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Sanibel Baseball Academy helping push the sport on the island to greater heights

By Staff | Jan 28, 2015

Sanibel’s Baseball Academy player Ryan Dunavant scoops up a grounder from his shortstop position during an infield drill. BRIAN WIERIMA

Since the 2012 youth baseball season, the Sanibel U-8, U-9 and U-12 baseball teams have been climbing the ladder of success, while the program is starting to make a name for itself in the state of Florida.

Sanibel was awarded the 2015 U-12 State Baseball Tournament, which will be held July 10-12. The Sanibel U-12 squad will receive an automatic bid into the state playoffs, which now makes it the second consecutive year in the big show after qualifying in 2014 after winning the District championship with a 2-0 record.

There are many reasons which can be lauded in the resurrection of the Sanibel baseball program, such as the kids’ hard work, dedication and their love of baseball. But another big aspect has also enabled the improvement of records in all of the youth baseball teams’ seasons and that’s been the Sanibel Baseball Academy.

The Academy is an after-school training program, which focuses on the fundamentals of baseball for ages 8-12 years of age, with the core of the participants being 11-12 years old. It’s the third year of the Academy, which was started by Sanibel resident Chuck Phoenix, who is an avid baseball lover, as well as a father of a couple of baseball players in Tye and Adam.

“In our first year in the District playoffs (four years ago), we just got creamed,” Chuck Phoenix said. “So some of us started thinking of ways of what we can do to raise the level of play here.”

Participants of the Sanibel Baseball Academy includes (L to R) front: Vince Jankauskas and Ryan Dunavant. Back: Adam Phoenix, Tye Phoenix, Danny Saez (Instructor) and Evan Rose. BRIAN WIERIMA

That train of thought led to the creation of the Sanibel Baseball Academy.

Phoenix enrolled the help of Pete Saez, who is a long-time baseball coach and currently a coach on the Canterbury School baseball team.

The first year attracted 15 youth players, as they learned the fundamentals of fielding, hitting, pitching and running the bases. It was solid one-on-one instruction, with two of the players eventually moving on and playing in the U-9 State Tournament for a nearby school.

“The advantage of the Baseball Academy is gaining experience on the field and practicing a lot of situational play,” Chuck Phoenix said. “We really want to run structured activity.”

To more effectively train youth in baseball, Phoenix employed Pete’s son, Danny Saez, as the instructor of the Academy. Saez played in the state tournament on the Little League and high school levels, while playing college in New Hampshire at shortstop.

Evan Rose makes a stabbing stop during an infield drill at the Sanibel Baseball Academy. BRIAN WIERIMA

Saez connects very well with the kids he is training and it shows.

“Ryan is there because of Danny,” said Amy Dunavant, who’s son Ryan (10 years old), trains in the Academy. “He absorbs every word Danny says. As a parent, it’s great seeing Danny interact with the kids like he does. Not every good player is a good teacher, but Danny is such a great role model and I have absolutely have seen improvement in Ryan’s play.”

Saez agrees his strength is relating well with his pupils and his ability to communicate what he is teaching to them. He also wants the younger players to learn at an early age that hard work pays off no matter what.

“My philosophy is attitude and effort goes a long ways,” Saez said. “I stress to the kids is to keep putting in the effort and good things happen. The Academy is a tremendous program for them and I’ve seen great improvement. Sanibel has a lot of new talent and it’s on the rise.”

In 2013 the U-8 Sanibel team was a state qualifier team, while winning their first ever championship after going 3-1 in the Duel of the Islands Tournament.

Individual improvement has also been noticed by the players, which is what counts.

“I couldn’t hit the ball but only a few feet, but now I’ve been able to hit it to the outfield,” said Tye Phoenix, who has been in the Academy the last three years. “It really has taught me to hit better.”

Evan Rose also sees his game taking leaps and bounds after playing in the Academy.

“I learned how to hit better and properly catch and throw,” Rose said. “I think it has brought me to a higher level of play.”

Chuck Phoenix noted one of the Academy’s players, Vince Jankauskas, who moved here from Europe, never touched a baseball in his life until about a year ago. Now Jankauskas looks very comfortable on the diamond already.

State officials have also been taking notice, thus one of the reasons Sanibel was granted to host the U-12 State Tournament.

“We’ve always had a lot of support from the state and every year we’ve been getting a little better and better,” Phoenix said.

It has been all about the training and practicing, which has brought Sanibel baseball to new heights – and it’s only looking to go higher, as well, with the help of the Baseball Academy.