Rhodes. It's a somewhat rare feat for a prospect to play in four WWBA World Championships, only because that means he was called up to amateur baseball's "big leagues" as a freshman in high school.

It has happened before, however, and as recently as last year. Albert Almora, a 2011 Perfect Game All-American and the sixth overall pick in the 2012 MLB amateur draft by the Chicago Cubs, played here four straight times just one year ahead of Ciuffo, from 2008-2011.

But Ciuffo, a 2012 PG All-American, is still part of a special breed, one that thrives on the highest levels of competition and exposure.

"Obviously, this is the best place for scouting," he said. "As a freshmen here, I received a scholarship (offer) from South Carolina, just by playing here and playing against the best guys in the country. ... You've got (PG) All-Americans running all over the place, you've got guys here who are going to get drafted; this is just the best competition, I feel, in the world.

"If you're a baseball player in high school and you want to get to the next level, you've got to come here."

Thinking back on his earliest experiences at the 2009 PG WWBA World Series, Ciuffo could vividly remember his first at-bat. The Diamond Devils were up against the All-American Prospects and their 6-foot-4, 190-pound hard-throwing PG/Aflac All-American.

"I was facing Yordy Cabrera who was (throwing) 92-92 (mph) and I was a 14-year-old kid who had never experienced anything like this before," he said. "I was so nervous, but I ended up getting the first hit for our team off of Yordy Cabrera. The rest of the tournament, I think I was 0-for-10."

Cabrera went on to become a 2nd round pick of the Oakland A's in the 2010 draft. Ciuffo was just beginning his four-year Perfect Game career, and although several years have passed, he still finds the Jupiter experience a little daunting.

"It doesn't get any easier," Ciuffo said, shaking his head while a knowing smile crossed his face. "As you keep playing during the weekend it gets a little bit better, but there's nothing that can prepare you for this at all."

Ciuffo has grown into a 6-foot-1, 210-pound, 17-year-old elite catcher who is now a senior at Lexington High School. He is ranked the nation's No. 15 overall prospect (No. 3 catcher) and is still committed to South Carolina. As he mentioned, he was offered by the Gamecocks in the days just after that 2009 PG WWBA World Championship appearance.

When the offer came, the 14-year-old Ciuffo pounced.

"I'm a big Gamecock fan," he said. "It wasn't one of those things where I thought, 'Oh, I'm just going to jump on the first offer.' I knew if Carolina offered me, I was going."

Ciuffo has been in the Diamond Devils' program for the past four years and has been playing on Rhodes' premier upper class team the entire time. Rhodes, who founded the Diamond Devils Baseball Program in 1993, has a keen eye for talent.

"He's grown and grown and grown, and gotten better and better and better, and now he's basically the leader of the team," Rhodes said. "He's a very dedicated baseball player, and I mean that from the standpoint that not only does he work on his physical game, but he works on his mental game and he works on his conditioning. He's pretty focused on what he does."

Rhodes said before he brought to Ciuffo here for the first time in 2009, talked with the young man and his parents, and told them he had no expectations of Nick coming to the elite tournament and being a star. He did tell them, however, that it was his belief Ciuffo had the maturity level and the physical potential to handle the environment and turn it into an outstanding learning and developmental experience.

"To me, it was a case of, hey, I think this kid has a chance to be really good, and being selfish in our program, I said, 'I'm going to put him with me and let's see if we can't nurture that,'" Rhodes said. "I've known Nick for a real long time and I knew he really worked hard."

Ciuffo's four PG WWBA World Championship appearances account for half of the eight PG events he has attended. Never shying away from the biggest stages, he was at the Perfect Game National Showcase in mid-June and was subsequently invited to play for the East Team at the Perfect Game All-American Classic presented by Rawlings in mid-August.

"That was the best experience of my life," he said of the Classic. "Playing with the best guys in the country, and really with the best guys in the world -- we had a kid from the Dominican there -- it was just awesome. It was crazy the amount of talent that was on that field that night. ... It was by far the best experience of my life."

The Diamond Devils advanced to the 32-team playoffs on Sunday, which meant Ciuffo's Diamond Devils and Perfect Game careers were extended by at least another couple of hours. Rhodes put together a roster that includes 2014 No. 37-ranked right-hander Grant Holmes and 2015 No. 12-ranked outfielder Kep Brown, among other top prospects, and he fully expected to contend for the championship.

"It's crazy to think that this weekend could be my last games playing for the Diamond Devils. I've played with them for four or five years and it's ridiculous to think how fast this has gone by," Ciuffo said. "I remember committing to South Carolina (four years ago) like it was yesterday, and here in a couple of weeks I'm going to be signing with them."

Rhodes, too, can't believe the four-year ride is coming to an end, although he's had many other great players come through his program in the last 20 years. But he remembers well the 14-year-old that he introduced to the big-time back in 2009.

"What was impressive to me was that when he was given his chances when he was 14 to get into games ... he took advantage of it," he said. "He didn't act like he was scared or overwhelmed, and all that did was help him get better and better."

Ciuffo will be forever grateful for the guidance he's received from Rhodes and the Diamond Devils organization.

"I can't even explain how great he's been to me. If he didn't take a chance on me at 14 years old, there's no way that I'm committing to Carolina at 14," he said. "That's the best thing that's ever happened to me is getting put on this team at 14 years old. He's helped me so much, not just with the game but with stuff off the field that you've got to deal with."

More life-changing decisions will be made over the next seven months or so. Ciuffo exudes confidence and a mature focus, and it seems unlikely he'll let anything distract him. And that includes the upcoming 2013 MLB First-Year Player Draft where he is viewed as a late 1st round or 2nd round pick.

"This weekend I'm focused on winning this tournament and being a good teammate and stuff like that. And then this high school season, I'm just going to try to win a state championship," he said. "Once baseball is over, that's probably when I'll focus on it. There's nothing really I can do but come out here and play, and really all I'm going to focus on is going to Carolina.

"If the draft pops up and something happens, then I'll think about it, but right now I'm just focused on my game."

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