Opportunities proved hard to come by for Tyler Carrico. Meanwhile, they started early for Tyler Allen and seemed destined to never stop coming. In the end, both came to the same happy ending, when both Tylers committed on the same day to attend the University of Virginia and play baseball for the Cavaliers.
A football injury in the fall of his freshman year forced Tyler Carrico to undergo two separate back surgeries in 2009, forcing him to miss that spring's baseball season entirely. When the surgical site developed an infection, he needed a third procedure. After being home bound for six months, Carrico had lost most of his stamina and zip from his pitches.
It would have been easy for him to give up on sports at that point. When he returned to the field in spring 2010, he watched as his long time friends moved on to varsity play while he pitched for James River's JV and tried to rebuild himself.
When the Virginia Cardinals team formed for its first summer in 2010, head coach Rich Graham gave Carrico a shot to join the team, get innings when opportunities presented, and work on continuing to rebuild himself. By the time fall rolled around, Carrico had stepped into a closing role. Though his fastball was not overpowering against the mostly older competition, Carrico's hard downer slider proved too much for hitters to handle.
"Coming off his back issues last year, Tyler was still only 82-84 mph, but it was the Brad Lidge slider that stood out. Not only was it a plus pitch in its own right, but it made it possible for him to sneak his fastball by people," noted Coach Graham.
Still, when spring 2011 came around, he found himself having to compete for innings with the highly regarded tandem of lefty junior Nathan Kirby and sophomore righty Jack Roberts, both of whom were already topping 90 mph with their fastballs. Then, when a sprained ankle delayed the start of Kirby's season, it was Kit Scheetz who got the first opportunity and capitalized on it. When Kirby returned, Carrico found himself buried on the depth chart behind those three and also senior lefty Nick Parnell. To make matters worse, Chesterfield County budget moves limited the Rapids to only 18 regular season games, and when one of them got cancelled as well, the innings that might have given Carrico his shot seemed to evaporate.
In fact, Carrico threw less than four innings through the entire regular season and the district tournament. Just before the regional tourney began, Carrico discussed his frustrations with Graham. "He told me to stay focused, because with more innings for the team to cover each week, I might still get my chance," Carrico explained. "And he told me that if that chance came, I would need to be ready to take full advantage of it, or else there might not be another chance." So Carrico continued working in hopes that the call to the bullpen would come.
Sure enough, the Rapids used all of Kirby, Roberts and Scheetz to squeak through their first two regional games. Down in the second inning of the championship game against Mills Godwin, James River finally called upon Carrico -- and he delivered. He finished the last 5 1/3 innings, allowed only one run, and enabled a James River come back that got the program its third regional title in 5 years.
Carrico got a second strong relief outing done in the state semifinal game, allowing the Rapids to attempt a comeback after they had again fallen far behind. The back-to-back strong performances gave him a solid launch into summer play on the college recruiting circuit. There, it was a whole new ballgame. In tourney outings at James Madison, Virginia Tech, Radford and UVA, Carrico averaged over 1.5 strikeouts per inning. And as the weather heated up, so did Carrico's fastball; he reached 87 mph at Virginia Tech, then peaked at 89 mph at UVA.
The combination of rapidly increasing velocity and an unhittable slider made Carrico suddenly a very popular fellow. It didn't hurt that he also had taken care of business in the classroom, where he sports a GPA over 4.8. Offers came from several state schools in quick succession, and Ivy League schools started inquiring as well. But then came the offer Carrico had long dreamed of: A lifelong fan of the Wahoos, Carrico jumped at the chance to become a part of UVA's Omaha-caliber baseball program.
"It's a great story really. This kid really worked hard, and now just coming into his own on the mound. The past few weeks have been great, as college coaches have seen him stand on his own and just overmatch hitters," said Graham.
Carrico will remain one of many strong options at James River for one more year, then join long time friend and teammate Kirby as pillars of the Cavaliers' 2012 recruiting class.
In contrast, at nearby Powhatan it's been two years of smooth sailing for outfielder Tyler Allen. First team All Southside District as a freshman in 2010, Allen followed up in 2011 with a season in which he hit .614 with 6 home runs, 42 runs scored and 26 RBI despite often batting leadoff and also regularly being pulled early from Powhatan's numerous blowout victories. He was honored as the AA Region I Player of the Year.
"Tyler is one of those guys who stands out from the moment he steps on a ball field. He looks like an athlete. Scouts immediately notice him and stick around to see if his game performance measures up," explained Graham. "And then, it does. He's a true five-tool player, destined to be an impact player in college and maybe even beyond."
With colleges already playing with the BBCOR bats that will come to high school play next spring, the Cardinals have made the move to the new bats to assure that scouts get an accurate read on their players. Some might have expected a young player like Allen to need time to adjust to the smaller sweet spot, and to playing at the longer collegiate distances. Or maybe the move from a small AA district to summer travel ball against older, college prospect pitching might slow him down a bit.
Nope. It took only 25 at bats for Allen to go deep his first three times. He also stole bases, took extra bases on hits, made diving catches, and threw out base runners from the outfield. All with a silky smooth athleticism that sometimes makes it look like he's just taking it easy. "Don't be fooled by that," Graham warns. "This kid's a competitor. He's the total package."
Allen got his first collegiate scholarship offer last September - barely entering his sophomore year at Powhatan - from a program who'd seen him play for the Cardinals in the late summer. By July 1, suitors were lining up. But Allen took himself off the market when UVA came to call. "We talk a lot on the Cardinals not just about how you play the games, but how you manage the whole recruiting process. We talked about being patient, considering your options, and developing the right options for you," said Allen. "But the coaches also say that if you get everything you could ask for, then there's no reason not to just accept the offer right then. And that's what I did. I mean, what more can you ask for than to get a top education while playing for the best team in the country?"
When Allen does arrive in Charlottesville in August 2013, he'll find some familiar faces waiting for him in Kirby and Carrico. "You know UVA is going to stay one of the top programs because they always get so many great pitchers. Hopefully, when the time comes, I can do my part to help the team as well."