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Globe West Sports

To play ball, there’s a new kind of old college try

Needham-based program readies teens taking aim at the next level

Dave Kussell (above) and Jake Levine work on their swings in the batting cage at the New England Ruffnecks facility in Needham. The nine-year-old organization is designed to prepare players for the rigors of college baseball. Dave Kussell (above) and Jake Levine work on their swings in the batting cage at the New England Ruffnecks facility in Needham. The nine-year-old organization is designed to prepare players for the rigors of college baseball. (Photos By John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Phil Perry
Globe Correspondent / August 7, 2011

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At 13 years old, Zack Horwitz realizes college is a long way off. But like most 13-year-olds, he has dreams, and one of his is to play college baseball.

“I definitely like going to college baseball fields and thinking about myself playing there someday,” said Horwitz, an eighth-grader at the Buckingham Browne & Nichols School whose family lives in Chestnut Hill, near the Boston College campus. “But that’s pretty far away to think about.”

Maybe so. But Horwitz is a member of the New England Ruffnecks baseball program, which believes players at his age can begin to learn the on- and off-the-field tools that will enable them to play at the collegiate level.

The Ruffnecks organization, described as a college development program, offers five teams ranging from 13-and-under to 18-and-under, the college prospect team. The squads travel all over the country to play in some of the nation’s most competitive tournaments. In the program’s nine-year history, it has succeeded in sending many of its players to collegiate programs.

This summer’s starting middle infielders on the 18U team both committed to Division 1 programs. Second baseman Jake Levine, of Newton’s Waban section, is a senior at Belmont Hill School who will be going to Brown University in the fall of 2012. Shortstop Curtiss Pomeroy, who led St. John’s High in Shrewsbury to the state semifinals this spring, signed up to play for Georgetown University, after a postgraduate year at Phillips Academy in Andover.

The 18U team also features two pitchers from Wellesley, Max Tishman and Dan Dymecki, lined up to pitch at the Division 1 level. Tishman, a lefty at Lawrence Academy in Groton, is headed to Wake Forest. Dymecki graduated from Wellesley High this spring, and will play at Lafayette after a year at Phillips.

Other alums of the Ruffnecks program include Lincoln-Sudbury Regional graduate Adam Ravenelle, a Yankees draft pick at Vanderbilt, and 2008 Red Sox draft pick Ryan Westmoreland.

“The program has really been incredible,” said Pomeroy, who joined the Ruffnecks last summer. “It’s helped me a ton, and it’s helped numerous other guys get to schools that they’re really excited about. It’s been awesome.”

The Ruffnecks program was founded as a nonprofit in 2003 by Steve August, who was a traveling secretary and assistant general manager for the Red Sox under Dan Duquette. August saw a need for a baseball program after the Hit Dogs, a team organized by former Red Sox All-Star Mo Vaughn, shut down its training center.

August gutted an auto body shop in Needham and transformed it into the Ruffnecks facility, complete with offices, batting cages, weights, and other exercise equipment. Inside this “hole in the wall,” as he describes it, is the program’s home base, but many of the values his players learn come on the road.

In its mission to develop baseball players and young men on and off the field, the Ruffnecks organization places an emphasis on not only playing as a team, but traveling and living together as a team as well. Run like a college program, it teaches players to be responsible for themselves and their teammates while away from home, August said.

There’s also a strict emphasis on keeping parents at arm’s length. While parents are encouraged to attend tournaments as spectators, they do not travel with the teams, August said.

“If these kids go to any respectable college program, that’s the way it’s going to be,” he said. “You think your college coach is going to have your parent follow you around? They’re not. So learn it now. Learn it at 13 years old.”

It’s a philosophy that players love.

“Steve does an unbelievable job,” Levine said. “No one runs a program like he does, and no one prepares kids for the next level the way he does. He gives us the best competition, the best coaches. He shows us what it’s like to be a pro ball player.”

Every player is partly subsidized by program benefactors, including one anonymous donor who makes a substantial contribution. Players pay $3,000 per year, which covers the cost of travel and food on the road. They are also afforded amenities that many college programs can’t boast. August employs former Red Sox trainer B.J. Baker as well as a team nutritionist to guide the players. They eat team dinners every night on the road, and they eat well. No fast-food restaurants.

When they don’t fly, the teams take coach buses, where card games abound.

The program gave out $18,000 in financial aid this year to players who wouldn’t have been able to afford the cost of playing for the Ruffnecks.

For some parents, especially at the 13U level, it’s hard to “cut the cord” - another one of August’s phrases. But for Horwitz’s family, allowing Zack to spend a summer in such a demanding system was one of the major draws.

“Playing on the field is important, but it’s also learning how to be independent and kind of growing up to be a young man, and not have mommy and daddy there asking ‘Do you have enough water? Did you put sunscreen on?’ ” said Kasey Kaufman, Horwitz’s mother. “I think it’s very exciting to see your kid develop not only as a ball player, but as a mature person, an independent person.”

Horwitz hopes to play in the program through high school. If he does, the numbers are in his favor that he’ll reach his goal of playing college ball. August said that about 95 percent of players who have made it through the program’s five levels have played collegiately.

Though the atmosphere surrounding Horwitz and his teammates was very different from what the 18U team experienced this summer, being regularly followed by college and pro scouts, the message from August and the other coaches is consistent across all levels: enjoy the game. Players play better when they’re having fun, and that leads to college recruitments, August insists.

Then, when the time comes to leave home and join a college team, Ruffnecks alums will be ready.

“We teach them the way,” said August. “Live on your own, live with your teammates. Deal with success, deal with failure. Pick each other up. And you learn to be a college baseball player.”


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