Five of New Zealand's top young baseball prospects head to college in the United States this month to begin their pursuit of a baseball dream that could very well turn to reality.
Aucklanders Jason Matthews (Alfriston College), Connor Gleeson (Glendowie College), Ben Thompson (Glendowie College) and Jake May (Mt Albert Grammar) along with Christchurch's Matthew Boyce will be spread right across the US from California to Florida when they begin baseball training and classes later this month.
"This is the biggest group of freshmen college starters we've ever had in our sport's young history," says Baseball New Zealand CEO Ryan Flynn, "and with others already in the States and Japan playing at collegiate or professional level, we are beginning to show just how much the game of baseball can do for young New Zealand baseball players who aspire to a collegiate degree and maybe even something more with their considerable talents."
After two breakout years playing baseball, Jason Matthews is heading to Southeastern Junior College in Iowa after impressing the coaching panel there with standout performances at two MLB academies, the European Elite Camp in the Netherlands in 2015 and on the Gold Coast in Australia last month. Matthews also played with the Arizona Diamondbacks scout team at the 2015 Arizona Senior Fall Classic, where his collegiate coaches first learned of his athletic prowess.
"Jason is an amazing athlete who has really worked hard to get himself prepared for college after making our men's national team, the Diamondblacks, in February at the World Baseball Classic," said Flynn, who added that Jason's character has drawn quite a bit of praise, too. "Jason has also grown into a fine young man, thanks to the upbringing he's received from his sister Sue and fully deserves his college scholarship, as do all the young men starting college life this month."
Glendowie College pair Connor Gleeson and Ben Thompson have both been playing baseball and preparing for US college life by playing in Canada, Gleeson in Ontario and Thompson in Alberta.
Gleeson headed to Ontario in April following a family holiday which featured a visit to Arizona Diamondbacks stadium, Chase Field, where he met plenty of Diamondbacks superstars including former New Zealand visitor Paul Goldschmidt and pitcher Patrick Corbin. Connor had a very successful stint with the Ontario Royals U18 team, following in the footsteps of two previous Kiwis, Quinten Niu and Matt Boyce, under the watchful eye of former New Zealand coach Matt Mills. Prior to heading to Ontario, Connor was invited to tryout at four junior colleges and, after being invited back by three of the four, will be playing at South Florida State Community College in August, which is situated close to Tampa/St Petersburg.
Diamondblacks squad pitcher Ben Thompson is Arizona-bound after his stint with the Okotoks Dawgs Academy in Canada, where he completed his high school degree. Thompson will be heading to Chandler Gilbert Community College, just outside of Phoenix in Arizona.
"It's all happened with the help of the Okotoks Academy as one of the coaches here went to Chandler Gilbert and recommended me to them," said Thompson, adding that "some really good players have come out of the school including Los Angeles Dodgers (outfielder) Andre Ethier and a lot of professionals train here prior to Spring Training, too."
National championship U18 tournament batting title winner Jake May also headed to Canada to work out with the Edmonton Prospects Baseball team, coached by Oceania Baseball Coaching Director, Ray Brown. Jake trained with the team for two months, playing the odd pick-up game while in Edmonton before he headed to Houston, Texas to begin the fall semester at Alvin Community College alongside the younger brother of Houston Astros hotshot shortstop Carlos Correa.
Christchurch pitcher Matt Boyce is also in the U.S., finally beginning his baseball activities at College of the Canyons in California. Matt began at the school last year, but unfortunately injured his pitching arm during fall baseball at college and by the time it came right the spring season was well underway, so Matt sat out the season so he could retain his full four years of NCAA eligibility. He has concentrated on developing arm strength and worked with the pitching coach on pitching technique and was back in New Zealand over the northern summer break to work on fitness and conditioning.
This group of five join other Kiwis at school in the US, with New Zealand U21 representative Matt Reeves at Clarendon College whose team is in Division One of the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA), while New Zealand U21 corner infielder Scott Drinkwater is back playing after an injury plagued 2014/15 at Avila University in Kansas. Mitchell Gray is with Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado after sitting out his freshman year, and young Diamondblacks pitcher Ben Hughlon is readying himself for another fall season with his West Georgia Technical College. Another teenage pitcher, southpaw Diamondblacks hurler and outfielder Jacob Curry will be suiting up for Benedictine College in Kansas.