WARWICK — Dan Rhault knows that in order for a high school baseball talent to get noticed, one has to venture to where college coaches and recruiters gather.
The belief that if you’re good, “they” will seek you out no longer applies. Recruiting has become such a cutthroat business that if you snooze, you lose, and if you snooze some more, you just might see your baseball career end at the high school level.
“We’re going to them,” Rhault, a Lincoln native, said matter-of-factly.
“We” represents the band of baseball voyagers that have come together under the unified umbrella of Rhault’s doing. The New England Prospects, a college showcase team comprised exclusively of high school-aged kids who have their hearts set on playing at the next level, is the result of his well thought-out vision.
In less than two’s year’s time, Rhault has taken the program from the ground floor to a place where this summer, the N.E. Prospects will compete in the Perfect Game tournament located in East Cobb, Ga. Getting invited to this particular event – according to Rhault, the field is limited to the top 200 teams in the country – was due to the eyebrows several of the Prospects’ players raised at a showing last summer at Jupiter, Fla.
Running the Prospects through Extra Innings, an indoor baseball and softball facility located off Jefferson Boulevard, Rhault has taken the concept of “wearing many hats” to new heights. He’s part owner of Extra Innings, in addition to serving as the head coach and lead infield/hitting coordinator of the Prospects’ 16- and 17-year-old team. That team features juniors only, while the 15- and 16-year-old Prospects contingent is a mixture of freshmen and sophomores.
Just 25 and three years removed from a stellar playing career at URI that culminated with the Tampa Bay Rays selecting him in the 26th round of the 2009 MLB draft, Rhault’s mission from the first day has been to bridge the gap between how local players are seen by placing them in a big-time environment where college types are sitting in the stands, monitoring their every move.
To take a longstanding practice of caravanning teenage-types around the country and place them in a position where they’re getting noticed, Rhault has done more than bring Rhode Island out of the Dark Ages when referencing summertime baseball. As the founding father of the New England Prospects, he’s hatched something in which Ocean State natives no longer have to head out of state and latch onto a team where the players may not know a single soul.
The option to play for a Rhode Island-based travel team that is dedicated to “taking part in the correct showcase events for our players to receive optimal college exposure” – file that under the mission statement section of the New England Prospects’ website – is now readily available. As Rhault explained, securing prime exposure for his players supersedes wins and losses, or what place you end up finishing in a given tournament. Such a belief tells you everything you need to know about where his focus lies.
RHAULT OFFICIALLY JOINED the staff at Extra Innings shortly after his pro career ended in the spring of 2010. In no time, the facility’s owner/president, Ken Ferri, approached him with the idea of breathing fresh life into the traveling baseball program that E.I. had a substantial stake in. The decaying of the Ocean State Tides under mismanaged hands was hard enough to swallow, but when Ferri saw that his own son was offering up his playing services to an out-of-state travel team, he knew that dramatic change was needed and fast.
“The program wasn’t really doing anything,” expressed Rhault, painting a grim picture. “All they had was a director who would take all these names, put a list on a website, and claim that he got them into schools.”
Seeking to distance himself from past practices, Rhault set out to find players. That job was made a lot easier thanks to the appropriate-aged pupils who frequented Extra Innings. He was able to gauge interest, while at the same time, conduct in-person evaluations that would pave the way for his first foray into the travel baseball circuit.
In the fall of 2010, the New England Prospects burst onto the scene as a team composed exclusively of 14-year-olds. The trial run was a 20-game schedule that laid the groundwork for the following year, when the slate expanded to 40-50 games and included plenty of tournaments down south.
“We went everywhere,” said Rhault before rattling off the colleges the Prospects competed at while in North Carolina (UNC, Elon University, High Point). The stay in North Carolina was followed by a trek to Winthrop, S.C. and culminated with two of Rhault’s players – Lincoln High junior/Elon commit Nick Zammarelli and East Greenwich junior/URI commit David Hopkins – attending the aforementioned showcase event in Jupiter, Fla.
“After two days (in Jupiter), Dan (Rhault) told me that Stetson University and Elon University had interest in me as a player. After visiting Elon and telling Dan that I felt it was the best place for me, Dan continued conversations with the Elon coaches up until when they offered me a scholarship in the middle of January (2012),” Zammarelli said. “Without Dan giving me the opportunity to play in front of these coaches, Elon would not have been a possibility.”
In 2012, Rhault and the New England Prospects will play between 40-46 games that will once again pit his players against the kind of upper echelon competition that will allow college coaches to conduct a fair and complete evaluation. As he noted, the days of talent evaluators flocking to high school and American Legion games to give a prospect the once over are no longer part of the equation.
College coaches, whether it’s Jim Foster at URI or someone overseeing a program that routinely appears in the College World Series, have made it a point to see the best vs. the best. Rhault is very cognizant of the microscope today’s players find themselves under, hence why he’s committed to taking his traveling band of baseball contemporaries to spots where they will be seen by the correct personnel.
“We’ve been trying to catch up to the rest of the country, believing that what’s been in place for a long time will work,” said the Lincoln High graduate (Class of 2005).
