New Jersey Team Boasts A Quartet Of Prospects

WEST ORANGE, N.J.—Rick Porcello was a wide-eyed eighth-grader sitting in the stands at Harter Road Field in Morristown, N.J., when Eric Duncan stepped to the plate for Seton Hall Prep in a steady rain.

Porcello had already passed his entrance exam in 2003 and been accepted to the parochial school on the outskirts of Newark, the state's largest city. But, "I still wasn't sure I wanted to go there," Porcello said of the West Orange school that has long attracted some of the top baseball talent in populous Northern New Jersey.

Duncan suddenly pounced on a belt-high slider and launched it an estimated 420 feet for a game-altering two-run home run that sent Seton Hall to the state final.

"I decided to go to Seton Hall right after that," Porcello said. "I just liked the way guys like Duncan prepared and played the game and I wanted to play like that, too."

Duncan had, with that swing of the bat, secured Seton Hall Prep's immediate baseball future. The Pirates finished that season with a final No. 9 ranking in the Baseball America/National High School Coaches Association poll and cracked the top 50 again in 2006. But this year they debut at No. 1, and are poised to prove to the country that they belong among the nation's best.

Prep's Best Pitcher

Porcello is now 6-foot-5, 205 pounds and arguably the best high school pitcher in the country. Not since Willie Banks was drafted third overall in 1987 has a high school pitcher from New Jersey been selected in the first round. But Porcello is happily sharing the limelight as the season approaches.

He will pass the baton in game two of the season to fellow senior righthander Evan Danieli, a 6-foot-8, 220-pound specimen with a seemingly immeasurable upside. Danieli, who has committed to Notre Dame, was ranked No. 32 among the prep class of 2007, and forms a formidable counter-punch to Porcello, a North Carolina signee.

Danieli, merely a spot starter on Seton Hall's state championship team a year ago, is "finesse" to Porcello's thunder. He has a three-pitch mix, featuring a 90-92 mph fastball and a hard, biting curveball.

"There have been pitchers in New Jersey equal to these guys but who the heck has ever had two like them on the same team," said Morristown (N.J.) High coach Harry Shatel, who retired recently having won three state championships and a state-record 752 games in 38 years. "You go with Porcello on Monday, Danieli on Wednesday and bring Porcello back on Saturday. Or vice-versa, who cares."

While the climate north of the Mason-Dixon Line is less conducive for building top-flight high school programs, the Garden State has had its share of prominent high school teams over the years. This year's Seton Hall rotation brings to mind two New Jersey teams of recent vintage.

Steinert High in Hamilton had three studs on the hill in 2001 when it finished with a No. 35 national ranking. Lefty Chris Neylan and righty Matt Sweeney were drafted out of high school and righty Mike Rogers was selected by the Athletics three years later as a supplemental first round pick out of North Carolina State.

The 2000 Gloucester Catholic squad, from Gloucester City in Southern New Jersey, had seven players earn Division-I scholarships and a pair of draftees in pitchers Mark Michael (Cardinals) and Greg Burke (Mets). That team secured a final No. 1 ranking, becoming the first school north of Tennessee to finish atop BA's poll.

Even Duncan, the 23rd overall pick by the Yankees just a few hours before that state tournament moon shot in 2003, is impressed by his alma mater's latest progeny.

"These guys are on a different level than I was in regard to exposure," Duncan said from the Yankees spring training camp in Tampa. "I told Rick I didn't get anywhere near the attention he's getting."

Like many of his teammates, it was Porcello's performance on national stages—wood bat tournaments as well as all-star games—that have raised his profile. He was pitching near 94 mph throughout last summer before he rang the bell at 97 in October at the World Wood Bat fall championship in Jupiter, Fla. "I was a little surprised," Porcello said. "I had been working out on my legs with coach Shep right before that and I guess that helped."

New Jersey Dynasty

Coach Shep' would be Porcello's high school mentor, Mike Sheppard, Jr., who has built a dynasty at the parochial school. Sheppard, the American Baseball Association's national high school coach of the year in 2003 and owner of a gaudy 21-year record of 463-152-4, has steered Seton Hall to four state championships in the past six seasons. After dominating local competition, this year's team enters the season as a rare national power from the Northeast, and it's got more than the vaunted Daneilli-Porcello duo.

Senior outfielders Steven Brooks, a Wake Forest signee, and Nick Natale, who has committed to Rice, were integral parts of Seton Hall's championship run last year, and fortified their reputations as legitimate Division I college prospects last summer.

"Rice's future center fielder is playing right field for Seton Hall because its center fielder is faster," smirked one scout. "The national showcase scene has put Seton Hall on the national map."

Brooks runs a 6.4 second 60-yard dash and Natale has been timed at 6.5. "We raced recently and he got me by a step," Natale said. "It's a playful thing between us."

Things will be much less playful on March 2, Seton Hall's first day of practice.

Sheppard's methods include his notorious attention to detail and his painfully thorough practices that can last upwards of four-and-a-half to five hours. His approach has gotten his players to buy in, be it one of his more than 50 Division I alumni or the least of his role players.

"You come to realize how important the structure was for you," says righthander Nick Christiani, a sophomore at Vanderbilt who led the Commodores in appearances as a freshman, one year after leading Seton Hall to a 2005 state title. "We worked so hard and so long in practice it made the games easy. Coach Shep prepares you for everything and anything you may encounter."

But will Seton Hall Prep be prepared for the inevitable onslaught of attention coming its way? Brooks is more concerned about Sheppard's practices. "I got a peek at the practice schedule. I may have to sleep at the school this year," he said.

"Baseball is a tough, psychological game," Sheppard says. "We are at the mercy of weather in the Northeast. We try to get our players to approach it positively. I think it makes the kids hungrier to a certain degree and they appreciate it more when they finally get outside."

Despite the stark contrast in how the Pirates prepared for their season as compared to many of the other teams surrounding them in the preseason poll, there's no doubting their pairings of power pitchers and fleet-footed outfielders belong.

Bob Behre writes for Dorf Feature Service, which provides high school sports to The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.