CHARLESTON - Wando High School freshman Nick Ciuffo has not played in a varsity baseball game. But the 14-year-old catcher committed to play for the South Carolina Gamecocks.
"This is, obviously, a great opportunity and one I couldn't resist," Ciuffo said. "The chance to play in the SEC and for coach Ray Tanner made this decision very easy."
Baseball insiders believe Ciuffo is the first baseball player in South Carolina, and perhaps the Southeast, to be offered a college baseball scholarship before playing a varsity game in high school.
Thediamondprospects.com, a Web site dedicated to high school baseball in South Carolina, called the commitment unprecedented and said Ciuffo is the first player in the Southeast to commit to a college before playing in a varsity game.
"That's entirely possible," said Aaron Foote, college baseball writer for Baseball America. "I've heard of a couple of freshmen committing in the last five years, but it was after their freshmen seasons."
Ciuffo's commitment shows how much recruiting has changed. Ten years ago, even the best high school players weren't offered scholarships until after their junior year.
Last year, Tanner offered Belton-Honea Path freshman outfielder Andrew Cox a scholarship. That offer was made after the season and Cox was in his second season of varsity ball, contributing as an eighth-grader to his team's Class 3A state championship season.
South Carolina's recruiting has intensified now that Chad Holbrook is the recruiting coordinator.
"That program is clearly one of the best in the nation," Foote said of the Gamecocks. "Holbrook was an aggressive recruiter at North Carolina and he's doing the same thing at South Carolina."
College coaches are not allowed to comment on recruits until they sign a national letter of intent.
Ciuffo played for Wando's junior varsity team last spring. This fall, he played for the Diamond Devils 18-U team, which includes many of the best players in the state. That team finished third in the 85-team World Wood Bat Association World Championship in Jupiter, Fla.
Ciuffo, who is 6-feet and 180 pounds, batted .325 and led the Diamond Devils with three home runs.
John Rhodes, who coaches the Diamond Devils, said Ciuffo's strengths are his maturity level, work ethic and desire.
"As a hitter, he has a good eye, a nice even stroke and some pop as evidenced by his three home runs," Rhodes said. "As a catcher, he has a good throwing arm that will get better as he continues to grow."
Rhodes helped develop some of the best players the Lowcountry has produced in the past decade, including Drew Meyer, Matt Wieters, Justin Smoak, Reese Havens and the Cisco brothers, Mike and Drew. Rhodes said he will not compare Ciuffo to those players yet.
"Keep in mind that Wieters was Stratford's starting catcher as a seventh-grader, and Meyer was the starting shortstop on my 18-U American Legion team when he was 13 years old," Rhodes said. "Recruiting was done differently then, and most colleges didn't start on kids until after their junior year of high school."