Justin Willis may be only 15 years old, but he obviously has a very bright future in baseball.
The West New York resident, who will be a sophomore at St. Joseph (Metuchen) next month, recently spent a few weeks training with the United States National Baseball program in Cary, North Carolina, vying for a spot on Team USA’s 15-and-under roster.
Unfortunately, Willis didn’t earn a place among the final 15 headed to the World Baseball Classic in Mexico this week, but he certainly made his mark as a pitcher.
It was the second straight summer that Willis earned the right to train with Team USA. Last summer, Willis was with the Team USA U-14 squad.
“It was definitely a great accomplishment for me,” Willis said. “I really hope I opened some eyes. There are a lot of talented kids from other states, from small towns all over the country. I was happy to be there playing with them.”
Willis was one of 40 teenagers that were selected to try out for the final squad. Willis was one of only two players from New Jersey to earn the right to be part of the tryouts.
“It was just great,” Willis said. “This gives me a great amount of confidence moving forward. I went there not even thinking about making the team. Just getting invited back to Cary meant so much to me.”
Willis is a fine two-way player, a pitcher and hitter for St. Joseph, but on the national level, he was used only as a pitcher.
“I guess this made me realize that it will be a lot easier to get recognized as a pitcher,” Willis said. “Of course, I love hitting. It’s the best part of the game. But I’m strictly a pitcher at this level. I understood that.”
Getting the chance to play on the national level for two consecutive years will only help Willis’ stock. He won three games this season on the varsity level for St. Joseph.
“It’s a pretty funny story how I ended up there,” Willis said. “I heard that one of my family’s favorite basketball players, Jason Williams [the former Duke All-American and current analyst on ESPN] went to St. Joseph’s. My stepdad took me for a visit there and that’s where I ended up. I’m really happy with my decision.”
Willis knew that his decision to leave West New York and not attend Memorial High School, like most West New York kids, was going to leave him exposed to receiving local scorn.
“I know a lot of people weren’t happy with me leaving,” Willis said. “I did what was best for me.”
While Willis didn’t make the final squad, his good friend, Devin Ortiz of Nutley, did make the final squad headed to Mexico.
“I’m extremely proud of him,” Willis said of Ortiz. “We went down to North Carolina to represent New Jersey. We had people there ask us, ‘How do you play baseball in the spring in New Jersey? It’s so cold.’ I think we represented Jersey well.”
So even though he didn’t make the final team, there was nothing like being a part of the national baseball program for a second straight summer. That’s not a bad thing for Justin Willis to have on his resume.
“It was really a great experience,” Willis said. “It’s definitely something I can build on. Looking back, this was a great year for me. I’m having the best time of my life right now.”
It certainly makes Willis a player to watch in the years to come. After all, he still has three more years of high school in front of him. He consistently throws in the 84-to-86 mile-per-hour range and has been clocked at 87. Yes, he’s a growing boy of 15. The skies are the limit.
“I know I have a chance to continue to do well,” Willis said. “I just have to continue to work hard. I love playing baseball. Being with the national team has given me confidence going forward.”…
The West New York Connie Mack (18-and-under) made it to the Regional tournament last week in Troy, N.Y. and did manage to win one game in the double elimination tourney.
In the first game of the tourney, WNY defeated Rhode Island, 3-1. David Baiza pitched a complete game four-hitter, striking out five.
In the game, Giovanni Palos had two hits, while Victor Guzman had a double and scored two runs.
In the second game, WNY Mack lost, 7-0, to the North Jersey Cardinals. Jimmy Rodriguez was the starting and losing pitcher. Michael Gonzalez pitched well in relief, as the locals were the victims of a no-hitter.
The WNY Mack team was then eliminated from the tourney by the Brooklyn Youth Service, 11-3.
Jose Roman was the losing pitcher for the locals. Rodriguez had two hits and an RBI, while Mario Palos had one hit and two RBI. James Rangel had one hit, but scored two runs.
Winning a state championship and representing their town well at a regional Amateur American Baseball Congress championship is nothing to sneeze at. The WNY Mack team had a great summer.
EXTRA INNINGS focuses on the best stories that come from local baseball and softball leagues throughout the area, from Little League action through travel leagues.
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Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.