A team of 17 rising seniors from New Jersey and teams of players from seven other states participated in a remarkable event billed as the National Championship Series in late June in Houston.
We say “billed” only because if the event organizers, steered by Glen Estopinal and Dr. Carlos Gonzales, have their way, this very first year of the national tournament will have been merely a stepping off point to a much larger and more impactful event.
The event was several years in development as Estopinal and his team painstakingly tended to every last detail in their attempt to make every aspect of the first national high school championship event unforgettable for every player and coach. Estopinal is the President and Founder of MVP Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to leadership development, educational advancement and community service.
As Estopinal unveiled his plan for an eight-team national championship tournament, he reached out to much-respected high school coaches around the nation, including Don Bosco Prep coach Mike Rooney, who, in turn, brought Diamond Nation into the local planning as a “Team New Jersey” gradually became something more than a wish.
“They flew the coaches from the eight states down to Houston in February to discuss the challenges and hurdles and what we needed to do in recruiting players,” said Rooney. “It was a nice network of coaches and we did our best to help each other out.”
One of the major issues, Rooney said, “was planning a national event around players’ busy summer showcase schedules. I knew the task was greater than my ability. That’s why I reached out to Steve DiTrolio and Keith (Dilgard) at Diamond Nation. I didn’t know Steve very well at that point but I go back with the Cust family and I knew, with them involved, everything would work out.”
DiTrolio, Diamond Nation’s Director of Recruiting and a former Somerville High School assistant coach, joined Team New Jersey as Rooney’s assistant as they went about assembling New Jersey’s representative in the national tournament. Dilgard is Diamond Nation’s President and CEO.
“We knew we had to come off of a hardline stance with the players,” said Rooney. We didn’t want to limit someone’s opportunity. We wanted to add to it.”
Duke-bound Adam Boucher, a 6-5, 205-pound rising senior at St. Joseph (Met.), for example, had to miss the first game of the event because he was flying to Fenway Park for the Area Code Games. “We were looking to be flexible to situations like this,” said Rooney. “We were able to navigate it. It was a little bit of a leap of faith by the kids. Some were willing to take it, others were not.”
If the top players in the nation knew exactly what awaited them in Houston, plenty of summer plans would have been altered. The National High School Championship Series would be one incredible experience for the 135 players and their coaches.
“Once we got down to Houston for the tournament, we knew right away it was something special,” said Rooney. “One of the great things is also one of the crazy things about the tournament. All expenses were paid, including flights, our stay in a 5-star hotel and, on top of all that, every game was televised on ESPN+.”
DiTrolio, who travels often with the Diamond Jacks program on the showcase circuit, said, “This was a first class event all the way. Glen and his group really thought this out and I can’t wait to see where this event is in five years. The competition was the best I’ve seen at the amateur level. To have the top players from each state represented and to go head-to-head against one another in a tournament, competing to win, was awesome.”
The games were played at Constellation Field, home of the Sugarland Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League, in Sugarland, Texas, a suburb of Houston. Each team also played one game at Rice University. The teams’ itinerary included a visit to the home of John Havens, who has the second largest ownership share in the Houston Astros. The players and coaches also attended an Astros game at Minute Maid Park.
“Everyone was given first class treatment,” said Estopinal. “That was our aim. The coaches and players had the experience of being treated like professionals, riding on chartered buses and having their flights, meals and uniforms paid for. The experience was awesome for them and they got a lot of attention from pro and college scouts. People loved it. We did hear a lot of positive feedback.”
This being the first year of the event, it would be understandable if the coaches were unable to assemble the best players in their respective states. But Rooney claims otherwise.
“The talent in this tournament in the first year was exceptional,” he said. “We played California and Texas and the kids were committed to schools like LSU, Stanford, USC, Rice, Oklahoma State and North Carolina. There was a very high level of talent that participated.”
Team New Jersey joined teams from California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada, New York and Texas to form the eight team field. Team New Jersey went 1-2 in its three pool play games, losing to California and Texas and defeating Illinois. Florida defeated California in the championship game, which was televised on ESPNU.
“It was an opportunity for our event to reach out to folks across the country,” said Estopinal. “The games on ESPN+ were a build up to the championship game on ESPNU.”
The National Championship Series, however, is much more than a baseball event and the itinerary reveals as much. Estopional, in fact, makes an important point where the focus of this non-profit mission lies.
“Although it’s a baseball event,” says Estopinal, “the nonprofit’s mission is all about leadership, education and service. We have a leadership banquet at the end, allowing the young men to sit and listen to speakers. Our organization recognizes demonstrated leadership in communities. We want the boys to see what leadership looks like. We want them to envision themselves, in their own development, as future leaders in school, work, their church, families and athletics. This is a very important element for us.
“I told the coaches, my purpose is to be true to the MVP Foundation mission and you’re the second part of that equation. Your purpose is to put together a team that can compete at a national level. Put together some studs who are competitive and worthy of being on ESPN.”
While the event is not designed as a showcase per se, Estopinal says, “The college scouts do show up. It can’t help but be that. While the event is all about competing for a national title, it can’t help but showcase the talent of the players involved.”
“Aidan Kane took a visit to Rice University while we were there and I know two kids from the Louisiana team committed,” said Rooney. Kane, like Boucher, plays for the Diamond Jacks Super 17 team and is an excellent outfielder for NJSIAA Non-Public A champion Delbarton.
