Pendleton’s diamond gems a local connection

BRADENTON — First baseman Jimmy O’Neill covered the bag as his Pendleton School teammates sped down the first-base line.

Centerfielder Casey Mulholland shagged fly balls .

Catcher John Ryan Murphy caught fastballs from an assistant coach during batting practice, and Nick Mace, Cal Lambert and Tyler Rubino took turns playing defense and batting during baseball practice on IMG Academies’ campus Monday.

It was typical sunny day in Florida, and the ping of metal bats hitting balls filled the air.

Something’s different at Pendleton this year, though: Six players born and raised in Manatee or Sarasota counties are playing for a program known for attracting talent from out of state.

These homegrown players are the reason IMG Academies Pendleton School baseball team is 4-0 this season after dismantling Clearwater Countryside, Cardinal Mooney, Lakewood Ranch and Sarasota Christian by a combined score of 48-20.

“These guys are pretty much the heart and soul of this team,” fourth-year coach Kevin Sharp said. “It’s the first time since I’ve been here that we’ve had six kids from this area all playing at one time and being major contributors.”

Manatee and Sarasota counties have tradition-rich high school baseball programs, with Lakewood Ranch (2003) and Sarasota (2007) winning state championships this decade. So how does Pendleton School attract local talent? Sharp said Pendleton’s atmosphere is similar to a college environment.

The players are in class for four hours a day, then they hit the practice field for a few hours, then they head to fitness training and mental conditioning. The players’ diets and workout regimens are monitored.

O’Neill, a junior pitcher/first baseman, helped Bradenton Christian earn a Class 1A-Region 3 finals berth and transferred to Pendleton this season.

“(Coach) Steve Fry has worked with me, getting my mechanics down, and my velocity jumped up,” O’Neill said. “The workouts have gotten me quicker and more in shape. It’s a lot of stuff I didn’t know about. Since I came here, I’m better.”

O’Neill pitched 5 2/3 innings, allowed six runs and had six strike outs against Cardinal Mooney.

The group played together on various AAU and Little League teams, which made the transition from their high schools to Pendleton much easier.

That was the case for Mace, who transferred from Cardinal Mooney to IMG last year as a junior.

“The people who I’ve been playing with since I was eight or nine years old, we definitely have a bit of a stronger bond,” said Mace, a senior second baseman who’ll play at Southwestern University in Texas next season.

Tyler Rubino left Manatee for Pendleton after his sophomore year.

“I came here to get better,” said Rubino, a senior infielder. “You are out here everyday playing scrimmage games, and I’ve been around better baseball players, which forces you to get better.”

Casey Mulholland and John Ryan Murphy skipped out on public high school and enrolled in Pendleton in ninth grade.

Mulholland, a junior utility player, said he attended a couple of camps in the seventh grade and fell in love with the program.

“Seeing the training and knowing the coaches really made me want to pursue baseball,” said Mulholland, who lives in East Manatee and was slated to attend Lakewood Ranch. “Baseball, school and IMG really consumes your life. It’s like a college, and it’s definitely worth it. Through three games, Murphy, a senior, has put up the most impressive statistics. He is 7-for-13 with two home runs, 10 RBIs and four stolen bases.

“I thought (coming here) would give me the best baseball chance for the future,” said Murphy, who would have played for Manatee. “I would not have gotten the training at a high school that I’ve gotten here. And the education here is underrated. I believe I definitely made the right decision.”