Former Diamond Jack Winston Allen is concluding his college career as a grad student at Richmond.
Andrew Papantonis and Winston Allen have come full circle from their days as teammates in the Diamond Jacks program out of Diamond Nation in Flemington, N.J. and Delbarton School in Morris Township.
The two longtime teammates left for college in the summer of 2017 after winning the NJSIAA Non-Public A state championship and headed in different directions to pursue their college dreams.
“Both were very instrumental in our success when we won our state championship,” said Delbarton coach Bruce Shatel. “Each had a presence on the field. They both played varsity ball as freshmen and had four straight years as a staple in our lineup. Pap was an everyday player and Winston was a guy who pitched a ton of innings for us.”
Papantonis, a two-sport stud, dragged a rehabbing knee to the University of Virginia to play shortstop. The righthander Allen went south, too, but stopped much closer to home, in Newark, Delaware, to pitch for the U-Del Blue Hens.
Four years of trials, tribulations, injuries, persistent hard work and a lot of baseball, both are still in love with the greatest game and are playing together on the field once again.
Both players landed at the University of Richmond this year with a grad year of eligibility remaining – the COVID year – and extremely bright futures ahead, wherever that leads them.
“I’m loving it here,” said Papantonis. “I’m grateful for the opportunity. I’m playing second base right now. I played outfield last year, so I’m getting adjusted again to the infield and getting comfortable.”
While Papantonis has a defined role, Allen is still trying to work himself into a viable spot in the Spiders’ bullpen.
“I’m one of three grad pitchers on a staff of 24 guys,” says Allen. “That’s a lot of pitchers. Typically you have 16 to 18 pitchers and nine to 11 get the lion’s share of the innings. Given my experience in college and summer ball, I’m in what we are calling a hybrid role. I”m a long relief, match-up guy. I can spot start or close if I have to.”
Papantonis has played in 11 of Richmond’s 14 games as the Spiders have opened the season at 10-4. He’s starting at second base and batting .333 (13-for-39) with a pair of doubles, a home run, seven RBI and boasts a gaudy .920 OPS.
“I feel healthy, just really good,” says Papantonis, who has gone through an injury gauntlet since tearing his ACL playing football at Delbarton. “This year everything is going well. I finally put all the big injuries behind me. I feel like I’m in the best shape since I left high school. It’s a blessing.”
Winston has not made the same statistical impact at Richmond as his buddy, Pap. He’s made just two appearances, pitching 2.1 innings, allowing five runs on five hits. But it would be hard to find someone enjoying his last year of baseball more.
“Playing Division 1 baseball is really hard,” says Shatel. “A lot of people don’t realize how hard it is. It’s nice to see them both at a really good school like Richmond to finish their careers and their education, both going out with a great program.”
Allen had visions of hooking on with a professional club after college, but Major League Baseball first condensed the draft, then pulled a scorched earth on its Minor League affiliates around the country, shrinking opportunities for players like Winston along the way.
“Once I swallowed the terrifying pill that baseball was going to come to an end for me sooner than I hoped, my approach changed. I view it as a blessing in disguise,” said the 6-2, 200-pound Allen. “I’ve freed up my self-imposed pressure. Baseball is fun again. It’s an incredible game. I’m in great shape and my durability is my strength. I’m confident I’ll be a factor here.”
Indeed, Allen is embracing the game that has given him so much joy.
“I’m talking to the younger guys, trying to do things that help us win games,” said Allen. “If I only pitch 10 innings and we win the conference, screw it. That’ll be fine with me. My family and friends are supportive and that allows me to appreciate the day-to-day. I take a lot more pride in it and see things more clearly.”
Allen’s and Papantonis’ coach at Diamond Nation, Travis Anderson, can relate. Anderson spent nine years at the lower levels of the minor leagues, the last four with the then-Atlantic League Somerset Patriots. He has been one of the leading coaches with the Diamond Jacks program since its birth in 2010.
“Take baseball out of it,” said Anderson. “Are you enjoying where you are? Are you taking the next step in life? It comes down to, what are you going to do with baseball? Baseball doesn’t need you. Someday it’s going to be over. Are you set up for a big boy job?”
Papantonis’ goal, he admits, hasn’t changed much from his high school days and even his early years as a Diamond Jack.
“My goal has always been to play pro ball,” said Papantonis. “I’ve had that goal since I was 13. I’ve always made that promise to myself.”
College stops at Virginia, San Jacinto Junior College in Houston, the University of Houston and now Richmond have been just part of the journey for Papantonis. And so have been the injuries and surgeries.
“I’ve had nine surgeries, but a bunch of little ones were to clean up my knee,” he said. “The ACL senior year of high school carried into my freshman year at UVA. I played each of our first 15 games my sophomore year at San Jacinto, then tore the labrum in my left shoulder.”
During his first fall season at Houston, he tore the labrum in his right shoulder. “That didn’t really matter much because that turned out to be the lost COVID season,” said Papantonis.
At three high-profile programs, the 6-2, 195 Papantonis has played alongside plenty of top athletes, so he knows where he stands as far as his ability and capabilities are concerned.
“I have a lot of buddies who are playing pro ball,” he said. “It’s still my ultimate goal. It’s something I want to prove to myself and my family that I can do, despite the injuries. Coming to Richmond has put me in a really good spot.”
But, like Allen, experience has provided perspective for Papantonis. He knows his abilities but he also knows the potential roadblocks to derailing his dream.
“I don’t think the draft is an option,” said Papantonis. “I’m 23 and playing for a mid-major. I’ll be looking for a free agent deal to try to break in. I have a lot of contacts, so I hope that will help me get a chance. We’ll see what’s in the cards.”
