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High School | General | 2/22/2021

An Epic of Excellence in Andover

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Jonathan Santucci (Kelly Graber)

There is an exemplary college preparatory school that sits about 25 miles from downtown Boston so steeped in American history that it makes it difficult for citizens of the 21st century to wrap their brains around.

How has a school that first opened its doors more than 250 years ago managed to remain relevant today on so many levels, including the national high school baseball scene? It truly is a wonder to behold.

But so it is at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., an historic institution known informally as Andover. It was founded by Samuel Phillips Jr. – considered a pioneer in American education – in 1778, just two years after the new nation’s founders signed the Declaration of Independence.

Yet all these years later, we find the Phillips Academy Big Blue preparing to enter the 2021 spring baseball season as the No. 25 team in the Perfect Game High School Preseason Top 50 National Rankings.

They are the No. 2-ranked team in the PGHS Northeast Region, a sprawling nine-state conglomerate that stretches north from New Jersey through New England and all the way up into Maine; Don Bosco Prep (N.J.) is the highest ranked team in the region at No. 14.

Phillips Academy is coached by Kevin Graber – known to all simply as “KG” – who begins his 12th year at the helm of the program this season. Graber, who played professionally in independent leagues and previously coached at both the collegiate and professional levels, told PG recently that his senior-laden team is ready to embrace the lofty outside expectations.

“You know, it’s kind of like baseball, as long as they’re keeping score we want to score more points than our opponent, you know what I’m saying?” Graber said with a laugh. “And as long as they’re having these polls, yeah, we want to be in there.”

Andover is a boarding school that houses students from all 50 states and 46 countries in on-campus dormitories just like a college; Graber and his family live on campus, as well. There is a small contingent of day students who attend, representing about 15 percent of an enrollment that totals nearly 1,200.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic forced school officials to implement a phased return to campus in the fall, which meant bringing only freshmen and seniors back into the dorms. That allowed the administration to spread students across the campus and not have every room and every bed occupied.

On the athletics side of things, the students didn’t participate in interscholastic sports but instead took part in sports training during the fall term. The school was 100 percent remote during the winter semester but starting this month and continuing into March any member of the senior class who so desired was allowed to return.

“I have 10 seniors who are returning varsity baseball players and we’re doing 90 minutes of baseball training and running in the fitness center every day, so we’re getting a lot of pretty good work in,” Graber said. “Spring term we’re going to have the entire school invited to be here in person, so I’m optimistic about that; I can’t wait to have all of the students back.”

Once the baseball season begins in earnest the Big Blue will only play other schools that have testing protocol similar to their own. They won’t travel out-of-state at all, something that is typically done, and the schedule is most likely going to be a very trimmed-down version compared with seasons past.

That’s unfortunate in a lot of ways, of course, but if all the proper protocols are followed it should be a workable plan. And that’s important because the product Graber – who also serves as the school’s Senior Associate Director of Admissions – is going to be able to put on the field this spring is going to be superior in a lot of ways, as well.

“I think it goes without saying that the players are chomping at the bit,” Graber said. “It’s funny but last year when we were cancelled everybody was like, oh man, the players must have been so disappointed and it must have been a lot for you to help them manage that disappointment; I was like, shoot, I had to manage my own disappointment.”

There’s no question that the members of this strong senior class were bummed after losing their junior seasons in 2020, but at least it looks like they’ll have a shot at one last go-around.

It is a group led by center fielder/left-hander Jonathan Santucci, an alumnus of the 2020 PG National Showcase and a Duke signee ranked the No. 42 overall national prospect in the class of 2021 (No. 2 Massachusetts).

Middle-infielder Jack Penney (Notre Dame), left-hander/outfielder Josh Keevan (goes by JL, UMass Lowell) and right-hander Matthew Sapienza (Georgetown) are all ranked as top-500s nationally in the ’21 class. Right-hander Jacob Lapp (Tufts) and outfielder Sebastian Mexico (Fordham) are ranked as top-1,000s.

Junior right-hander/third baseman Jake Needham (t-500 ’22) and junior catcher/first baseman Tom McAndrews (t-500) could figure in prominently, as well. With their sophomore seasons wiped off the board, they will be seeing their first varsity action this spring.

There is also a pretty special sophomore ready to make his mark on what will be his first high school season of competition in left-hander/outfielder Thomas White. The uncommitted White is ranked the No. 1 overall national prospect from the class of 2023.

“How often do you get to coach a team like the one we have right now? It’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Graber said. “We’ve had some really good teams in the past and we’ll have some good teams again in the future but having nine college baseball commits on our roster and kids who are four-year (players), it’s unique and it’s special.

“I feel like everybody who is involved with the program feels like, man, this is sort of a special group and we want to give them the opportunity to get on the field for sure.”

When asked to comment about Santucci’s upside, Graber didn’t begin by talking about his prized senior’s advanced acumen on the ball field. That came later, but not at the outset.

He first pointed out that Andover is ranked the No. 1 private school in the country not because it offers more than 20 extra-curricular activities to its students during each of the three terms but because of the challenges associated with the school’s academics. Students are graded on a 1 to 6 scale (6 being the highest) and Santucci scores straight 6’s across the board.

“He cuts through a really hard academic program like a hot knife through butter and, honestly, he doesn’t have to,” Graber said. “He could get a B here and there and take courses that aren’t so challenging and he’d still be totally admissible to all the (colleges) that recruited him.”

That speaks volumes about Santucci’s character, KG continued, because he’s so smart and because he confronts every challenge that comes his way, both on the field and off.

A true two-way player, Santucci was a Top Prospect List performer at both the 2020 PG National Showcase in June and again at the 2021 PG World Showcase in January. He was also a multiple all-tournament team selection playing for a couple of different travel teams, including Team Elite and North East Baseball, at WWBA tournaments this past summer and fall.

