Black Could Help Restore Seton Hall’s Tradition

Between 1987 and 1997, Seton Hall produced five first-round draft picks. Since then, the Pirates haven’t had one.

But a new name that could join the likes of Craig Biggio, Mo Vaughn, and Matt Morris in Pirates lore has landed in South Orange, N.J.

Sean Black, the highest unsigned 2006 draft pick to end up on a college campus (second round, 59th overall), wanted an above-slot bonus that the Nationals weren’t prepared to offer. So the 6-foot-3, 185-pound righthander opted to honor his commitment to Seton Hall.

“We would have loved to sign him, but we realize that he feels that he made the best decision for himself: to go to school first and then come out as a junior,” Nationals scouting director Dana Brown said.

Black, a native of Lenape, N.J., has only begun to tap his potential as a pitcher. A shortstop until the tail end of his junior year in high school, Black really started turning heads his senior year.

“I saw him throw three times in the spring and twice last summer, and I thought he progressed very well and that he was going to continue to get better,” Brown said. “He was 90-95  (mph) with the makings of an above-average breaking ball. He’s got a good frame that can fill out, and he’s got starting pitcher written all over him.”

Brown said the Nationals saw Black as a potential top-of-the-rotation power arm when they targeted him, and that the team will keep a close watch on his progress at Seton Hall.

“We’re going to scout Seton Hall every year because of their reputation of having players. But (Black’s) certainly a guy that we’re going to follow,” said Brown, a former Pirate himself.

Solid Foundation

Getting Black to campus might signal a resurgence for the once-proud Seton Hall baseball program. Coached by Rob Sheppard, son of Mike Sheppard (Seton Hall’s coach from 1973-2003), the Pirates already have a solid distribution of proven and rising talent. And despite all his promise, Black figures to start on Sundays, not Fridays or Saturdays.

Cape Cod League No. 17 prospect Dan Merklinger, a junior lefty with good command of his low-90s fastball and solid curve, will likely headline the Pirates rotation. Junior righty Dan McDonald is a frontrunner to start Saturday, with sophomore lefty Corey Young also in the mix.

While Merklinger has the potential to be selected in the first couple of rounds in the 2007 draft, Black is the kind of talent who could really put Seton Hall back on the map.

The Pirates went 17-34 last season (7-20 in the Big East). After rapping off 16 winning seasons in 17 years from 1985-2001, they have had five consecutive below-.500 seasons, with the best mark at 23-24 in 2003.

“There was a little bit of a transition period from head coach to head coach,” the younger Sheppard said. “We had a couple of classes where a number of players for one reason or another just didn’t stick around. There is a lot of parity within the conference now. The recruiting has gotten a lot more competitive. Seton Hall has made some strides to make some adjustments. Newer facilities and stuff like that have helped us as well.”

On The Right Track

Sheppard and his staff began pursuing Black early in his junior year of high school. Their early efforts should pay huge dividends.

“He obviously gives us a face and a little bit more of a shot in the arm,” Sheppard said. “It’s definitely a nice thing to see that the highest draft pick that didn’t sign is at your school. I think Sean felt that because of our belief in him early on and the commitment we made and the relationship that we kind of established with him early kind of helped make his decision–as tough as it was–in favor for us.”

As excited as he is to have Black, Sheppard said  the raw righty doesn’t have to carry the program’s attempt to get back atop the Northeast baseball scene alone. Like any teenage pitcher, Black still has room for maturation, and his teammates possess the talent to begin the task.

“We’ve been young the last few years,” Sheppard said. “I believe we’re definitely on the upswing, I really do. In the last few years, we had really small senior and junior classes. This is the first year where we have some balance in our team. We have about eight seniors, eight juniors, eight sophomores, eight freshmen, so there is a lot more balance than we’ve had in the years prior. I definitely think we’re heading in the right direction.”