The Winter Garden Squeeze were minutes away from starting a meet-and-greet community event last Sunday when a storm cell formed, drenching the area for 30 minutes and flooding the West Orange High School baseball field.
It may have been viewed as a bad omen for the Florida Collegiate Summer League’s newest franchise, but rain and wind could hardly put a damper on all the work that had been done during the previous months in preparation for Opening Day on Wednesday, June 4, against the College Park Freedom.
The Florida League provides an opportunity for collegians to play wood-bat baseball against top-level competition within a community atmosphere.
League officials are also delighted to have a footprint in West Orange County entering the FCSL’s 11th season, as the Squeeze essentially replaces the Orlando Monarchs in the six-team format. (The Monarchs announced they would take the 2014 Florida League season off and look for a new home after Tinker Field was threatened with demolition earlier this year.)
Ruben Felix is head coach for the Squeeze’s inaugural season, which runs through July 27 for regular-season games. Winter Garden will play its home dates at West Orange High School, which is considered to have one of the area’s top high school baseball fields.
The Florida League playoffs begin July 29 and culminate with an Aug. 3 championship game at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.
“This town [Winter Garden] has been on our radar for a couple years and we really started to get after it for the last six months,” Winter Garden General Manager Adam Bates told The West Orange Times. “We’re real excited for June 4 [Opening Day] and for the kids in the community and for our players. These zip codes here are just full of kids and showing them how to play the game right is something we look forward to.
“Coach Felix has really worked on bringing in quality kids. They signed their player contract [on Saturday] and their conduct contract and they’re going to be in the community. You might not see the impact until next year because they’re going to want to come back, and you look at today where we had the rain come through and we still had people showing up. We had people walking up as the storm came, and what really excites me is hearing about other avenues outside of the organization that have heard about the Squeeze.”
Felix recently completed his fourth season as the recruiting coordinator and assistant coach with the University of Central Florida softball program, but his baseball resume is vast and includes several years as an assistant coach, scout and manager.
The El Paso (Texas) Baseball of Fame member began coaching in 1999 after retiring from playing professional baseball.
Felix (whose nephew Zak is on the 2014 Squeeze roster) played Division I collegiate baseball for the Elkhart Dusters of the Kansas Jayhawk Summer League, Lubbock Christian University, New Mexico State University, Dodge City Community College and Howard Junior College in Texas.
“We’re really excited about this season. Adam and his staff - and the people behind the scenes – really stepped it up with their efforts to get the community involved and the fans involved and the host families involved,” Felix said. “There are a lot of big-time pieces to this puzzle and they’re the ones who are working tirelessly.”
Felix has extensive roots in the state of Texas and that’s reflected in the Squeeze roster with several players hailing from the Lone Star State. Players with ties to The Times’ coverage area are also featured prominently with pitchers Chris Fee (St. Andrews University) and Steve McClellan (Lake-Sumter State College), who played at Olympia High; former West Orange High Warriors Andrew Mogg (Virginia Tech), Brandon Murray (University of South Florida) and Shane Crouse (Lake-Sumter State College) and former Windermere Prep Lakers standout Austin Glorius (Indian River State College), who tied national high school records in 2011 with five home runs and 17 RBIs in one game.
“With the recruiting that went into putting this team together – and the experience that I have and knowing the people that helped me get these guys – my goal is to win the championship,” Felix said. “I want to come in here and really let people know that I did my homework on kids and I believe in the people that recommended those kids to me. Putting the team together chemistry-wise is probably the hardest thing to do with college guys in a summer league, but that’s my goal. The non-championship goal is to develop these guys into better young men and baseball players. If they leave here and they go to their programs next year, and they’re a step or two or three better, then that’s something that I’m going to be proud of. We as a staff have a lot to offer these guys and hopefully they’re receptive to it.”
McClellan, Fee, Crouse and Murray will be part of deep Squeeze pitching staff that includes LSU junior right-hander Brady Domangue, former East Ridge standout Corey Tufts, Stanford freshman right-hander Joey Starling, Auburn University teammates Robby Clements and Cole Lipscomb, Grayson County College (Texas) teammates Taylor Becerra and Cory Scheibner and USF right-hander Daniel Portales.
McClellan is headed to the University of West Florida after posting a 1.08 earned-run average in 23 relief appearances (33 1/3 innings) for Lake-Sumter SC this spring, while Fee won eight games and had a 1.82 ERA during an impressive junior year at St. Andrews.
“It’s definitely a little weird playing at my archrival’s high school, but at the same time though it’s a collegiate summer league and so I’m representing my high school [Olympia] and the community as well,” said Fee, who played last summer with the Florida League’s DeLand Suns. “Last year was a shocking and fun experience to actually get to experience what it would be like to be a pro ballplayer per se, but here [with the Squeeze] I’m looking to get a championship and better myself as an individual and better myself as a pitcher on the mound.”
“Just playing where I played in high school is going to be awesome,” said Crouse, who has committed to Lynn University in Boca Raton. “We always had good fans here and it should be exciting. I just want to get better – and who doesn’t want to get better? – and win obviously. Winning a championship and playing in a great stadium like Tropicana Field would be awesome too.”
McClellan, who was a senior infielder on Olympia High’s 2012 varsity team that went 29-1, has become a full-time pitcher during his time at Lake-Sumter State College. His 1.08 era this spring represents a single-season school record (minimum 20 innings pitched).
“I’m only pitching now and I’m learning a lot,” McClellan said. “I like it a lot and I pitched way better than I thought I could have done this season at Lake-Sumter. My freshman year I threw about 17 innings and I was at 33 this year.”
“Obviously at any level of baseball, you’re always going to want some good arms,” Felix said. “I think that’s what is going to carry this team – pitching and defense. Hitting will probably be the thing that’s green, as you would say, because these are college kids trying to swing wooden bats. Hopefully it comes around.”
Auburn infielder Damon Haecker, who was a member of Lake Brantley’s 2013 state championship team, and Lubbock Christian University catcher Jose Favela are also be key additions for the Squeeze. Haecker started all 56 games for the Tigers at shortstop and scored 24 runs with 17 RBIs, while Favela was drafted in the 24th round by the Minnesota Twins in 2012.