July 7, 2014 07:42PM
By Ken Lipshez
WALLINGFORD — While some scholastic-age baseball players fulfill their summer diamond assignments playing American Legion ball, many opt for the various AAU programs proliferating around the state.
Among them is the Connecticut Grind, owned operated by former New York Mets minor leaguer and University of New Haven catcher Michael Moras in his hometown of Orange.
The Grind’s 17U squad, with three Wallingford players, won the Perfect Game Super25 New England Tournament in Warwick, R.I., over the holiday weekend and will advance to the national tournament in Phoenix at the end of the month.
The Grind features two Sheehan players — pitchers Turner French and Zach Hart — and shortstop Jack Gethers, who attends Williston Northampton School after three years at Xavier. French has committed to play his college ball at St. John’s University and Gethers is bound for Fairfield, which is why the young players align with teams like the Grind.
“Our goal is to get kids into colleges,” said Moras, 28, who played three seasons in the Mets’ chain, progressing to Double-A Binghamton before spending parts of 2011and 2012 with the independent Bridgeport Bluefish. “That’s what we thrive on. That’s what we’ve been good at.
“We’ve helped place 20-something kids into college. We reach out to coaches, let them know when the kids they’re recruiting are playing and pitching so they can see them. We’re playing in big-time tournaments where a lot of recruiting is going on. We’re teaching them to play the game the right way, play it hard so they stand out in [the coaches’] eyes.”
The Grind lost their first game in pool play at the New Englands, but won three straight to win the pool and earn a slot in the semifinals. French was the winning pitcher in the 6-2 semifinal win over the Ocean State Waves.
“The first three innings I was leaving the ball up and everything was a double,” French said. “Our catcher Mike DeMartino hits a two-run homer to tie the game and my coach says, ‘You have to get the ball down.’
“I worked on my finish. I wasn’t throwing hard. I’m not overpowering. I have to hit spots. My breaking pitches were good. Hitting the right spots ended up being the deciding factor.”
The Grind toppled the East Cobb New England Expos of Ashland, Mass., 3-0, in the final, and will play for a national title July 23-27 at Camelback Ranch Stadium, the spring home f the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Gethers’ AAU experience began with the Manchester-based Connecticut Rebels coached by the late Rusty Zoarski.
“When the Rebels ended [Zoarski] led me to the Grind,” said Gethers, who has a year left at Williston. “Last year was their first summer and we had a successful year. This year has been more successful so far.”
Gethers opted for AAU ball for the added exposure to college recruiters and the availability of Moras’ facility.
“I can go there whenever I want. The coaching staff is great,” he said. “All the guys [Dante Palazzo, Matt Untiet] are relatively young and we all get along well. We can practice there during the week and go to tournaments on weekends, which increase our exposure throughout New England.”
Moras said Gethers has made the most of his opportunity.
“Jack isn’t the biggest kid on the diamond but he’s really fast,” Moras said. “He makes every single play and plays the game the right way. You very seldom catch him sleeping. He makes team plays and busts it down line. You watch him three or four times and he’ll wow you.”
French and Hart gave Sheehan two quality arms, although French missed much of the season due to mononucleosis. Moras recalls how he and French came together.
“He’s one of the best teammates I have in the whole program,” Moras said. “When I first opened he texted me. In walks this 6’4 kid built like a beanpole. He has a great family and parents. Before long he was playing for our organization. He’s a kid you want in your program. He’s a lefty who pounds the strike zone. He’s a competitor. Rarely can you tell whether he’s winning or losing.”
The Grind play a practice game this week against the Connecticut Capitals at Northwest Catholic in West Hartford before embarking for a weekend tournament at the University of Rhode Island.
“All the northeast teams go to the same tournaments,” Gethers said. “We went to the Diamond Nation Tournament [last month in New Jersey] and there were like 70 teams there. We went to the Perfect Game tournament and we saw two or three of them. Teams get to know each other.
“We’ll go into a weekend and put our best effort out there. Sunday is playoff day and you try to come out of there with a win.”