Prep baseball | New Inspiration Academy program off to hot start with different approach

jdill@bradenton.comMarch 23, 2014 

BRADENTON -- They're perceived outcasts: players without a home.

They are guys cut by their high school baseball teams and out of options.

So joining a start-up program in West Bradenton was the perfect marriage.

That's what has happened at the old Bradenton Prep, which was bought, remodeled and rebranded as Inspiration Academy.

Mike Verrill, the former Braden River and Out-of-Door Academy coach, is the program's head coach and the school's assistant athletic director.

He said the Lions have five players who attend the private school, while the other 11 members were cut from other high schools in the area. A majority came from Sarasota High, Riverview and Lakewood Ranch.

"The kids that got cut, a majority of them were already playing fall ball for me," said Verrill, who started a fall travel team that transitioned into the high school team for the spring season. "So they decided to come play for us, and that was our plan. If you did get cut from your high schools, we don't think you are done playing. So why don't you come play a high school season with us? And then if you want to try out for your high school team again next year, feel free to do so. So this is like a second chance for a lot of these kids."

So far, the program is flourishing, both on and off the field.

Baseball is just one cog in the school's elite sports academy, which is designed to develop the player for the next level rather than getting consumed with wins and losses.

As a first-year program, Inspiration Academy is an independent and not tied to the rules and regulations of the Florida High School Athletic Association. That means the school can schedule out-of-state teams as well as teams within the area.

It's added up to a 14-3 record.

"We've played Dunedin, (Class) 5A, Tarpon Springs, 5A, -- we beat them," Verrill said. "So we're playing some schools that are big. It's like a mixed bag. We're playing Manatee HEAT, Sarasota Christian, Admiral Farragut. ... There's no district, no regional, no state. So we don't have any of those pressures to, 'We've got to win this.' ... Our whole program is based upon learning the process of playing the game of baseball and getting better every day without the worries of what's our record and what's our batting average."

The school off 75th Street West is home to an experience unlike many high schools. There's a players lounge equipped with some relaxing entertainment (pool table, table tennis, Pac-Man arcade machine) as well as a 130-inch projection-like screen to dissect video analysis of batting swings.

Also, the locker room gives players each with their own locker and individual shower in addition to a fitness center/weight room.

And once a week, players attend a class with the coaches to go over what it takes to play collegiate baseball at each level: from Division I to Division II and III down to the NAIA level.

It's all an effort to get the players prepared for college life.

One of the players who was cut from his prep team is Payton Jenkins, the son of Cincinnati Reds bullpen coach Mack Jenkins.

The younger Jenkins is a senior and is ranked second in strikeouts per seven innings in the country, according to MaxPreps.

He's also belted five home runs at the plate, but the 6-foot-2, 165-pounder, who throws in the mid-80s, said he is aiming to be a pitcher at the next level.

"I only had two main pitches and a change-up before," said Jenkins, who developed a slider in the fall that has contributed to his 5-1 record, 1.40 earned run average and .175 batting average against. "The slider makes more groundouts and, plus, I have more than two pitches. So the hitters have to guess more."

Jenkins said he wants to bulk up to 175 to 180 pounds and plans on staying at Inspiration Academy for a post-grad year.

Verrill said the program is expecting to launch the post-grad program, where the school will recruit players, for next year. He added the school does not recruit for high school and that each player not enrolled at Inspiration came to the school after getting cut at another high school.

Jenkins isn't the only key contributor. Guys like Currie Gauvreau (.435 batting average), Jacob Heiser (.379), Troy Nichols (.372), Matt Miller (.320), Danny Contreras (.302) and Cesar Bernal (.310) have all eclipsed the .300 batting average mark in double-digit games for the Lions.

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