Prodigy Hitmen can hit and, with Kozak, pitch, too

By DN WRITING STAFF | July 16, 2022

Davyn Ciriaco of the Prodigy Hitmen drove in three runs in the 14U World Series playoff opener.

By Rich Bevensee

Old school baseball fans sneer with disgust when Major League clubs use multiple pitchers to navigate a single ballgame. They like to remind anyone who will listen about how pitchers used to ignore pitch counts and focused on finishing the job. C.C. Kozak is a throwback to those warhorses. 

Kozak, a right-handed rising freshman at Middlesex High, shrugged his shoulders and smiled when asked how he felt after throwing 113 pitches, most of them curveballs which tormented hitters on a steamy Friday morning.

With Kozak dancing in and out of trouble through 6⅓ innings while scattering six hits, the Prodigy Hitmen backed up their stalwart hurler by jumping on the scoreboard early and often. Davyn Ciriaco drove in three runs and three other Hitmen contributed RBI singles in a 7-2 victory over East Coast Dodgers Scout 2026 in the first round of the 14U Diamond Nation World Series playoffs in Flemington. 

In the semifinals, the Hitmen went on to ride the left arm of Max Payne to a 10-0 shutout of Mid-Atlantic Show 14U National. The unbeaten streak ended for the Hitmen, however, when they fell, 16-2, in the championship game to the red hot Garden State Ducks 2026 National. 

Against the Dodgers, Kozak allowed three walks and struck out six while mixing an arsenal of two-seam fastballs, curveballs, change-ups and cutters. 

“The cutter I used to start a lot of batters with and the curve to finish ‘em off,” Kozak said. “Sometimes when I can’t throw a strike I can always throw my curve for a strike.”

His velocity topped out at 78 early and he stayed strong throughout, leveling off at 75 in the sixth inning while demonstrating a keen command of the strike zone.

“C.C. is a one-of-a-kind pitcher,” said Hitmen coach Brandon Edwards, an All-Stater at Immaculata in 2006. “When he gets to about 70-80 pitches, he gets better. He’s one of very few kids, honestly, who can go to 120-130 pitches. At this age it’s special. His mechanics are so good, and you can see his velocity gets up after 70-80 pitches.”

Kozak was sturdy through a few bumpy innings as well. In the top of the second inning the Dodgers loaded the bases with one out but Kozak induced an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play.

Grant Bartell of the East Coast Dodgers rounds third after belting a double in 14U Diamond Nation World Series.

In the fourth inning the volume in the Dodgers’ dugout grew significantly louder after they scored twice to cut their margin to 7-2 and loaded the bases. But Kozak limited the damage with a strikeout and a fielder’s choice ground out.

“I just don’t let the other team get in my head, and I keep pitching hard,” Kozak said. 

“It’s his attitude. He stays so composed,” Edwards said. “Even when the other team is heckling, getting after him, C.C. stays in it. Mentally he’s so strong. His poise on the mound is great. He rarely gets tagged, and when he does he tips his cap and moves on. Rare for someone that age.”

The Hitmen backed up Kozak by scoring early and often, posting crooked numbers in the first three innings. 

“That’s been the M.O. lately,” Edwards said. “We started out slow a couple weeks ago, but this tournament, we seem to have gotten it going early.”

Ciriaco and Yadiel Pena drove in runs with ground outs in the first inning for a 2-0 lead. 

In the second inning, Evan Villoresi drove in a run with a bases loaded fielder’s choice and Ciriaco really gave the Hitmen some breathing room with an opposite-field, two-run single to right for a 5-0 lead.

“Jumping on the scoreboard early helps us because it’s more of a momentum thing,” said Ciriaco, a rising sophomore at South Plainfield. “If we score early the other team may get rattled and not perform as well.”

Two more runs followed in the third inning, as Max Payne drilled an RBI single to right and Noah Morales slapped a single through the middle for a 7-0 lead.

Kozak benefitted from a solid defense in the victory over the Dodgers. He got the aforementioned inning-ending double play which was started by second baseman Morales, catcher Dylan Kelly threw out a runner at third, and the infield handled every chance cleanly until there were two outs in the seventh.

Villoresi relieved Kozak with one out in the seventh and saw the Dodgers load the bases with a single, a walk and an infield error before getting a ground out to end the game.

The Dodgers, a collection of young men from across the country, got a big at bat from Wake Forest, N.C. native Stephen Crater, who blasted a two-run triple to left center in the fourth inning. Greenville, N.C. native Grant Bartell ripped a double down the left field line in that inning. Miguel Delgado went 2-for-2 with a hit by pitch.

The Dodgers received a web gem in the third inning from first baseman Crater, who leaned over the fencing in foul territory next to the Hitman dugout and snagged a foul ball off the bat of Anthony Palumbo. 

According to Dodgers coach Dave Abbe, himself a Cinnaminson, N.J. native and a former player at Rutgers, the Scout team also has players from California, Georgia, New York, Virginia and Las Vegas on its roster.

Dodgers reliever Tyler Abbe struck out the side in the fifth and pitched 3⅓ scoreless innings, yielding just two hits and a walk with six strikeouts. Dodgers starter Hunter Graham lasted 2⅔ innings and allowed seven runs (six earned) on six hits and four walks.

The Hitmen went 4-0 in pool play before the playoffs and ranked second among eight pool winners by scoring 35 runs while allowing 13. They defeated Powerarm Baseball, 8-0, Diamond Jacks Gold 14U, 6-3, Intensity Baseball, 11-5, and Uncommon 2026 Black, 10-5. 

The Dodgers went 3-1 in pool play, beating CK Cardinals National, 8-0, TKR Reds, 13-1, and Beast 2026, 10-2, while bowing to Full Count Baseball, 9-6.

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