Allen, Papantonis, Volpe and Leiter, too
One of those top athletes who Papantonis has played alongside is shortstop Anthony Volpe, the Yankees No. 1 prospect. Papantonis was a junior starting shortstop at Delbarton in 2016 when the freshman Volpe slid immediately into a starting role at second base. Volpe, also a former Diamond Jack, is slated to be the starting shortstop for the now-Double-A Somerset Patriots this spring.
That wasn’t a bad 2017 Delbarton team. Righthander Jack Leiter, who was selected No. 2 overall by the Texas Rangers in the 2021 MLB Draft out of Vanderbilt, was a freshman on the Green Wave varsity that year as well. Volpe and Leiter would win another state title for Delbarton as seniors in 2019.
Papantonis and Allen took different paths to Richmond. Papantonis received a tip from a former teammate – not Allen – and Allen simply entered the transfer portal after deciding his time at Delaware had run its course.
“I was really looking for a place that took a lot of pride in team culture,” said Allen. “We had some culture issues at Delaware. I wanted to play a little further south and play a competitive conference schedule. And I wanted a chance to win a conference title.”
But Allen’s priority in his final college stop wasn’t necessarily what went on between the lines.
“I wanted it first to be an academic decision,” he said. “Richmond was a no-brainer. I thought about it for 12 hours and called coach (Tracy) Woodson back right away.”
The extremely bright Allen was studying pre-law in his grad year, but that initial career path has changed.
“The focus is still pre-law. I’ve taken a few classes, but my degree will be a Masters in Liberal Arts,” said Allen. “I found I have a passion for sales, which is the complete opposite end of the spectrum.”
Not completely. What good is a lawyer who can’t sell his side of things? Allen can bend an ear and at an intellectual level, so sales may very well be the most natural thing he finds outside of throwing fastballs, curveballs and changeups.
“I love it,” he said. “I love to communicate and talk to everyone. Sales get thrown into the mix of things.”
Drew Blakely was a catcher at Virginia when Papantonis was at the Charlottesville school and later transferred to Richmond. Papantonis and Blakely, who had a terrific season for the Spiders in 2021, connected once again.
“I had heard about the Richmond program, but Drew was the only one I knew who played there last year,” said Papantonis. “I wanted one more good year, to play for coaches I could trust, and play where I would feel confident. But I also wanted to attend a top tier academic school.”
Papantonis reached out to Blakely who recommended a coach to speak to. “I got in contact with (assistant) coach (Nate) Mulberg” and, of course, his friend Win’ soon connected, as well, on their mutual choice. “I brought my dad into the conversation, which I hadn’t in my previous few college decisions. It was all hands on deck.”
It’s also all hands on deck in Pap’s bid for a successful Spiders season, followed by, he hopes, a free agent contract with a pro team. But the Hunterdon County resident has not pushed all of his career chips into one pile. He’ll transition to Plan B this summer if all else fails on the baseball front.
“I’m studying Human Resource Management at Richmond and I’m set up for an internship this summer as a backup plan,” he said. “I”m trying to set up my life one way or another.”
That plan could also include baseball. “I think, eventually, I would like to stay in baseball, maybe coaching or some other capacity,” he said. Papantonis has been adept at making adjustments and persevering through adversity, two qualities that have served him well.
“Life has a unique way of setting your path,” says Anderson. “You want to put yourself in a position to succeed for the next 40 years. (At Diamond Nation) we find a path you can take and we try to help you with that.”
An adjustment in the early going has borne fruit as well for Papantonis, who opened the season 3-for-13. “I’m seeing a lot of breaking balls right now,” he said at the time. “I’m trying to adjust to playing every day again, honing my approach at the plate. I’m also working on my mental approach.”
Papantonis has since gone 10-for-26 (.426) as the Spiders gear up for their approaching Atlantic 10 Conference slate. “Our talent level is unbelievable and we have such a good group of guys,” he said. “I’m excited to see where this journey takes me. I’m working with some of the best people in the sport.”
Just to make his former coaches feel older, Papantonis is getting married in June to Grace Gay. “We met my junior year at Houston,” he said.
Allen and Papantonis days with the Diamond Jacks began at the age of 13 and continued until they were playing for the program’s Super 16U squad. But they had met on the field long before that.
“We grew up playing ball together,” said Allen. “I played against him when we were 8 or 9 years old. His team was my team’s rival. I played for Morristown and he played for Tewskbury.”
Allen and Papantonis then landed in the same dugout for four years with the Diamond Jacks, and then four more years under Shatel’s tutelage at Delbarton. Winston also recalls playing with the Diamond Jacks Super 11U on a trip to Cooperstown.
“I was coached by Travis (Anderson) at 13U,” said Allen. “He’s such a good man.”
Baseball Is Life
Allen, like Papantonis, cannot get enough of the game, particularly the college game.
“It’s the only thing I have on TV,” Allen said. “It’s a game with the most passion, emotions and intensity. Every single game matters.”
Winston also gets a kick out of telling his current teammates about his championship 2017 Delbarton team, and that he and Pap’ and Volpe and Leiter were all on the same team.
“I tell everyone that story,” he said. “And we had a bunch of other D-1 guys. No one can believe it.”
The stories, the relationships, the wins, the losses, the injuries, the perseverance, the baseball.
“Baseball becomes your bond to everyone in your life, your best friends, your family,” says Anderson. “It becomes your connection to everything.”
And sometimes your friends follow you from the time you are 8 or 9 years old and right through college.