by Dan Cleary
ANNANDALE, NJ - It didn’t take Al Marquis very long to realize that he had an athlete on his hands.
Marquis had sawed off a golf club and handed it to his 2-year-old son, Matt, as the elder Marquis set up a line of golf balls for his son to hit in the family’s yard.
“He could barley walk yet, but he would hit those golf balls for hours,” recalled Al. “At first I thought he was going to be a golfer. But I never pressured him either way. I just wanted him to do what he liked.”
Matt Marquis definitely took a liking to playing on a lush, green, sun-drenched grass field. However, on the field that Marquis now excels, he doesn’t need a caddy or a cart, but he still launches a little white ball a very long way.
Marquis has developed into one of the top baseball prospects in the state of New Jersey and if the 17-year-old Annandale resident has the type of senior season he is capable of having at Immaculata High School in Somerville in the Spring of 2008, he could be nationally known and selected in Major League Baseball’s First Year Player Draft in June.
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound power-hitting righty is coming off a monster junior season for the Spartans (24-3), who finished the season ranked third in the state by The Star-Ledger, while also capturing their ninth Somerset County Tournament title in the last 11 seasons.
The talented center fielder hit .443 with 10 doubles, 29 RBI and 36 runs scored and played a flawless outfield for Immaculata coach Tom Gambino, who has molded the Spartans into a state power in his two decades at the school.
“I want to train hard for the high school season and for college,” said Marquis, who has honed his skills at the Jack Cust Baseball Academy since it opened in 1997. “I want to improve and be the ‘Go-to-Guy’ this season. Although we lost a lot of seniors I think the rest of the team is ready to step it up. I’m excited about the season.
“Everyone knows Immaculata for baseball,” he added. “It has been great playing for Coach Gambino and being part of the tradition of all the great players who have played here.”
Gambino, who has compiled an impressive 413-112-2 career record, is also counting on Marquis and the veteran mentor feels Marquis has special ability. And Gambino knows of special ability, having coached Oakland A’s slugger Jack Cust Jr. in the late 1990s.
“He will be the ‘Go-to-Guy’ for us and I expect him to drive in a lot of runs and get on base for us,” said Gambino. “We just have to develop some depth (in the bating order) so he sees some pitches and I think we will do that. I think by the end of the year he won’t be just considered one of the best players in New Jersey, but in the nation.
“He has all the tools,” added Gambino. “He can hit for power to all fields and he has good speed. Defensively, he has great arm strength. He is also one of those type of kids who is always trying to get better and likes to be challenged and I think he will be able to play at the next level. He ranks right up there with the best players I have ever coached.”
That next level for Marquis could be as a professional if he is drafted or at the Division I collegiate level at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Marquis has already made a verbal commitment to the national power and its coach Tim Corbin. Marquis will make it official in November during the early signing period. Until then, Corbin cannot comment on Marquis, but Marquis can definitely talk about Corbin and his outstanding program.
The Commodores went 54-13 and were the Southeastern Conference regular season champs before losing in the NCAA tournament to Michigan 4-3 in 10 innings last season. They also had the No. 1 player chosen in last June’s draft in junior lefty pitcher David Price, who was picked by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Fellow Vandy hurler Casey Weathers also went in the first round to the Colorado Rockies.
Corbin, who also coached the United States National Team, is 198-108 overall and has had 37 players drafted over the last four years. Now add in Vanderbilt’s sterling academic reputation and Marquis was sold.
“When I was a sophomore my Dad and I started looking at colleges and we made a checklist of what we wanted in a school,” recalled Marquis. “Vanderbilt was our first visit, and as soon as I got to Nashville, I loved the area. Then we got a chance to meet Coach Corbin and talk and his philosophy really attracted me to the school. Then you have the great academics, so it was a great fit.
“It was definitely important signing early,” added Marquis, who was recruited by over 100 Division I schools. “It allows me to just concentrate on baseball and I won’t miss any of the season or training to go on official visits.”
“It is a good fit,” added Gambino. “They are one of the best programs in the nation and he has all the tools to compete there.”
So how did Marquis become one of the top prospects in the state? It has been a combination of hard work and natural athletic ability, which he received from his mother, Julie, according to his father. Julie was an outstanding high school softball player, but Al was a three-sport star in high school, as well, said Matt.
“The whole family loves sports,” said Matt. “We love watching it on TV and we go out to games. It is a big part of our family.”
Matt’s twin sister, Morgan, plays lacrosse at Immaculata, and his older sisters, Abby, 25, and Maggie, 21, were outstanding athletes at the Pennington School.
After ripping up the yard with his golf swing as a toddler, Marquis moved to T-ball and would swing for hours. He then began his Little League career and played up a year when he was 11-years-old for the North Hunterdon Little League, which was an early indication of things to come.
When he was 12, he hit amazing 35 home runs in 36 games, opening up a lot eyes, including his father’s.
“We knew he had the potential and the talent and fortunately for us we had a great person in Jack Cust to help him develop,” said Al.
Al entered young Matt into the Jack Cust Baseball Academy, hired a personal trainer and nutritionist, and he has trained there ever since. He even works there now.
“It has helped me get better every year,” said Marquis. “We wanted to see how good of a ballplayer I could be and, so far, it has really worked. Baseball has always been my favorite sport and this (Cust Academy) is a great place to train for it. I really have to thank Mr. Cust for giving me a chance to improve my game and my father for paying for all of it.”
Marquis said he hopes all of his hard work and family’s commitment will pay off in the form of a Major League career, one like his favorite player, Ken Griffey Jr. Marquis said he loves the way the Cincinnati Reds slugger and future Hall-of-Famer plays the game. “He has the sweetest swing ever; I want to play just like him,” said Marquis.
Marquis received a small taste of the Big Leagues when he went to scouting combines at Yankee Stadium and Citizens Bank Ballpark in Philadelphia over the summer, which was a great thrill, he said.
“I was born in Philly and the Phillies are my favorite team,” said Marquis. “It was pretty cool playing on that field. I loved hitting there.”
Marquis may get that chance again if he is drafted, but with the opportunity to go to Vanderbilt waiting, it won’t be an easy decision whether to turn pro right after high school.
“It (being drafted) is something very serious we have to think about,” said Marquis. “It is a very big choice if happens. So we are not sure what we will do.”
One thing is for sure, though. Whatever he decides to do, he will attack it with the same tenacity of that toddler who tirelessly hit golf balls in his parent’s yard so many years ago.
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