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Perfect storm

Baseball Practice

Thank you.

The dry erase board propped up against a pole along the Seton Hall Prep driveway greets all comers to the home of the nation's top-ranked baseball team.

Unable to continue their preseason growth on the lawn of Anthony J. Verducci field due to recent rainfall, the Seton Hall Prep Pirates are landlocked. Wearing sneakers, not cleats, fielding yellow dimpled batting cage balls bouncing on the blacktop, coach Mike Sheppard, Jr.'s players need only broomstick bats and "Spaldeen" balls to complete their stickball setting.

"You call this a baseball field?" Frank Tone, the school's physical plant director, quips as he ignores the sign and interrupts practice to park his white van by the makeshift second base. "Looks more like my parking lot."

Two days prior to their opener against Morristown (N.J.), the Pirates are awash in the ebb and flow of the rain-soaked spring in the Garden State. Though relegated to the adjoining asphalt of the school's upper parking lot, the two-time reigning New Jersey state champions' development is not curtailed. Whether it is North Carolina signee Rick Porcello practicing snap throws to first base or team speed man and Wake Forest recruit Steven Brooks running like a rabbit between bases, the Prep looks like a championship team.

"Everyone hears of our winning and comes in expecting these great facilities, but we get by with our fields and equipment just fine," says Sheppard, who is 463-152-4 in 20 years as Seton Hall's coach. "Sure it's annoying that we had time on the field last week and now we have to go back to our adjustment practices. But we're used to it. There's no dome in the works here."

Weather aside, Sheppard has never before herded this much talent. Fifty of his players have gone on to Division 1 colleges, including Duke freshman starter Mike Ness and Vanderbilt sophomore starter Nick Christiani. Major League Baseball scouts frequented his team's games and practices back in 2003 to see third baseman Eric Duncan, who was drafted with the No. 23 in the first round after leading the Pirates to a 30-1 record as well as league, county, and state titles.

"I remember the February of my senior year that we had to shovel snow off the field to work out," says Duncan, who just moved up to Scranton, Pa. to play for the Yankees Triple-A team. "To have four guys on the team with such talent like they do now, we definitely don't get as much attention in Jersey as the big three states of Florida, Texas, and California, but I'm bragging to my buddies now about the Prep."

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What Sheppard currently has is a pitching rotation that doubles as a perfect storm, swirling around lineups with two hurlers who throw mid-to-high 90 mph fastballs, not to mention devastating changeups and knee-buckling curves. In his outfield are right fielder and Rice recruit, Nick Natale, and center fielder, Brooks, both of whom have been clocked in the six second range during the 60-yard dash.

Still, Sheppard has not had four draft prospects, each of whom has signed at schools in the Big East, ACC, SEC, and Big 12, playing on the same roster at the same time.

"We had a talk with the kids after a scrimmage against Cranford last week," Sheppard said last Saturday before a doubleheader scrimmage against two teams down the Jersey shore. "When they walk off the bus and see the scouts, you tell them to just play normal, but hey, I mean, they're kids. They're going to notice."

Porcello, the Pirates' No. 1 starter and considered by many scouts to be the best high school prospect in this year's amateur draft, topped out at 97 mph in the World Wood Bat games in Jupiter, Fla. last fall. Last week during the Cranford scrimmage he hit 96 and against Ocean Township (N.J.) last Saturday, with a pitch limit of 60, he consistently threw in the 90s despite the temperature stuck in the high 40s. Complementing his speed with an unsettling changeup, the 6-foot-5, 205-pound senior, who went 6-0 with a 0.30 ERA last season in 10 appearances, also has good command of a slider and curve. "He's got pretty good command of 3-4 pitches, and that changeup is a killer when you can throw as hard as he can," says Frank Gately, the Pirates' pitching coach, who calls all pitches during the games.

Standing taller and maneuvering his way through the opposing lineups with more finesse is 6-9, 230-pound Notre Dame signee Evan Danieli, who was 5-1 with a 1.17 ERA last season. The right-handed pitcher can throw 92-94 mph, but is best known for his arcing curve.

"Having a pitcher like Rick on the staff only makes me want to get better," says Danieli, who has always been able to throw a curve since experimenting his freshman year and is now confident to throw it in any count. "There's an inter-team competition that is healthy and allows us to keep on improving."

Arriving as early as two hours before the Pirates take the field, 26 Major League scouts came to the scrimmage doubleheader last Saturday toting notepads and equipped with their radar guns and stopwatches. Complaining about having to crane their necks and guns around backstops and fenced-in-facilities that prove to be unfriendly to scouts, the scouts aimed their heat-seeking instruments through cracks in the backstop padding, gave one gun to three young children lying on their bellies under the padding, and exchanged body language with each other to gauge the speed of Porcello and Danieli's pitches.

"The scouts come to where the talent is," says a veteran National League scout familiar with the Pirates' program. "This season there's four players from a program that has consistently turned out players, especially tough ones, both mentally and physically."

With their state on the scouts' travel itinerary, and their first game having been rained out on Wednesday, a few Pirates joked that they feared being the first No. 1 team to go 0-0-0 for its opening week with two snow outs. No snow came on Wednesday. Just enough rain to postpone their opener. Choosing to measure their time left in innings played rather than inches of snow, Porcello and the Pirates say they are ready for their seasonal change into the spotlight.

"Coach does a great job of getting us ready no matter if it is on the parking lot or in the gym," the ace right hander says. "We're just ready to play in games."