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Florida Gulf Coast North: Fort Myers university provides Stingers with strong pipeline of talent

Tribune file photo Nick Rivera a 2014 Northwoods League All-Star, came to Willmar by way of Florida Gulf Coast.

Michael Suchy. Zack Tillery. Nick Rivera. Brady Anderson. Ricky Knapp. Sean Dwyer.

These are some of the better players in the Willmar Stingers’ short history, and they have one common thread: They all came from the same school, Florida Gulf Coast in Fort Myers, Florida.

The Stingers have had 11 Eagles come here for summer ball, so many that Willmar is known as “Florida Gulf Coast North” by the players who have come through.

“I heard a lot about (Willmar) from Michael Suchy,” said Rivera, who will be a junior for the Eagles and was Suchy’s teammate for two years. “I watched some of his highlight videos on YouTube and saw him playing and competing and how awesome of a place it was.”

Stingers’ co-owner Ryan Voz said that players talking amongst themselves have been an important piece to keeping Eagles’ players coming here every season.

“All of them have had success in this league,” Voz said. “If you’re going to play in the Northwoods League, that’s a piece of the marketing for us, for these guys to go back and tell their coaches and teammates where they should play.”

The connection dates back to 2001, when Voz was the general manager of the Alexandria Beetles and Florida Gulf Coast assistant Rusty McKee (then with the University of North Florida) was the Beetles’ field manager.

“Fast forward a number of years, and we’ve had a great relationship with Rusty and he’s typically sent us some of his best players,” Voz said.

McKee is currently the recruiting coordinator for the Eagles, and said he continues sending his players to Willmar because of the strength of the organization.

“The biggest thing is that I know they’re going to be taken care of,” McKee said. “I’m not going to send guys somewhere I don’t know anything about. We’ll continue to send guys there as long as (Ryan) is running it.”

He also said he thinks the NWL is the best summer league in the country for developing players, and identified Suchy as the best example.

“Suchy had a rough year as a freshman, and quite honestly I was a little worried about sending him up there because I wasn’t sure how he’d handle it mentally,” McKee said. “But he had a great summer and that propelled him to two really good years back here and being a fifth-rounder this year. That first summer up in Willmar really set the tone for that.”

Suchy hit just .195 and slugged .228 in limited action as an Eagles’ freshman in the spring of 2012. The next two years combined, he hit over .300 and slugged nearly .500, turning himself into a legitimate professional prospect. He was drafted in the fifth round of the MLB draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates last month.

Michael Murray, who pitched 39.2 innings with a 6.35 ERA for the Stingers last season, was a revelation for the Eagles this spring, going 13-1 with a 1.85 ERA in 107 innings as a sophomore to become one of the best pitchers in the Atlantic Sun Conference.

“They’re great players,” Rivera said. “I’ve learned a lot from them. Murray came up here and learned a lot about pitching. Suchy came up here and learned a lot about playing every day. It’s great to just follow in the footsteps of those guys.”

McKee said that the sheer number of games can help a player’s development as well.

“Anytime you’re playing 70-plus games, they’re going to be better,” McKee said. “It’s the atmosphere — it’s a little more laid back than a typical school atmosphere and they can relax a little bit and play. They mature as players — pitchers figure out how to get guys out more than once in a game and for hitters, the more times they can see live pitching and be in tough situations with two-strike counts, the better they’re going to be.”

Of the eleven Eagles who have come through Willmar, five are now playing pro ball: Suchy, Tillery, Knapp, Dwyer and Jacob Barnes. The remaining six could join them in the next few years, including Brady Anderson and Rivera, who will be draft eligible next year.

Voz said both of them will be welcome to play in Willmar next summer if they don’t go pro.

“With Anderson and Rivera we’ll have to play it by ear, but to have two All-Stars back for another season would be a good starting point,” Voz said.

Rivera, who was second in the NWL with 12 home runs entering Monday’s games, said he’s looking forward to the draft, but that he would want to come back if it doesn’t work out.

“Willmar’s been awesome,” Rivera said. “The fans and community rally behind us. I’m really glad to be here — just to meet some of these guys on the team who I’m going to have lifetime friendships with.”

Ben Brewster

Ben Brewster covers the Willmar Stingers and other area sports, as well as laying out the daily sports section cover for the West Central Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @benbrewster.

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