Urban Invitational brings UYA alums full circle
Players heap praise on program, remember experience fondly
NEW ORLEANS -- D.J. Wallace remembers what it was like to be on the other side of the fence.
Wallace, a hulking outfielder for Southern University, got a serious case of deja vu this weekend at the Urban Invitational. Just five short years ago, Wallace was one of the kids at the Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., dreaming of the day he could take his game to the next level. Now, he's a college senior with professional aspirations.
Wallace was one of five players with Urban Youth Academy ties playing in the Urban Invitational this weekend and he got a chance to get up close and personal with the kids at the New Orleans academy.
"I'm glad to see that I'm like one of the guys I used to look up to," he said. "When I was younger, there used to be college guys coming by for workouts, and even some professional guys. I would look up to them and hope, 'Hey, maybe they're down-to-earth enough to have a conversation with me.'
"Now, when I see a kid in passing, I'm always willing to stick my hand out and give them a handshake. I'm starting to really see how these academies are building up from the ground, and it's really good that minority kids and urban kids can go there and have a vehicle to get them in front of scouts."
Wallace, listed at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, first started working out at the Compton academy as a junior in high school, and he said it was a key factor in giving him a chance to play in college. Wallace can recall being blown away by the equipment and the coaching available to him at no charge.
Prior to the academy, Wallace said, his parents had been forced to make sacrifices to help him grow in the game he loved. Once he started going to the Urban Youth Academy, though, his ability increased exponentially and he began reaching a potential that he never really knew he had.
"A lot of people would look at my dad and say, 'OK, this guy still has a lot of room to grow.' But my shoulders weren't developed and I was shorter back then," he said. "As time progressed, I just looked at the academy as a bridge to help propel me forward. Instead of just experiencing it as an amateur, I wanted to experience it as a professional on a daily basis. So I used that as motivation. That's when I learned how to not just go into the weight room, but to go into the training room and take an ice bath or get a massage from the trainer. That's how you prepare for the next day and the next game."
Carlos Kelly, a freshman infielder for Alcorn State, could tell a similar story. A native of the Dominican Republic, Kelly moved to New Orleans when he was 13 and started playing at the local Urban Youth Academy as a junior in high school.
Kelly said that the lessons he learned at the academy extended beyond the playing field. The youngster was able to take English classes at the academy, expanding his grasp of the language. And in his senior year, the coaches at the academy went out of their way to find him a school.
"It was a great experience. I spent a lot of time there," said Kelly, crediting coaches Eddie Davis and Dale Brock. "It kept me out of the streets, it kept me busy and it helped me a lot in my craft. Every day I went there, I got better, thanks to the whole staff, especially Coach Eddie and Coach Dale."
Kelly didn't start in Sunday's game at the Urban Youth Academy, but he was acknowledged before the game as a product of the local facility. And so was Rivers Frederick, a sophomore infielder for Southern. Kelly, speaking Saturday, said he doesn't really feel like a typical college freshman.
"Sometimes, I feel like I'm more advanced because of the MLB experience that they [offer]," said Kelly of the Urban Youth Academy. "I wasn't just doing any type of workout; I was doing a Major League workout and we were working every day -- working hard. That experience made the transition from high school so easy. I think that was the best thing that happened to me, going to the academy."
Another school in the tourney, Grambling State University, had a pair of players with an Urban Youth Academy pedigree. Freshman infielder Jaiden France and junior infielder Larry Barraza both got their starts at the Compton academy. Barraza rounded out his game at Compton College.
France, a right-handed hitter, said it was surreal for him to be playing as a college player at an Urban Youth Academy, and he said he was eternally thankful to the Compton academy for giving him his break. France started playing at the Urban Youth Academy as a 12-year-old and had to commute an hour each way to get there, but he said he wouldn't be here today without the experience.
"I don't think so. The academy did so much for me," said France. "I lived far away, but whenever I could get there, I got there. I got so much tutelage over there from guys who used to play in the bigs. They helped me out a lot, and if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be here getting the looks I'm getting."
Wallace, who graduated from Charter Oak High School in Covina, Calif., said that his younger brother now plays at the Compton academy and that he'll likely attend a college out west. Part of the reason the UYA experience is so good, he said, is that the players are constantly spurred by competition.
"I don't think there were any moments where I thought, 'Man, we don't play anyone competitive,'" said Wallace. "It was always good competition, and sometimes it was international competition. My younger brother, who actually played at the academy too, got a chance to play against teams like Mexico and Japan.
"Teams would come from overseas to us, and we'd also have teams going overseas. I was involved in the RBI program too, and we went to Minnesota and won the championship in 2011. It was just mind-blowing. It was such a privilege, and I'm honored to say I was a part of it."
Kelly, just one year removed from his academy experience, was able to recognize countless faces in the stands at Wesley Barrow Stadium. And it's not hard to imagine a day in the future when other alumni of the New Orleans academy follow in his footsteps.
For now, Kelly is still trying to figure out how good he can be. And while he decides what he wants to do in the future, one thing is for certain: He'll always be welcome at the Urban Youth Academy.
"The door's always open for us," he said. "Not everybody has an opportunity to play at the academy, but when you're there, you feel like you're at home. They make you feel comfortable. It's awesome."