As a college baseball coach located in Philadelphia, Rob Valli faces challenges in competing for recruits who want to go south and opening the season on the road.
Last year, the baseball team and coach Rob Valli looked to recruit the same high school players in the Philadelphia area who were also being scouted by Major League Baseball along with NCAA division I programs from across the country. But when letters of intent from the top level talent went unsigned, Valli quickly improvised.
Prior to the season, Valli added two junior college transfers to the starting lineup, pitcher Brant Norlander (Belmont, Calif.) and second baseman Cameron Green (McAlester, Okla.), who are both juniors. The 14-10 Owls, who are approximately midway through their season, experienced some early success, winning 10-straight games before losing to Xavier on March 25.
“Those two transfer guys have already impacted the lineup,” Valli said. “They’re new to Temple, but they’ve been everyday starters for the past two years, so we think they can give us a huge boost.”
Temple currently has four junior college transfers listed on its roster, which is more than the other teams in the Philadelphia Big 5 have combined. Senior pitcher Brian Sustersic and senior shortstop Adrian Perez both transferred from their respective community colleges last year.
Since Valli arrived at Temple in 2005, he has continued to recruit junior college players, many of whom transferred from Gloucester County College in New Jersey, where Valli coached for five years. In his final season as head coach at GCC, he led the team to a National Junior College Athletic Association Championship, while earning National Coach of the Year honors.
“I think we do a good job understanding the junior college player, what they’re looking for, what their needs are and how to get them involved and develop them right away,” Valli said. “We figure out where we might have a glaring need, and then we try to ‘pop’ it.”
In the first three rounds of the 2010 MLB draft, there were two players selected from Philadelphia area high schools, Germantown Friends School pitcher Jesse Biddle (first round/Phillies) and Germantown Academy (Fort Washington, Pa.) shortstop Sean Coyle (third round/Red Sox). During those rounds, five junior college players were also selected in the draft.
Had Biddle and Coyle gone undrafted, they would have played college baseball at Oregon and North Carolina at Chapel Hill, respectively. Valli said those two players were examples of the how scouts come to Philadelphia to compete in what he calls a “dog fight” for local high school prospects.
“Primarily, we work from the inside-out, so if we had our choice, we would recruit all the players that can walk to Temple,” Valli said. “Unfortunately, the rest of the country is well aware of those players too.”
“We have to really identify those players who have an interest in staying local,” Valli added. “We do the best job we can to keep them.”
Last year, ESPN’s RISE Magazine, which covers high school sports, ranked Germantown Academy and Neumann-Goretti High School as the best two teams in greater Philadelphia. The magazine also ranked the teams in the national Top 25 in high school baseball over the course of their seasons.
Neumann-Goretti High School coach Lou Spadaccini, who played for the Owls in 1993-94 after leaving the school he currently coaches at, said he respects how the Temple coaching staff scouts his high school players and said he is “always” in contact with them.
“The coaches are making some serious inroads locally,” Spadaccini said in an email. “They have been to our games, but we haven’t had a fit for what they were looking for the past few years.”
Athletic director Bill Bradshaw said it is from his own experience as a baseball player at La Salle in the 1960s and as a head coach at Niagara from 1972-74 that he understands how many high school prospects would rather play collegiately in warmer climates so they can practice year-round.
“It’s challenging to get the top players from the Northeast to want to stay,” Bradshaw said. “At Temple, we have a much better chance to recruit a quality student-athlete when that athlete cares more than about just a sport – they care about their future, their academics, the kind of major they’re going to have and the kind of job they’re going to have after baseball.”
Northeast weather annually impacts the timing of the Owls’ preparation for each season. Valli said it was a challenge for his squad to start off the year with away games during February, as the last time they had been on a baseball field was this past October.
The Owls began the season with three-consecutive weekend trips to North Carolina against non-conference opponents, all of which were southern teams. After sweeping the first series against North Carolina Central, Temple lost to High Point, West Virginia and Elon, to finish the road trip with a 3-5 overall record.
However, when the Owls first started scheduling road trips at the beginning of their seasons in 1972 under coach Skip Wilson, they had performed better against teams in the Southern or Western regions of the country. For 13 seasons leading up to 1984, Temple made nine NCAA trips, including two to the College World Series and won 12 conference championships.
Spadaccini said he had remembered wanting to play at Temple because of the legacy of Wilson and the chance to start as a freshman. But Spadaccini said his current high school players tend to go onto play college baseball in the South.
“It seems the [Atlantic Coast Conference] is recruiting heavy [in Philadelphia] these days,” Spadaccini said. “It’s not an easy job for these college coaches from around here.”
Germantown Academy coach Kyle George said he was not surprised when he found out Coyle wanted to play for North Carolina.
“UNC is highly touted athletic and academic school,” George said. “It comes down to what kind of facility a school can offer and what they’re supplying the team.”
“The south can offer a turf field, and the players can play in all weather,” George added.
As for the Owls’ recruiting class expected to join the lineup next year, Valli said he is pleased that some local talent decided to come to Temple, in particular, Archbishop Wood High School shortstop Kyle McCrossen.
“[McCrossen] is an outstanding player,” Valli said. “He was recruited by an awful lot of schools. The tough thing in general is not every kid is in tune with going to an urban university because probably an urban city school, like the size of ours, isn’t your postcard college.”
Connor Showalter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.