Tampa, FL - TAMPA, FL - If you are familiar with the travel ball circuit in Florida, everyone is aware of the usual suspects: the All-American Prospects, Chet Lemon's Juice, Florida Bombers, Florida Hardballers, Florida Legends, Florida Pokers, Florida Stars, FTB Mizuno, Orlando Scorpions, Palm Beach PAL, and SWFL to name a few. (Notice that I had to list those teams in alphabetical order to prevent threats against my well being.)
Yes, travel baseball recruiting has taken on a life of it's own and with it has come dedication and passion. The top programs recruit year-round, and at times, can get into recruiting wars similar to those you would find on the college baseball scene. Yet despite the intensity and competitiveness that has marked travel ball recruiting, a few teams have begun to surface over the last few years that look to be around for years to come.
While some of the programs listed above have been around since the 1990's, there are some programs that have gained an advantage in the summer recruiting process with creative recruiting.
Clearwater is home to the West Florida Shockers, a program started in 2007 by former USF catcher Rick Stegbauer. Stegbauer was drafted twice by the Angels, and has formed a group of former college and professional players that make up his coaching staff. Stegbauer has kept a core group of standout players together from the greater Tampa Bay area over a number of years - attending, competing, and winning tournaments all over Florida in the process. Through their positive experiences with the Shockers, the players developed loyalties to the program. That means when the traditional powerhouse programs come knocking on their doors, those players are more likely to kindly decline their offers, and shut it. "I think the main thing with our program is chemistry," Stegbauer said. "Our guys have been together for a long time, we practice about 3 days a week, and we really pride ourselves in being ethical in their treatment and having a low turnover of players from year to year."
Davie is home to the South Florida Elite Squad, a program started in 2006 by former Broward College pitcher Richie Palmer. Palmer has used his network of connections to try and bring players a next-level-type of experience while still playing in the high school ranks. For coaches, Richie brought in big name coaches such as Felipe Suarez, the former Team USA Pitching Coach and former FIU recruiting coordinator. He also added former University of Miami assistant Rey Fuentes, former Nova Southeastern standout Matt Cleveland, and former FAU standout Nick Kieres. Palmer also secured Broward College as the team's home field. By bringing on former college coaches to his staff, and playing games at college facilities, Richie's program is associated with college baseball - and that has been a recruiting edge for the Elite Squad in southern Florida. The result has most recently been a 2009 18U Florida State Finals ring, and a 2009 15U BCS Title ring. "When people think of The Elite Squad, we want them to think of college baseball," Palmer said. "It's not only our facilities and our coaches, it's the way we run the program. For example, before games at Broward, we want our guys to take a pre-game BP on the field. Something as simple as this prepares them for how long their gamedays are at the next level."
Jacksonville is home to the World of Baseball, a program started in 2007 by Clay Daniel. Clay was the international scouting director for the Anaheim Angels, and built a 4-field facility in Jacksonville with the belief that players don't get better at indoor cages. Daniel brought in Dan Corsi from Atlanta to run the showcase aspect of their program. Corsi uses a blue-collar approach to attract mostly Jacksonville-area kids to his up and coming WOB program. "The one thing we take pride in is hard work," Corsi said. "Our guys come into our program knowing that not only will they get showcased, but they are going to get better with us. Most of our guys are from Jacksonville, and we will put in 5 hour practices over the summer. It's satisfying to know that our players are signing with colleges and we had a small hand in the process of getting them prepared for that."
Whether it is the chemistry approach, the collegiate approach, or the blue-collar approach, one thing is for sure: the more quality programs that arise, the better experience players and families will have.