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Monday, October 5, 2009
Updated: October 6, 4:23 PM ET
Tigers right-hander well rooted in success

By Ryan Canner-O'Mealy
ESPN RISE Magazine

(Editor's note: Righty Rick Porcello was selected by the Detroit Tigers to start Tuesday's AL Central Division tiebreaker against the Minnesota Twins. For coverage of the game, click here.)

(This story first appeared in the April 2007 North Jersey issue of ESPN RISE Magazine)

It was the first night of festivities at last summer's Aflac All-American High School Baseball Classic, and one by one each player stood up and announced his presence at the nation's most prestigious high school baseball event.

Sandwiched between a handful of players from predictable locales, a trio of introductions stood out from the rest.

Rick Porcello, now with Detroit, was one of four front-line players for Seton Hall Prep in New Jersey.

"Rick Porcello, Seton Hall Prep, New Jersey."

"Steven Brooks, Seton Hall Prep, New Jersey."

"Evan Danieli, Seton Hall Prep, New Jersey."

At an event usually dominated by players from warm-weather states like California, Florida and Texas, the trio might as well have said, "Seton Hall Prep, Mars."

"After I said my name, people were looking at us like we each had three heads," says Brooks, a senior center fielder who has signed with Wake Forest. "And after Evan went, they were just like, 'Wow.'"

Even more impressive is that there could have easily been a fourth player from Seton Hall Prep at the Aflac game considering senior right fielder Nick Natale is one of the state's top players and will continue his career at NCAA power Rice next season.

Wow indeed.

There's no secret formula that explains the wealth of talent on this West Orange campus. The foundation for the Pirates' success can be found in the school gym or on the baseball diamond.

"It's all hard work," says Danieli. "I don't think any other school does what we do. We have practices before school at 7 a.m., practices from 3:30-6:30 after school and practices on Sunday. We work all the time."

That standard is set by coach Mike Sheppard, who's in his 21st year at the helm. He entered this spring with five Non-Public A state titles in his tenure, including the last two, and has coached plenty of stars. Still, he's never had a group of prospects quite like this.

"Having four guys in one senior class earn Division I scholarships is unprecedented in our program," he says.

The Pirates started the season ranked No. 2 in the preseason RISE National Baseball Top 25 and were the only team in the top 20 not to hail from a warm-weather state.

"We realize how special and unique it is, and we cherish it," says Porcello, a 6-foot-5 right-handed pitcher who's the brightest star in the Pirates' constellation. Rated the nation's No. 7 prospect in the Class of 2007 by RISE, Porcello could be the first high schooler taken in June's MLB Draft. He has four quality pitches, anchored by a fastball that is consistently thrown in the mid 90s and has reached 98 mph on the radar gun. He also throws a curveball, changeup and slider.

Behind Porcello is another tall right-handed pitcher. At 6-foot-8, Danieli is rated the nation's No. 29 prospect in the senior class by RISE. Danieli, who intimidates with his height and heat, throws a fastball in the low 90s and a nasty curveball.

Porcello has signed with North Carolina and Danieli with Notre Dame, but both players could go pro after high school if the right offer comes along.

For the most part, Sheppard knew this group was going to be special from the beginning. With the exception of Natale, who transferred in from Livingston as a sophomore, Brooks, Porcello and Danieli all made strong impressions as freshmen.

Brooks was the lone member of the trio to make varsity that year. He started from Day One thanks to an opening in Seton Hall's outfield. Aside from his speed and hitting ability, Brooks' mental approach really impressed the coaching staff.

"Steven is very confident in what he does and emotionally could handle the ups and downs of the game a lot earlier than most high school kids," Sheppard says.

Porcello first caught Sheppard's eye as a shortstop on the freshman team because of his great arm. He moved up to varsity as a sophomore and started to pitch more frequently.

"As he pitched, we saw he had a special talent and a special arm," Sheppard says. "I compare him to Eric Duncan, who played here and is now with the Yankees, in that he's very humble and a great competitor."

Danieli also showed his potential early on, but it wasn't until he grew into his body that he became a force on the mound. "Evan was a bit of a late bloomer, but we knew based on his size that he could throw the ball pretty well," Sheppard says.

As juniors last year, Danieli and Natale joined Brooks and Porcello on varsity, helping the Pirates win a second consecutive state title.

Porcello and Danieli constantly talked pitching and tried to one-up each other after each start, while Brooks and Natale fostered a similar relationship. "Steve and I push each other to go to the limit," says Natale. "It really does help when you play with a player the caliber of Steve."

Both outfielders have incredible speed. Brooks clocked the best 60-yard dash time at Aflac (6.4 seconds), while Natale is a former football player who brings a gridiron mentality to the diamond. The best example of that came last season when he crashed into the outfield wall while making a spectacular catch to preserve an eventual no-hitter for Danieli.

"I thought it was gone," Danieli says. "Nick catches the ball and a step later crashes right into the fence. He didn't care about anything other than catching the ball."

That was a hard hit to take, but some of the toughest competition between the quartet doesn't occur on the diamond. Instead, they often participate in heated basketball games after practice or during lunch.

Of course, those battles are only a warmup for the real competition this year: trying to win a third consecutive state title and handling all the expectations that come along with having such a talented group. But the players wouldn't have it any other way.

"If you want to compete, you go to Seton Hall Prep," Danieli says.

Seton Hall Prep, New Jersey, that is.

Ryan Canner-O'Mealy covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.