By: Aaron Fischman
For 37 years, the Delray Beach baseball fields where Elev|8 Sports Institute now stands had exclusively been used for a series of seasonal baseball training sessions and then lent to various organizations, such as youth sports leagues, the rest of every year.
That is until 2012, when everything changed.
That’s when Elev|8 CEO Don Uderitz, who acquired the company in 2005 (then, called “The Bucky Dent Baseball School”), finally decided it was time to morph the baseball camp into a multi-sport training program that would simultaneously serve as a nine-month academy.
The school’s Director of Academics, Lisa Paolo, likes to mention her son, who was looking for a place like Elev|8 just as he entered high school. Her son attended The Bucky Dent Baseball School when he was 10 years old. “When he was about in eighth grade,” Paolo recalled, “he said to me,
‘Wouldn’t it be really cool if I could go to a place where I could get my academics done and focus on my passion, which is baseball?’”
They quickly came across Elev|8, because he had gone to camp there, and now he’s already beginning his third year at the academy. “He absolutely loves it,” said his mom.
Approximately 64 students currently live on campus. These students hail from more than 10 different countries, as well as various regions of the U.S.
The students are presented with two academic options: Either, they can elect to take their classes at the local private school, American Heritage, or they can stay on campus and participate in Elev|8 Prep. Elev|8 classes are taught online and serve as a better simulation of the college experience, according to Paolo, whereas American Heritage is a lot more like traditional high school.
Beginning their junior year, Elev|8 Prep students are also encouraged to take up to 12 college credits per year at nearby Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. By the time students move on, they have the opportunity to leave with 24 college credits.
Whether a student goes to American Heritage or stays on campus for his/her learning, the athletic training portion of the day typically doesn’t start until 3 p.m. At that point, students train for an average of three to four hours per day.
When Elev|8 was born, basketball and lacrosse were added to the academy’s offerings, and talented coaches with professional playing experience were quickly hired.
Luis Alicea, who played in the major leagues for 13 years, was recruited by his friend, Elev|8 Executive Director Jorge Rodriguez-Lugo, to head the baseball department. At the time, Alicea had just finished coaching first base for the New York Mets and was prepared to return to his native home, Puerto Rico.
“It fell right into my lap,” said Alicea. “I thought it was a great idea, because I still love baseball and more importantly, we’re changing kids’ lives.”
Jorge Gil may be one of those kids whose lives Alicea and company changed for the better. Gil discovered Elev|8 while in Venezuela and came over not knowing a word of English.
“That was a guy that probably would’ve never got a chance to play anywhere else if he wouldn’t have been in our program,” said Alicea.
When he first became aware of Gil, Alicea learned that Elev|8 was getting a 6-foot-5, 225-pound player “with a lot of power and a great arm.”
Alicea and his coaches steered Gil into pitching, and the rest is history. “We thought it was the best fit [for him] to turn professional and he embraced it, and he got a chance to play,” said Alicea.
Thanks in part to Paolo, who worked with Gil one-on-one throughout the year, his English and test scores improved enough for him to be offered a full scholarship by Alabama State University. Gil turned it down, because he was signed as a free agent by the Baltimore Orioles earlier this summer. Elev|8 gave him options, quality options.
Elev|8 doesn’t accept student-athletes based on their skill level. It’s only their passion that matters.
“We will match anybody’s intensity for the game,” said Rodriguez-Lugo. “We’ll make you better if you dedicate yourself.”
Upon arrival, each player is given a detailed evaluation by the coaches, laying out “where we think they are and where we think they can get to,” according to Rodriguez-Lugo.
Alicea preaches the three D’s: dedication, determination and discipline. “I think in anything you do in life, you’ve gotta have that,” said Alicea. “You’ve gotta live by that.”
He worked for the Red Sox organization when they overcome a 3-0 series deficit to the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS and went on to win their first World Series in 86 years. That’s determination.
Later, when Alicea coached first base for the 2007 World Series champion Red Sox, Boston trailed the Cleveland Indians, three games to one, before reeling off three straight wins while facing elimination in the ALCS. There’s another example of determination that Alicea can relay to his student-athletes.
Elev|8 teams have the advantage of not being part of the Florida High School Association, meaning the players are able to play and practice much more than their counterparts from other high schools. “Our baseball guys will play 90 to 100 games in an academic year,” said Rodriguez-Lugo. “The rest of the time, they practice. And our level of competition is different, because we have the ability to play against junior colleges.”
In addition, their goals differ considerably from most other schools’ athletic programs. Elev|8 doesn’t compete for trophies.
“We don’t believe that our value is in racking up a series of tournament wins or state championships,” said Rodriguez-Lugo. “Our whole mission in life is excellence in training and player development.”
Alicea concurred, “We don’t measure our program according to wins and losses. We measure our success according to how many players we can get to the next level. Every coach is dedicated to make sure that you get to the next level.”
For this reason, proper training is emphasized. Each sport’s department director ensures his players learn the fundamentals and build up from there.
“We believe that if you really want to be better and have a chance to play college and further, you need to spend your time training now in your developmental years, because there’ll be enough time to compete and be seen once you hit college,” added Rodriguez-Lugo.
If last year was any indication, it’s expected that some local players will latch onto Elev|8’s athletic programs if they don’t make their high school’s team. Going along with their philosophy on developing players, Rodriguez-Lugo and his staff will welcome these players with open arms and give them every chance to succeed.
For more information, visit the academy’s page here.