Sign Them Up

Washington D.C. school has nine Division I signees

Signing Day for college baseball brings little of the fanfare that has become part of high school football and basketball prospects announcing their college choices.

For a variety of reasons—including most top baseball prospects signing professional contracts out of the draft—live press conferences on ESPN and front-page headlines rarely accompany a high school baseball player's college commitment.

For one high school in Washington, D.C., however, baseball signing day was truly a historical event. On Nov. 14, nine seniors from St. John's College High signed letters of intent to play for Division I programs, by far the most for a school that usually ranks among its area's best but has never made such a national splash.

"The kids have worked so hard to get themselves into position to get a scholarship, and the school takes pride to be able to produce solid students and citizens," said second-year head coach Mark Gibbs, adding that the school usually averages four to five college commitments. "You look at the span of schools they are going to and they are very good institutions."

Over the last 15 years, St. John's has had 45 graduates play college baseball and six go on to play professionally. Yet the high school is still waiting for its first graduate to make the major leagues. Gibbs came close. The 1996 St. John's grad played at George Mason, followed by a stint as an infielder in the Orioles system. His brother Kevin came even closer, a Dodgers sixth-round pick in 1995 who spent parts of three seasons on their 40-man roster from 1998-2000 before retiring after the 2004 season.

Scott Silverstein presents the school's latest, and perhaps best shot at a big leaguer. The Virginia signee may never make it to Charlottesville, as some scouting reports predict the 6-foot-5 lefthander to be selected in the first few rounds of the draft this June.

An Aflac All-American last summer, Silverstein went 5-2, 1.81 for St. John's last spring and features a fastball that reaches the low 90s. At last year's National Classic tournament in Fullerton, Calif., considered a top recruiting event, Silverstein tossed a seven-inning shutout and struck out 15 of the 26 batters he faced.

Deep Roster

But Silverstein is hardly the Cadets' lone prospect. Outfielder L.J. Hoes has committed to North Carolina, the NCAA runner-up the past two seasons, after hitting .488 with seven home runs and 23 steals last season. The Washington Post area player of the year last spring, Hoes is a two-time selection to the Junior Olympic team and was the MVP in the Cape Cod high school all-star game last summer.

Both Hoes and Silverstein were invited to participate last summer in USA Baseball's Tournament of Stars in Cary, N.C., where players competed for roster spots on the junior national team.

"Scott and L.J. are great all-around kids and both have done what has been asked of them," Gibbs said. "Scott is possibly the best we have ever had at St. John's, and L.J. is incredibly consistent. You need to see (Hoes) play to really understand his ability."

The Cadets, ranked 10th in the current Baseball America/National High School Baseball Coaches Association Top 25 rankings, run deep in talent around the diamond this spring. Joining Silverstein on the pitching staff is righthander Hugh Adams (Florida Atlantic), who went 6-0, 1.80 last year; lefthander Nick Routt (Mississippi State), who saw limited play in 2007; and righthander Mike Loeb (Davidson), who went 3-0, 0.00 in 12 innings last year.

Matt Mack (Radford) returns to third base with one of the best bats in the lineup after hitting .413 with 30 RBIs last season. Jeff Flax (La Salle) remains at second base after hitting .384 last year with 14 steals. Cory Beahm (Hartford) will split time between shortstop and the pitcher's mound after hitting .286 last season and going 2-0, 2.00 in nine innings. Craig Miller (La Salle) will see action as an outfielder and a pitcher after playing largely a reserve role last season.

Capital Challenges

And with all that talent, needless to say the 2008 season looks promising for St. John's, which went 23-6 last season and lost in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship game to rival Paul VI-Catholic. The Cadets graduated outfielder Dimitri Deoudes, catcher Zack Feiersten and righthander Connor Hoehn (who is now at Alabama) but have a senior-dominated team with experienced pitchers on the mound.

"We have high expectations with nine Division I players, but we understand we have a tough schedule, especially with teams in our area," Hoes said. "A top 10 national ranking is possible, even No. 1 is possible, but our main focus is to win the conference."

St. John's faces a challenge early with a non-conference game in April against preseason No. 2 Calvert Hall High, which is in Towson, Md., and finished last season ranked No. 32 in Baseball America's final high school poll. The Cadets also play in what may be the region's toughest conference, one that has had four different champions the last four years.

"The conference top and bottom is very tough regardless of whom you step on the field with," Gibbs said. "Every team has two to three Division I commits per year."

For the second consecutive year, the Cadets will also participate in the National Classic in Southern California, one of the top high school tournaments in the country.

Last season they went 2-2 in the tournament, defeating Newbury Park (Calif.) High and De La Salle High (Concord, Calif.) while losing to El Dorado High (Placentia, Calif.) and eventual champion Palm Beach Central High (Wellington, Fla.).

"We really are more prepared this year. Last season we had a lot of juniors and sophomores and nobody played in California before against West Coast baseball, so they didn't know what to expect," Hoes said.

Though the team will be challenged with a difficult spring schedule, Gibbs is confident they will once again be good representatives for a region not known for its baseball prowess.

"Last year we had four tough games, but I hope we showed that teams from Washington can play baseball," Gibbs said. "The bulk of our team has already been out there, so they know about the competition and schedule to keep."

Homegrown Coach

Gibbs is in just his second year leading the St. John's program, after succeeding his father Ed last season. Ed Gibbs retired after 14 seasons at St. John's with a 318-78 record.

Mark was signed as a nondrafted free agent by the Orioles and reached Double-A before retiring in 2002. Ready to pursue a coaching career in college baseball, Gibbs instead decided to take a position as an assistant under his father, with the understanding that he would eventually take over. Gibbs said his experience during a lifetime around the game will help him maintain the winning tradition his father built.

"The experience you receive and the instructors you meet really helped me to coach," he said. "I have been around so many good coaches including my father, (longtime George Mason coach) Billy Brown, and the coaches with the Orioles were fantastic."

Gibbs said he runs workouts patterned by what he learned in college and with the Orioles, and the coaching staff institutes a similar program at St. John's. The team lifts weights three times a week during the offseason and twice a week during the season.

Players run five times a week in the summer and fall and whenever they get the opportunity to get outside during the winter. Two parents help with the strength and conditioning to free up the staff for other responsibilities. The coaching staff also tries to prepare players for their future, on and off the field.

"If you want to take shortcuts now you are going to have consequences down the line," Gibbs said. "The players willing to give everything all the time are the ones that are going to be successful."

Mark Pinto is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Conn.