Graber used the word “amazing” to describe his talents both as a center fielder (“if you hit the ball anywhere near him, you’re out”) and as a left-handed hitter with the ability to hit for average and power, to drive in runs or hit situationally.

“At the same time he gets on the mound, a left-handed pitcher, and he’s 91, 92, 93 (mph) with a changeup and a slider,” Graber said. “...He is absolutely a two-way guy at Duke. He’s an amazing outfielder, he’s absolutely a middle-of-the-order college hitter and then he just kind of pitches also.”

And on-hand to learn as much as he can from his talented upperclass teammates is White, the 6-foot-4, 190-pound sophomore PG ranks as the No. 1 overall prospect in the class of ‘23. White, already in possession of a low-90s fastball, was selected to perform at the 2019 PG 14u Select Baseball Festival in Fort Myers, Fla.

Unfortunately, with his freshman season being cancelled and with him attending classes remotely this school year, White has not had much of an opportunity to pick the brains of his upperclass teammates as had been expected.

The seniors can still influence the underclassmen in a variety of ways even if they’re not close physically. They can serve as inspirations to the youngsters simply by showing them what has already been accomplished and wanting them to follow suit to keep the excellence of the program moving forward.

“The hope is that this spring that will be a really, really big deal,” Graber said. “Ideally, our older players are the guys that help the younger players understand what the culture of our program is. Then they graduate and then the Thomas White's of the program become the older players and they help the younger guys understand the culture and the values of the program.”

Andover plays in what Graber referred to as “this little enclave of New England prep schools” called the Central New England Prep Baseball League. The league is a big deal in the region, Graber said, simply because the schools are so old and harbor so much tradition; Andover has been playing its chief rival, Phillips Exeter Academy, since the late 1800s.

He explained that even after the CNEBL championship game, the Big Blue always plays one more game against Exeter, an event known locally as “Andover-Exeter Day”. Teams at each level of both programs go at it one last time as a final sendoff to the season just completed and it’s a meaningful day on both sides.

“Our alumni, who are super influential, they never ask me what was your won-lost record or did you win a championship, they ask me, ‘Did you beat Exeter?’” Graber said. “It’s like our Army-Navy, it’s like our Cal-Stanford, it’s like our Iowa-Iowa State; it’s a huge deal in this little prep school world that we operate in here in New England.”

There are schools in the seven-team league that offer post-graduate classes and that allow transfers to come in and reclassify. By contrast, the Phillips Academy Andover baseball team roster is made up of kids who arrived as true freshmen with the idea of keeping them in the program for four years to further enhance their development.

And watching that development has become a huge point of pride for Graber and his staff. He has looked back at photos of these seniors when they first arrived to register as 14-year-olds and marvels at how far they’ve come, both mentally and physically.

They’ve put in the time in the weight room while staying active on PG’s summer and fall tournament circuits and it’s not gone unnoticed. “So, that progression and that development from these little kids to where they are now, that’s been the most special thing about it for me,” Graber said.

When Coach KG arrived on campus in the fall of 2008 he walked into a program that was stocked with “some really amazing kids” who went on to do equally amazing things with their lives, but they weren’t necessarily committed to baseball; playing during the summer just wasn’t that important to them. Graber set out to change that variable.

“I just felt like we could have kids who were an academic match for Andover but were also baseball players, and I define baseball players as kids who play baseball over the summer,” he said; that mindset still prevails.

The program leaders have many mantras that they like to repeat to the players and Graber said the one they use most frequently with this group is, “Take care of the little things so that the big things can take care of themselves.” The goal is to try to not look beyond any singular repetition taking place in this particular drill or in this particular practice.

If those seemingly small details can all be put together in an equitable form, that’s what leads to winning championships at the end of spring; that’s what equals scoring more runs than the other guy, regardless of how talented the other guy is.

“We try to really not look at big-picture stuff and really just focus on what do we need to take care of today so that our dreams can come true when it comes time to play our most important baseball,” Graber said.

A list of notable alumni at Phillips Academy Andover is as long as a city block and includes the likes of both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, the 41st and 43rd presidents of the United States, respectively; a football coach by the name of Bill Belichick (class of ’71) also once walked the halls.

Graber and his staff – along with the school’s entire contingent of teachers and administrators – make every effort to educate the students on the unmatched historical footing the school has. Graber noted that they have placed a patch on their uniform that honors George H.W. Bush, who passed away in November 2018.

“He was just such a hands-on supporter of our program in coming to practice and visiting with our guys,” Graber said. “We have a George H.W. Bush memorial plaque in our dugout and it’s become a thing to rub George’s forehead before you go to the on-deck circle – good things will happen for you.”

There may well be hurdles to clear and challenges to confront during this 2021 season but these teammates at Andover face down adversity every day. They’ve become used to living in dormitories away from home and they’re used to very challenging classes and the loads of homework that comes with them; they’ve learned how to manage the clock.

And when it’s time to play baseball, well, they get right down to it, in the same way they get after their academic rigors. They’re a part of a program where just about every kid who wants to will have an opportunity to play in college and they’re a part of a team that PG ranks as the No. 25 outfit in all the land.

At historic Phillips Academy Andover, that means something and the Big Blue embrace it. If someone’s doling out national accolades, they’re more than willing to accept them.

“It’s fun,” Graber said. “It’s something cool that you can post on Twitter and Instagram to publicize your program. And maybe there’s some 7th grade kid who’s an amazing student and loves playing baseball and they might see that and think, wow, that place looks kind of cool.

“I definitely don’t hide from it,” he concluded. “Anything we can do to shine a light on this being a destination for an awesome kid who loves baseball and is great at school, I’m all for it.”

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