The Real All-Americans

Navy's Mitch Harris and Army's Milan Dinga shine on and off field


Jan. 21, 2007


 
 

By Douglas Kroll

CSTV.com

 



DOUG KROLL

Doug Kroll is an editor for CSTV.com, focusing on baseball.
E-mail here!

All collegiate athletes make a commitment.  Most make a decision as to where they will attend school depending on which will pave a better road to the pro ranks.  Not these guys.

 

Meet Navy's Mitch Harris and Army's Milan Dinga.  Both made commitments, but of a much different variety.  They get to play their Division I baseball, get great educations, and serve their country with pride.  Not to mention the Patriot League duo are a couple of the higher touted players during this preseason in the entire nation, and for good reason.

 

Making a commitment to attend Annapolis or West Point means an entirely different thing.  The recruits that head there have different plans in place for when they graduate: a five-year service commitment. 

 

For most high school recruits, this would be a deterrent, especially if they feel they are good enough to play in the pros.  For the coaching staffs it's a constant thing to keep in mind; you aren't just selling your baseball program, you're recruiting kids to help serve the country.  At times this could be difficult.


"I think it offers a challenge," said Navy head coach Paul Kostacopoulos.  "We have a special group of young men here, that have a sense of what they want to do.  The naval academy on its surface is a military institution and we're preparing our guys to go off and do some great things for this country. It's also a fabulous academic school -- as its rated one of the top 10 educations in the world, and athletically you have a chance to play Division I baseball."

 

"It's something that we have to deal with," Army head coach Joe Sottolano said.  "We have to choose from a smaller group than others.  The kids first of all have to be great students, as this is one of the finest academic institutions, then those from that group have to be willing to make that commitment, since we are a service academy."

 

Once in a while, a player like Harris or Dinga comes to town.  Usually they are late bloomers.  Harris is the perfect example.  It wasn't until a Navy assistant football coach saw him throwing in his high school bullpen that he was even noticed by Navy.  If that day doesn't happen, Harris would have ended up at a junior college or Division III program, he says. 

 

Let's face it, a player with a tremendous amount of talent and pro aspirations probably would steer away from a place where they couldn't head to the pros after graduation.  Except of course, if you excel on the diamond at West Point and blossom into a star.

 

Luckily for a few Army athletes, a plan was put in place a couple of years ago that helps them meet their professional dreams.  The Alternative Service Option has been put into action a couple of times since its inception, and the first to test its waters was Josh Holden back in 2004. 

 

The rule was created to allow athletes in the military to sign with a professional sports team after two years of active duty, forgoing their final three years of active military duty in exchange for six years in the Army Reserves.

 

Aside from playing professional baseball, Holden will also work with Army recruiters part-time for six years, visiting schools and attending other recruiting functions.  To sum it up, players get the best of both worlds: play professional baseball, yet still complete their original commitment. 

 

"I was very fortunate for this new rule to be put in place," Holden told the Dayton Dragons (Class A Affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds). "Athletes before me have had the ability to play professionally, but lacked the opportunity because of their military commitment. Now, that opportunity will exist."

 

Two current Army baseball players hope to follow in Holden's footsteps.  Lefthander Nick Hill was drafted after last season by the Boston Red Sox, but will head back to school.  Many are thinking that with another great season (after pitching for Team USA this summer), Hill could be picked in the first ten rounds of the draft. 

 

The other is two-way sensation Milan Dinga.  The Tampa native has been dominant in the field and on the mound during his career, giving up just one earned run in 18.2 innings pitched and picking up ten saves as the team's closer.  He also was the Black Knights' leading hitter, finishing the year at .385, and also led the team with seven homeruns and 35 RBI.  The senior feels each provides its perks.

 

"Everyone always asks me that," Dinga said.  "But I think each of them are great in their own way.  There's not a better feeling than striking a guy out on the mound, but it's also great making a diving catch in the outfield."

 

Meanwhile, at Navy, Harris is also a two-way star, and he's only going to be a junior.  The Mt. Holly, N.C. native burst onto the scene in '06, really surprising the new coaching staff after a not-so-great 2005.  Harris was a dominating No. 1 starter, finishing the season 10-3 with a 1.74 ERA, and striking out 113 batters in 82.2 innings.  That is something that his coach feels doesn't show up in the box score, but is very important.

 

"He does something that really doesn't show up in the box score and that is he really makes us a much better defensive team," Kostacopoulos said.  "I think last year he struck out nearly 50 percent of the guys he faced, so when you're getting nine, 10, 11 free outs a game -- that really helps your defense."

 

With all the talk about Army and its program for those looking to sign professional contracts, the Navy does have a plan in place as well.  A deal can be made where the player would pay back money owed.  But details were much harder to find, and instances too.

 

This reason makes it that much more exciting that a player like Harris is in the Navy starting rotation.  As Kostacopoulos put it, it's not that often they come along.

 

"It is [special]," Kostacopoulos said.  "I only laugh because it's not really our bread and butter to have a Roger Clemens watch list guy, an All-American, and some of those other things.  That's probably not a norm here.  When you get someone special like Mitch, you really value that."

 

For Harris, the hope still remains to get drafted and reach a deal to play professional baseball.  But if things don't work out down that road, he'll still be doing something that he loves, and signed onboard to do. 

 

"Of course, I think I'd be lying if I said that didn't cross my mind," Harris said about the commitment he made.  "But I mean there is still a possibility, and I made a choice for a reason; it's a great school, you can't pass that up."

 

The jury is still out on Dinga as well.  With the numbers he has put up, one could say that he will be drafted in June, and with a deal in place, can follow the footsteps of Holden into the minor leagues.  If not, he will follow the footsteps of the soldiers that these players look up to everyday.

 

One thing's for sure, come Apr. 21 at West Point, Doubleday Field will be rocking when Mitch Harris takes to the hill for Navy to take on the Black Knights.  And when Dinga comes up to the plate, he'll be facing only the second Army baseball player ever to be tabbed a preseason All-American.  Now that's special. 

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