Key West (Fla.) High School has the potential to steal the spotlight in the Pounder Classic that started Thursday night at Central High and Hixson High ballfields.
The Conchs ran their record to 16-3 with a 12-2 mercy-rule victory over Cleveland’s Blue Raiders in the second game at Central. Unbeaten Clarksville knocked off the host Purple Pounders, 7-1, in the opener before a good crowd.
But their history and how they arrived in Chattanooga is headline-worthy.
Head coach Ralph Henriquez said the Conchs have an $88,000 budget for the 2014 season and expenses for their trip to Chattanooga will suck $27,000 out of the coffers.
Why so much?
Well, the team flew to the Scenic City, arriving on Tuesday. Throw a hotel bill on the tab, along with food and ground transportation and you can easily get into the $27,000 range.
Each game they Conchs play here can be heard on radio back in Key West.
“We have a pretty special baseball program for a high school,” said Henriquez, who was born in Key West and played for the Conchs before being drafted out of high school in the second round of the 2005 Major League Baseball draft by Houston.
“The budget we have of about $88,000 allows us to do what we’re doing this year,” the coach said. “We average between 700 and 800 people for each home game and we have great support from our booster club, plus a really supportive business community. We play 18 home games this year at the school district’s ballpark.”
The Conchs are allowed to play in two tournaments by the Florida High School Athletic Association. They play in a preseason classic and are able to play in one other tourney, routinely outside the Key West area.
During his first coaching stint at Key West in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Henriquez brought a team to Millington, Tenn., near Memphis, for a tournament hosted by Christian Brothers High School.
When Henriquez and Key West assistant principal Chris Valdez started looking around for that second tournament, Henriquez recalled the trip to Memphis.
“I told Chris I’d like to take the kids to Tennessee for spring break because it’s a good way to prepare for the playoffs,” Henriquez said. “He came back to me and said, ‘Ralph, I found a tournament in Tennessee you might like.’ It was this one and I said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ ”
Here’s just a few of the statistical obstacles the Conchs’ opponents – starting with Cleveland on Thursday – face playing them if weather permits the full three days of baseball to be played.
Five players in the starting lineup are batting over .400 and another was at .390. Those six players came into the classic with a combined 11 home runs, 98 RBIs and 103 runs scored.
Center-fielder Steven Wells leads the Conchs, which has won 11 Florida state championships in various classifications, including 1995, 1996 and 2005 under Henriquez, with a .490 batting average. Greg Veliz is next at .455, with Hugo Valdes at .431 and Darren Miller and Hunter Sellers each at .410.
Wells, Valdes and Miller all have three home runs.
Miller, a second baseman, has signed with Florida State. As a 12-year-old, he played on a Little League World Series championship team in Williamsport, Pa., and had a 90 mph fastball before Henriquez took him out of the Conchs’ pitching rotation due to a forearm injury.
Christopher Varela was batting .310 going into the Cleveland game.
Of Wells’ 28 hits, 15 were for extra bases, and leads the team with nine doubles.
Wells has committed to Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Fla., Henriquez said, but has big-time college talent and may get picked in the MLB draft before reaching any college campus.
Through 18 games the Conchs were averaging 8.4 runs each time they took the field.
Pitching-wise, the Conchs brought a 1.74 team ERA to Chattanooga.
Four pitchers with at least 12 innings had ERAs under 2.0 and two – Wells and Veliz – were under 1.0.
Jay Feathers came in with a 4.47 ERA, but is 3-0 after taming the Blue Raiders on Thursday.
Veliz is scheduled to start Friday’s 5:45 p.m. game against Clarksville’s hard-throwing Donny Everett, a Vanderbilt commitment with a 95 mph fastball. He is 6-0 with a 0.44 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 32 innings.
Veliz, a sophomore who also plays shortstop, already has committed to the University of Miami.
“He’s got a 92 mph fastball with a lot of movement,” said Henriquez, who has minor league coaching experience in the farm systems of the Atlanta Braves (eight years) and New York Yankees (two years).
Brandon Presley, a 6-foot-6-inch left-hander scheduled to throw Game 3 in the classic, has a 4-2 record, sports a 1.81 ERA with 35 strikeouts in 31 innings.
Wells is the Conchs’ closer and has a fastball consistently clocked between 89 and 91 mph, his coach said.
Wells has a 3-0 record, two saves and 26 strikeouts in 16 innings of work. His ERA is a team-best 0.43.
“Steven is a really good pitcher and one of the best outfielders in Florida,” Henriquez said.
With all this talent and rich tradition, the Conchs are one of the top high school programs in Florida and the southeast.
No school can match Key West’s 11 state baseball titles.
Not even Westminster Christian, where Alex Rodriguez played high school ball.
“They’ve got eight or nine,” Henriquez said.
Key West was ranked No. 1 by USA TODAY in 1996 and No. 2 the year before.
After being away from high school baseball for several years – he left the Conchs after the 2005 state championship season, which also was his son Ralphie’s senior year -- Henriquez returned to the prep coaching scene at Belen Jesuit Prep School in Miami in 2009.
Belen is one of Key West’s main rivals.
Now, he’s in his first year back at Key West.
“The talent base was good when I got back, but the program had been down for a few years,” Henriquez said. “People wanted me to come back and rebuild it. I’ve brought a lot of new things to the program and we’re doing it like the pros do it.”
Here’s hoping the weather doesn’t disrupt the entire weekend of action.
Watching Key West might be worth the price of admission for local baseball fans.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)