New Jersey has never been, and probably never will be, considered a high school baseball powerhouse. It's an oft-overlooked state in a region of the country where cold and damp weather relegates our national pastime to a strictly seasonal activity.

Yet, in the northeast portion of the Garden State resides Seton Hall Prep, a Catholic boys school that currently fields what is widely considered to be the best high school team in the entire country.

The Seton Hall Pirates, 26-1 on the season, are currently focused on their bid to win their third state championship in as many years. This season's team is especially notable in that it includes four players who have earned Division I baseball scholarships, two of whom -- pitchers Rick Porcello and Evan Danieli -- are expected to be prominent selections in the First-Year Player Draft on June 7.

Porcello, in fact, is the consensus pick as the top high school pitcher in the country, and possibly the best right-hander available in this year's draft pool. Several draft experts, including's Jonathan Mayo, predict that he will be chosen by the Kansas City Royals with the second overall pick. This despite dreaded "signability concerns" stemming from his choice of the notoriously hard-driving Scott Boras as his advisor.

There is no doubt that Porcello and his heralded teammates possess an undeniable natural talent, and most likely would excel at baseball no matter what circumstances they played under. But Seton Hall Prep's success is a result of much more than a fortunate accumulation of standout players. What is it about the school that brings out the best in all of its players? And how do they field such dominating teams, squads worthy of regional and often national attention, year in and year out?

For the answers to these questions, one needs to look no further than head coach (and Seton Hall Prep alumnus) Mike Sheppard Jr.

"I come from a baseball family," said Sheppard, who has led Seton Hall Prep to five state titles over 21 seasons at the helm. "My dad [Mike Sheppard Sr.] was a legendary coach at Seton Hall University, and two of my brothers are coaches as well. I played the game all through college and eventually spent two years in the Astros' organization. Through it all, I developed a love for the game that naturally evolved into a desire to coach."

Sheppard's coaching philosophy is simple, yet effective.

"I'm big on preparation, mastering the fundamentals and attention to detail, so I plan our practices down to the minute," he said. "What I'm trying to instill [in] these kids is a respect and passion for the game of baseball. I want serious players on my team, kids who are disciplined and who understand that with so much going on, sometimes your social life is going to come in third place behind academics and sports."

Sheppard's players not only tolerate his ideas, they embrace them.

"I'm not aware of any teams that practice harder and more often than we do," said Nick Natale, a senior outfielder who will attend Rice University in the fall. "We give 100 percent, all the time. I'd do anything for my teammates."

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"We are taught to be strong on and off the field," said Porcello. "That's been very important to me, as it has really helped me to develop as a person. You have to be able to endure the ups and downs, within the game and in life."

Porcello has developed into Seton Hall Prep's star player, hitting close to .500 and bashing seven home runs in addition to going 7-0 as the ace of the pitching staff. The highlight of his season came on May 12, when he hurled a 77-pitch perfect game against Newark Academy.

"Of course Rick has tremendous physical skills," said Sheppard. "He's 6-foot-5, throws 97 miles an hour and has a fluid delivery. He's a very mature and refined young man, and he knows how to respond to any situation. I think his mental make-up is what has impressed scouts the most."

Ah, yes, the scouts. These radar-gun toting creatures have turned up by the dozens to every Seton Hall prep game, and have shown a particularly intense interest in the pitching duo of Porcello and Danieli. Although both pitchers have committed to college (Porcello to North Carolina and Danieli to Notre Dame), either or both could very well decide to go pro.

"All that attention was a concern for us heading into the season," said Sheppard. "I've dealt with scouts in the past, particularly when [Seton Hall alumnus and current Yankees prospect] Eric Duncan was with us, but we've never had this type of interest. Fortunately our guys haven't let it become a distraction, and have responded well to the hype."

Danieli certainly has. The imposing 6-foot-8, 225-pound righty, who throws in the low 90s and possesses a nasty, late-breaking curve, is 8-0 this season.

"Evan could be selected anywhere from the end of the first round to the third in the draft," said Sheppard. "He's not quite as refined [as Porcello], but his best years are still ahead of him, whether he turns pro or attends college."

While Porcello and Danieli have anchored the pitching staff, Natale and Steven Brooks have made the outfield another one of Seton Hall Prep's strengths. Sheppard calls Natale "a right fielder with great speed, a strong arm, and a football player's mentality. He'll run through a fence if he has to." Brooks, meanwhile, made the varsity team as a freshman. The last player to do that had been Duncan.

"Working with coaches Sheppard and Gately for the past four years, I've been able to get so many quality reps, just working on hitting and throwing," said Brooks, who will be attending Wake Forest University. "When I started with the team I could barely get the ball back to the infield, and I ran a 7.0 60-yard dash. Now I'm down to 6.3. It took a lot of hard work and discipline."

In a positive example of the trickle-down effect, the hype surrounding Seton Hall Prep's accomplished roster of seniors has resulted in under-the-radar recognition of some the team's younger players.

"Our catcher, Nick Ammirati, is only a sophomore, so there was concern going into the season about his ability to handle this pitching staff, guys throwing 93 or 97 miles an hour," said Sheppard. "But he's done a tremendous job, and I think he's impressed a lot of people. And our shortstop, Sean O'Hare, is another guy who springs to mind. He's a defensive and offensive standout who has gotten the attention of some of the college coaches who attend the games."

With Seton Hall Prep's reputation for excellence so deeply ingrained as a result of the dedication of Sheppard, his staff, and players, there is little question that the school's baseball team will be a force to be reckoned with for many years to come. But for now, the team's single-minded focus is to win another state championship. This will be followed in short order by graduation ceremonies, and then the intrigue of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft. While Porcello and his senior teammates are certainly enjoying the hectic nature of their lives as May gives way to June, the prospect of a relaxing summer looms large as well.

"I think the plan is for me and my buddies to go fishing a lot, relax, maybe play a little wiffle ball," said Porcello. "The goal is to not really do too many strenuous activities."