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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Chasing Ryan Sweeney

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Zach Coppola came to Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium Saturday morning intent on catching and even passing Ryan Sweeney.

Never mind that Sweeney was hundreds of miles away at Fenway Park on Saturday morning, preparing with his Boston Red Sox teammates for their afternoon game against their American League East nemesis New York Yankees. Coppola was at the 2012 Perfect Game Spring Top Prospect Showcase with his sights set on a couple of event records Sweeney set nine years ago at the first Perfect Game Spring Showcase held here in 2003.

“I’m already committed to South Dakota State University, but I noticed the (outfield throw) velocity and 60-yard time and I thought I would come over and take a shot at those records,” Coppola said Saturday. “It feels great today, too. It’s a good morning.”

Actually, it was a chilly morning at Perfect Game Field, but Coppola hails from Windsor Heights, Iowa – a Des Moines suburb – and is a senior at West Des Moines Dowling Catholic High School, so he’s used to unpredictable Iowa spring weather.

Back in 2003, Sweeney – a second round pick of the Chicago White Sox in the ’03 MLB amateur draft – was at the PG Spring Showcase in his hometown of Cedar Rapids and ran an event record 6.53 seconds in the 60-yard dash. His outfield throw clocked at 92 mph was also an event record that still stands.

That’s right, both marks still stand, although Coppola gave them both serious runs. He ran a 6.68 in the 60 and threw 91 mph from the outfield, both event bests on Saturday.

“Honestly, one of the reasons we did come over here is because Ryan Sweeney has the 60-yard record, and Zach’s been working his butt off hard,” said Zach’s father, Chuck Coppola, who made the two hour drive over to PG Field with his son. “Indoors, his time was beating that (record). We just thought, ‘Let’s go out there and see if there’s something we can do.’”

Coppola, a 5-foot-10, 160-pound left-handed hitting and right-handed throwing outfielder, came into the Spring Top ranked as a top-500 national prospect (class of 2012) and the No. 3 overall prospect in Iowa behind right-handers Alec Rash from Adel and Calvin Mathews from Bloomfield, both of whom are also at the event this weekend.

Coppola helped lead Dowling Catholic to the Iowa Class 4A (large schools) state championship last summer with a 36-7 record. He hit a team-high .392 (51-for-130) with seven extra-base hits, 25 RBI, 44 runs scored and 16 stolen bases. Dowling teammates Anthony Denkinger (SS, 2013) and Brandon Mauro (SS, 2014) were also at the Spring Top on Saturday.

Coppola is spending his spring playing Legion ball with his Dowling teammates – the Iowa High School Athletic Association doesn’t offer a sanctioned spring baseball season – while they work toward a second straight Class 4A state championship.

 “It was amazing; it was crazy. There was really nothing else like it,” Coppola said of winning the state title. “I like our chances again this year. The pitching staff we have coming back is phenomenal and we’re going to be tough to beat, I think.”

This is the sixth Perfect Game event Coppola has attended, and that list includes appearances at some pretty high-profile tournaments covering the country from east to west. He played in last October’s PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., with the St. Louis Pirates. He was at the 2011 PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship at PG Field and the Perfect Game/EvoShield National Championship (Upper class) in Scottsdale, Ariz., with Iowa Select Red. He also played in the 2011 Iowa Fall Wood Bat League.

“They’ve been beneficial, just for the exposure,” Coppola said of his PG experiences.

Even though Coppola has already signed with South Dakota State, his father feels it’s important for his son to continue to get that much coveted exposure in front of professional scouts.

“I think it’s good for him to get his (workout performances) out there and get them up on the (PG) website and continue to get his rankings up and get looked at. Who knows? You only get a couple of shots in life, so we definitely think it’s worth it,” Chuck said. “And as a father-son, it’s just been a great experience for us; it’s been an excellent ride. We’ve created memories that will last forever.”

And the ride might just be getting started.

This year’s MLB draft probably won’t come into play for Coppola, although he plans on requesting an invitation to the Perfect Game National Pre-Draft Showcase back here at Perfect Game Field on May 14. He’s set to begin his collegiate career at SDSU, and couldn’t be any happier with his decision.

“The coaches there are great and I felt real comfortable with them. The campus was nice so I just thought I’d go with them,” Coppola said. “I’d like to just play at the highest level I can and just keep working at that.”

And that goes back to the reason why the Coppolas made the relatively quick drive over from central Iowa to be here both Saturday and again on Sunday.

“We just wanted to get out and get his arm throwing and getting him hitting and watching him run,” Chuck said. “We like to see how he does each time he comes out here and see if he can get a look from someone.

“We want him to continue to get better, to continue to be a team player and be a good role model,” he continued. “And then he can get off to college and see if he can perform and get out on the field, and at the same time get a good education.”

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