“I was proud of everyone’s effort to get players willing to take on the responsibility of competing for their state,” said Rooney. “There was a good showing of colleges and pro guys there. The coaches had interviews with the pro scouts and we discussed our rosters with them in detail.”
One of the keys to growth for any event is getting off on the right foot at the start, and Estopinal’s team, which grew to 35 people by the start of the tournament, has certainly pulled that off.
“There was a lot of planning for a number of years,” said Estopinal. “There was plenty of trial and error, working through different elements and approaches. It was just two of us, myself and Dr. Carlos Gonzales, at the start. Once everything was in place and we were able to set up all the chips, we probably had five-to-seven of us working closely together.” He said his staff would number 35 during the six-day event.
“It was actually Carlos who had the original idea, back in 2010, to go to a national competition,” said Estopinal.
Estopinal lays out the National Championship Series’ growth plan for the next couple years right on the organization’s website. “We have big plans but we are being careful not to grow too fast,” he said. “We don’t want to just grow, we want to grow right, with everything in its proper order, so that great experience remains the same. We’re excited about our first year and we certainly felt like we accomplished a lot.”
The very first step from here for Estopinal is ratcheting up the marketing of the event. “We’re going to meet soon with marketing agencies and ESPN,” he said. “The championship game was in prime time, 8 p.m., on ESPNU. That was big for us. We’ve gotten good feedback on the viewership. We think we can grow from there according to the viewership reports. We hope ESPN will have a strong interest in growing our relationship.”
As for as the mechanics of future tournaments, the growth plan is centered on the size and scope of the competition. Estopinal and his team are modeling the event after the NCAA’s College World Series. The goal, at this point, for Year 2 is expanding to a 16-state National Championship Series. And Year 3 calls for 16 separate Regional Qualifying Series to play down to a 16-state National Championship Series.
“I’m excited to see where this goes,” said Rooney. “I know Glen and the organizers were very pleased how it when this year. They were so gracious to the coaches. It is certainly the most first class events I’ve attended. (Former Astros player) Lance Berkman was a coach with the Texas team and he spoke to the kids in a suite during the Astros game.”
But Estopinal remains cautious while highly optimistic of his team’s growth plans.
“We’d like to have 16 teams,” he said. “We are reviewing that right now for next year. We’re going to see. It depends on the sponsorships and what we can pay for. It’s private funds through the MVP Foundation. We hope we draw national level sponsors and local area sponsors for each state as well.”
The coaches and players who participated in the National Championship Series’ first year, will never doubt Estopinal and his team’s ability to make this a bigger and an even more amazing event for years to come.
“It was a really good first year,” said Team New Jersey’s Maryland-bound righthander Gavin Stellpflug. “A lot of the kids were committed, so the competition was really good. The hotel and workout facility were amazing.” Stellpflug, a 6-6, 200-pounder from Somerville, said an added bonus was the ability to talk and share information with other players. “I’m sure they have a lot to figure out but I’d like to see where it goes in like five years.”
As Estopinal says, one step at a time.
“Whatever we can pay for will determine our growth,” said Estopinal. “We don’t want to bite off more than we can chew. It depends also on the number of quality people who become involved, including the coaches in the states. It’s really important to provide the same level of experience, actually extraordinary experience, we had this year. We want the quality to be there, so whether it is 8, 12 or 16 teams is to be determined.”
PLAYER NOMINATION PROCESS: Players had to, first, be nominated by the manager of their state’s team, then receive a commendation from a professional scout or college coach to be considered in the selection process by the National Championship Series committee.
TEAM NJ NOTES: Seton Hall University bound Drew Conover pitched well in Team New Jersey’s victory over Illinois. The righthander worked six innings and touched 92 miles per-hour in a game Team Jersey won with a walk-off hit in the bottom of the seventh. “Drew really kept them off balance,” said DiTrolio. … Alex Stone, a 6-4, 185-pound catcher from Newton, also swung the bat well in the tournament. … Villanova-bound righthander Devin Rivera of Don Bosco Prep pitched particularly well in the team’s 6-3 loss to California. … Penn State-bound Jay Harry of Metuchen shined as well. “Jay is a really good shortstop,” said DiTrolio. “He was our No. 2 hitter and he had a good tournament overall. He’ll be one of the top hitters in New Jersey next spring.” … Boucher, Conover, Kane, Stone and Gavin Stellpflug all play for the Diamond Jacks Super 17 team out of Diamond Nation.
TEAM NEW JERSEY ROSTER:
Brian Baranok, Bayonne (Uncommitted)
Adam Boucher, St. Joseph (Met.) (Duke)
Drew Conover, Voorhees (Seton Hall University)
Alex Duffey, Seton Hall Prep (Elon)
Colby Garrison, West Deptford (Uncommitted)
Jacob Gomez, Rutherford (Old Dominion)
Charlie Granatell, Don Bosco Prep (Uncommitted)
Jay Harry, Metuchen (Penn State)
Aidan Kane, Delbarton (Uncommitted)
Jake Lutz, Pascack Valley (Wagner)
Aidan Meola, Toms River East (Uncommitted)
RJ Moten, Delran (Uncommitted)
Tommy O’Rourke, Seton Hall Prep (Stanford)
Devin Rivera, Don Bosco Prep (Villanova)
Gavin Stellpflug, Somerville (Maryland)
Alex Stone, Newton (Duke)
Justin Szestowicki, Kingsway (Uncommitted)