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New Jersey Super-17 Program

As their young, Super-17 charges will attest, Coach Keith Dilgard’s and Coach Ben Fonseca’s first year at Jack Cust Baseball Academy (JCBA) proved auspicious for many reasons. Forget the wealth of experience and pure baseball knowledge that they bring to the Super-17 program. They make a lasting impression on the players whom they coach that will last for as long as they play the game, and beyond.

Each of the Super-17 players that County Baseball has interviewed point to the excellent instruction they received under the tutelage of Mr. Dilgard and Mr. Fonseca. Not surprisingly, and in their usual self-effacing manner, Coaches Dilgard and Fonseca will be the first to remind us that any attention paid to the Super-17 program must focus entirely on the players who participate in it. Still, those of us who have experienced quality teaching and responsible role modeling in our lives know that good coaching also occupies a critically important place in shaping and molding young lives. Consequently, any coverage of the Super-17 program rightfully begins with much deserved “attaboys” for the coaching staff.

Both JCBA coaches agree that, in terms of the pure baseball talent that the Super-17 program represents, there’s “nothing else around like it.” As Coach Dilgard explains, already, after only one season, the Super-17 program is the “buzz around the entire state.” In addition to the gifted players from in and around the Hunterdon County area, the program attracts the best young players from all parts of New Jersey.

Among them, Billy Rowell, from Bishop Eustace High School, ranks as probably the highest prospect to emerge from the Super-17’s inaugural season. Dilgard describes Rowell – a 6’5” shortstop, with 6.7 speed in the 60 yard dash, and a 90 mph fastball when he pitches – as “one of the best power hitters in the country,” at the high school level. As a member of the Central Jersey roster, Rowell received a full scholarship to the University of Alabama, a rarity according to Coach Dilgard, in the Southeastern Conference (SEC). Dilgard also asserts that, while the “final numbers are not yet tabulated,” estimates from Coach Garett Teel in North Jersey, Coaches Joe and Bob Barth in South Jersey, along with Coaches Dilgard and Fonseca in Central Jersey, indicate that 95% to 100% of the players who participated in the 2005 Super-17 program have received scholarship offers from one college or another. Dilgard speculates that an estimate of total scholarship funds provided to Super-17 players in the amount of “$1million would be low.”

By any measures, the accomplishments and attributes of Super-17 players impress college and professional scouts alike, and they came from all over the eastern seaboard, ranging from the Ivy League to the SEC to size up the talent on display. What they saw included an array of pure baseball talent that does not take a back seat to other showcase tournaments and leagues around the country with longer histories and greater notoriety.

Besides Billy Rowell, scouts got to see such Super-17 prospects as Matt Owens from St. Joe’s High School in Metchen, Kenney Gregory and Frank Florio from Immaculata High School, Anthony Renaudo from St. Rose High School, Brooks Miller from Governor Livingston High School, Marc Zecchino from Raritan High School, and B.J. Martin from Manalapan High School, along with local prospects Kevin Toolan and Kevin Arico from Hunterdon Central High School.

Owens, who throws 90 mph fastballs, has heard from such schools as Clemson, North Carolina, and New Orleans, in addition to Rutgers and Seton Hall. Rogers has spoken with representatives from Boston College and North Carolina-Charlotte. Florio led the entire Super-17 league with 6 homers this past summer. Renaudo is a 6’6” 15-year old pitcher who got lots of attention from visiting scouts and will only improve as he gets older, as is the case with Martin, whom Dilgard says has “great stuff (including) a great slider.” Both Toolan and Arico also got “a lot of looks” from scouts over July and August.

New Jersey’s brightest prospects made a name for themselves and for the Super-17 program at the annual Perfect Game Tournament held recently in Florida. After earning the right to enter the Perfect Game tournament by winning the Northeast Regionals, The Super-17 team qualified for the playoffs with a 3-0-1 record in pool play, and then swept to the championship with a 3-0 record behind the stellar pitching of Renaudo, Miller, and Zecchino.

Renaudo pitched a no-hit game in the quarterfinal; Miller followed with a 10-inning complete game, 6-1 victory in the semifinal, in which he allowed only one earned run; and, Zecchino fired a 3-0 shutout in the final to complete the Super-17’s championship run in just their first entry in the Perfect Game Tournament. Even more impressive was the time period over which the team played the seven contests that it took to reach the championship game.

Arriving on a Friday morning, the Super-17 squad played its first two games starting at 2:00 p.m. that very afternoon. Saturday’s schedule followed with three games played in the same day, setting the stage for Sunday’s morning-afternoon / semifinal-final doubleheader. Give or take a couple of hours at the end of Sunday’s competition, the Super-17 team conquered a series of All-Star teams from across the country to capture one of the most prestigious showcase tournaments in the nation, all in little more than 48 hours!

Although by all accounts, the Super-17’s first season ranks as a resounding success, Coach Dilgard admits that the JCBA staff “learned a lot” in the program’s first year of operation. For one thing, many colleges consider a prospect’s academic standing, in addition to his baseball statistics and physical talents, before offering a scholarship. Consequently, the JCBA staff will include that information in a new scouting handbook that college and pro scouts will receive when they visit Super-17 games next summer.

The obvious popularity that the league enjoyed this year might prompt the formation of two new teams in 2006, bringing the total number of teams to eight. Also, the teams might play 9-inning games and devote a portion of the summer season to the use of wood bats. Both of those changes would serve as an accommodation to visiting scouts who want to see how players perform over a full 9-innings (high schools play only 7-inning contests) and without the added explosiveness that metal bats, as opposed to wood bats, impart to pitched baseballs.

Speaking of scouts, JCBA staff delightfully point out that a frequent visitor to the Super-17 games in 2005 was none other than Don Kohler, Chief Administrator for the Major League Scouting Bureau in the northeast. Young ball players who aspire to play in the major leagues have their best chance of doing so if they receive a recommendation from Mr. Kohler, “a key person to know,” as Coach Dilgard observes.

The Super-17 program looks to a rich and illustrious future, especially as its players ascend through the ranks of college, minor league, and major league levels. County Baseball will follow all their exploits and their achievements and bring to you, the fan, all the stories of their grand accomplishments. For now, though, we salute Jack Cust, Tom Gambino, the JCBA coaching staff, and the players for a hugely entertaining and successful first season of baseball in what is sure to become the premier showcase of young talent throughout the country.

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