THE ROSTER COMPOSITION is something Rhault goes to great lengths to ensure that every player has a fair shake. The New England Prospects will carry 2-3 catchers, 5-6 pitchers whose only function is to pitch, and 2-3 players who double as pitchers and position players. The rest of the spots are saved for infield/outfield types.
There is a method to this precise planning.
“No one will play every single inning of every single game unless we’re shorthanded,” Rhault stated. “College coaches don’t want to see a guy who’s only going to pitch in college, and the next day, they come back and see him playing in the field. If pitching is his forte, that’s it.
“Take a lefty pitcher who’s got a funky motion,” Rhault continued. “I’m not going to put him in right field so that he ends up taking the right fielder’s shot. That’s a big waste.”
Rhault will alert college coaches by sending them a roster that contains a tiny blurb about each player, along with a schedule.
“If I hear back that they’re coming to see someone on a specific day, I’ll make sure that kid is in the lineup,” he said. “I can help out as much as I possibly can, but after that, I tell the players that it’s up to them. If you don’t do well in front of those schools, it is what it is.
“Regardless of the level, I will not push a kid of mine toward a school where they will not be able to do well just to make myself look like a better director of the program,” Rhault added, providing further distance between his operation and what was commonly practiced during the tenure of the Ocean State Tides.
Naturally, Rhault has relayed to his troops the importance of not letting up for a single moment.
“You have to know that every single inning, every pitch is like the World Series,” he says. “You can’t act like it’s not, because all that’s going to happen is that if you don’t run out a bloop back to the pitcher …
“I tell them that everything they do is being timed,” Rhault adds. “You’re running from first to home or from second to home, they’re timing you. They’re taking notice.
“Even in batting practice, it matters. Everything matters.”
WHENEVER RHAULT IS on the phone discussing the merits of his players with an interested college coach, he is asked three pointblank questions:
1. What is the kid like on the field?
2. How is he away from the diamond?
3. How are his parents?
At a recent meeting, Rhault took the time to explain the role that parents play in their son’s recruitment.
“I told them that every player has baggage, and it’s you. Either you’re good or bad baggage,” Rhault said. “When you’re barking at the top of the stands, a college coach notices. That same coach walks down to me and asks ‘Dan, who’s that?’ I say ‘That’s so and so.’
“I’m not going to say Little Johnny is good on and off the field and mommy and daddy are the greatest people in the world,” he delved further. “Then he goes off to college and I get a call from the coach that starts out with ‘Why did you lie to me? His parents are lunatics.’
“You can be the most knowledgeable parent in the world, but if there’s an issue, go up and politely talk to the coach. They will not respond if you’re complaining about playing time,” he said. “The whole idea is to prepare the players for college.”
THE PROSPECTS DO not specifically cater to the all-state crowd. A prime example is what happened to Frank Zammarelli. A senior at La Salle Academy, Zammarelli spent most of his junior season on the bench. Thanks to a favorable showing on the mound for the Prospects, he was able to secure a spot at Lasell College, a Division III school located in Newton, Mass.
“I have a lot of talented players, but I don’t have to take every superstar. I’m not taking guys who I know aren’t going to play college baseball because it’s a waste of time for them,” Rhault said. “If I know they don’t have a passion to actually play at the next level or don’t have the grades, I’m not going to promote a kid to a coach.”
For the inner city youngsters who are part of the Prospects’ family, Rhault has found that if a kid yearns to succeed on the diamond, there’s no reason to hold his family’s financial situation against him.
“Their parents care for them, they just don’t have the means to do it,” Rhault said. “We figure out how to get the means to do it for them and worry about the other stuff after.”
Rhault wished to not reveal the exact cost of playing for the Prospects, saying, “It’s an expense because you’re traveling. The entry fee for the tournament in East Cobb is $2,000.
“When it comes down to it, if you impress someone, they’re going to find you an academic or athletic scholarship or financial aid. The money you pay, you can end up making it back.”
LAST THURSDAY AT Chet Nichols Field was a prime example of just how far the New England Prospects have come in a short amount of time. The La Salle-Lincoln game featured six players with ties to the Prospects, the list including Nick Zammarelli and Joe Yankee from Lincoln, with Frank Zammarelli, Jesse Lee, Jon LaPolla, and Frank D’Amato from La Salle.
Except for Nick Zammarelli, all of the players mentioned are high school seniors. Yankee is heading to Florida’s Seminole State, where he will be under the watchful eye of assistant coach Luke Abraham, a classmate of Rhault’s at Lincoln High. Lee and LaPolla are heading to URI and Suffolk University, respectively, while D’Amato’s baseball experience will continue at Connecticut’s Avon Old Farms, a prep school.
The Prospects have grown to the point where Rhault is now taking on kids from Connecticut and Massachusetts due to the tournaments he’s got lined up. Considering his role at Extra Innings and the fact that he also dabbles in real estate, Rhault’s duties with the New England Prospects enable him to stay connected with the game that by all accounts has treated him kindly.
It’s often been said that baseball is a game in which knowledge and wisdom is passed down from one group of players to the next. Take a look at what Rhault has done with the Prospects and you can’t help but feel that’s the case.