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Calvary Christian Emerges As South Florida Baseball Factory

Miami signee Irv Carter has a mid-90s fastball, a wicked slider and . . . mad skills as a recruiter of prep talent.

That’s at least one explanation for how Fort Lauderdale's Calvary Christian Academy—a small, private South Florida school that only started its baseball program in 2003—has emerged as one of the hottest producers of talent in the nation.

On Nov. 11, the Eagles held a ceremony to announce 11 of their players had signed scholarship offers, including nine to Division I colleges.

Of those 11 recruits, Carter—an 18-year-old who aspires to be a big league manager after playing in the majors—said he convinced three of his best friends to transfer to Calvary Christian this past summer: catcher Rene Lastres (Florida recruit), second baseman Sean Ambrose (Florida International) and shortstop Alex Ulloa (Oklahoma State).

“I guess I am a recruiter,” Carter said with a laugh. “I have a ton of great friendships and relationships that I cherish. When I got the opportunity to bring in a couple of my close boys, it was a no-brainer. They give us a huge upgrade in energy. Our practices and weight-training sessions are a show to watch.”

Ambrose said Carter has been trying to get him to come to Calvary Christian for three years, finally clinching the deal by saying: “Senior season, we have to go out together as a family.”

Carter and fellow righthander Andrew Painter (Florida) are two of the nation’s top players, both ranking inside the top 15 on Baseball America's top 100 high school draft rankings for the 2021 class. Painter is the top overall pitcher at No. 3 overall and Carter checks in at No. 12, giving the Eagles an incredible 1-2 rotation punch.

In 2020, Painter went 2-1 with a 0.47 ERA and 33 strikeouts in 15 innings. Carter, in the abbreviated 2020 season, went 0-2, 3.36 with 14 strikeouts in 8.1 innings. As a sophomore, he went 7-1 1.26 with 79 strikeouts in 50 innings.

“Irv is electric,” CCA coach Gil Morales said. “He has amazing charisma. Irv’s fastball is 93-96 (mph), and his best offspeed pitch is his slider. But he’s also a great locker-room ‘glue’ guy.”

Painter’s career prep numbers are impressive: 14-3, 0.99 ERA, 148 strikeouts, 27 walks in 91.2 innings.

“Andy’s personality is completely the opposite from Irv,” Morales said. “He shows no emotion on the mound, no fear. He throws 94-97 (mph), and he comes right after hitters.

“Off the field, he’s the team dad. He helps with uniforms and everything else, always looking out for his teammates.”

The Eagles’ rotation also features righthander Nick Anello, a Miami signee who adds to their embarrassment of riches.

“Nick is a bulldog,” Morales said. “He throws 90-93 (mph) with a good curve and slider. I’m excited about him.”

The Eagles are so loaded that they have a collegiate signee at every position: catcher Lastres (Florida), first baseman Santiago Barcelo (Tallahassee Community College), second baseman Ambrose (FIU), shortstop Ulloa (Oklahoma State), third baseman Jonny Lane (North Alabama), left fielder Brandon Delapenha (Eastern Kentucky), center fielder Ty Hollandsworth (Hillsborough Community College) and right fielder Kyle Tako (Florida Gulf Coast).

But, even though six of those players were with CCA last season, the Eagles were just 2-6 when the pandemic ended the prep baseball year. The Eagles finished the season on a five-game losing streak, scoring a total of just five runs in those contests.

Morales, though, is not concerned.

“Last season was like a redshirt year,” he said. “We put in a new system, and we were very average. We played a difficult schedule on purpose, but I felt we had the athletes to turn it around if given a chance.

“This now feels like we’re getting ready for our first real season. But we know we will always get every opponent’s No. 1.”

Evolution Of A Power

How did a relatively new school with an enrollment of just 800 boys and girls in the upper four grades get to field such a powerful lineup?

Alan Kunkel, who ran the Calvary Christian program from 2016 to 2019 and is now a college assistant for the University of South Florida, deserves some of the credit. He led the Eagles to their first-ever state title in 2016.

Morales, 44, coached Calvary Christian through that abbreviated 2020 season. Before that, he won four state titles at two other Florida schools: Eagle’s View (2005, 2007, 2008) and Trinity Christian (2015). Both of those schools are in Jacksonville.

When Kunkel left for college baseball, CCA athletic director Keith Huisman told Morales: “Do you want to be the best of the best?”

That question appealed to Morales, who knew from his days in Jacksonville that the road to state championships almost always runs through the talent-rich South Florida area.

“This is about the challenge,” said Morales, just the fourth coach in Calvary Christian history. “You could argue that South Florida has the best talent in the country.”

Morales said Calvary Christian has first-rate facilities—weight room, baseball field and clubhouse/locker room.

The Eagles pride themselves on defense, baserunning and pitching. If they get one run, they believe that’s enough for victory.

“Get ‘em on, get ‘em over, get ‘em in,” Morales said. “Off the field, we give the kids structure. Our game-day routine has a college feel.”

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Expanding Their Reach

In their 18-year baseball history, the Eagles have sent some quality pitchers to the next level, including Luke Jackson, a supplemental first-round pick in 2010 who has spent the past four seasons as part of the Braves' bullpen; lefthander Jake Eder, who earned the title-clinching, three-inning, one-run save for Vanderbilt in the 2019 College World Series and was the Marlins’ fourth-round pick in 2020; and Preston Gainey, who was the Brewers’ 11th-rouner in 2012.

On the hitting front, Calvary Christian can boast a pair of fourth-round picks: catcher Taylor Gushue (Pirates, 2014) and infielder Raynel Delgado (Indians, 2018).

More Calvary Christian talent will be flooding the next levels in 2021, and perhaps the most eyebrow-raising of the program’s 11 college signees on Nov. 11 was Ulloa, who decommitted from Miami and then chose Oklahoma State, a program that doesn’t usually recruit in South Florida.

“When I decommitted from Miami, (Oklahoma State) reached out to me by Instagram DMs,” Ulloa said. “I took a visit, and I loved it.”

Morales said Ulloa, who is 5-foot-9, is his team’s version of Astros mighty-mite Jose Altuve.

“Alex has a plus arm, crazy power and high energy,” Morales said. “When he gets in the weight room, he gets after it and gets everybody amped up.

“He’s really good defensively and super smart. He’s the type of guy who comes off the field and his uniform is completely dirty—a small guy who can play with the big boys.”

While Carter and Painter are the highest ranked prospects on the team, Ulloa also cracks the top 100 list—at No. 71—and has one of the more pure hit tools in the 2021 prep class.

Ulloa is one of Calvary Christian's 15 seniors, and Morales believes the four uncommitted Eagles—catcher Nick Cafaro, infielder Chris Romero and outfielders Manny Ramirez and Angel Martinez—will play college baseball at some level.

“We are incredibly deep,” Morales said. “Our intrasquad games will be some of the best games we play all year.”

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