As a power-hitting freshman catcher, Ryan McDonald helped West Ashley High School win the Region 7-AAAA championship last season. Pitching last fall for the Virginia-based EvoShield Canes, one of the nation's most elite travel baseball programs, he was clocked at almost 90 mph on college coaches' radar guns. McDonald is 6-6, 210 pounds. He has verbally committed to accept a baseball scholarship from West Virginia.
Height: 6-6 Weight: 210
Baseball positions: Catcher and pitcher
High School: West Ashley sophomore
2013 season: As a freshman, helped West Ashley win Region 7-AAAA title
This season: Skipping sophomore season to study Mandarin Chinese and prepare for summer season with EvoShield Canes travel team
If McDonald isn't the top high school baseball prospect in the Lowcountry, he is part of the conversation.
But McDonald isn't playing high school baseball this season.
"We had a big debate over that," McDonald said, recalling a conversation with his parents, Gary and Kelly McDonald. "But ever since I was little, my parents have preached that nothing is more important than knowledge."
So McDonald, an honor student at West Ashley, has spent Tuesday and Thursday afternoons this spring studying Mandarin Chinese through the South Carolina Virtual School Program in an online effort to complete a language study he began in middle school. He works out daily at his family's Mid Atlantic Baseball Academy in Ravenel while looking forward to another summer with EvoShield.
"Everybody has to make a decision that's best for them," Gary McDonald said. "With Ryan already committed (to West Virginia), he really wanted to focus on academics and it's his sophomore year. For us, it just made sense. But it's not for everybody."
McDonald isn't the first elite high school baseball player to sit out a season. A few prospects in other states have skipped their senior seasons to join high-level wood bat travel leagues in hopes of boosting their professional draft status.
But it's a frightening decision to some people, including coaches in various sports who worry that travel teams are taking priority over the high school season.
"I don't think it's a good thing, not at all," College of Charleston head coach Monte Lee said. "In fact, I think the trend in baseball with some kids with the primary focus going from their high school baseball programs to their travel ball programs has really taken away from the game of baseball in our state and throughout the country."
Ryan McDonald, 17, embraces his fall and summer "showcase" experience, which has allowed him to play against top competition in front of college coaches and pro scouts on college fields.
"It has been absolutely amazing," he said. "I'm just a sophomore in high school and I have played on so many college fields already that it's mind-boggling to think about. It's great baseball all around and you develop friendships you'll have for life."
He gets no argument from his father.
"Ryan loves West Ashley High School," Gary McDonald said. "I know this is hard for people to understand, but in the summer and fall Ryan has pitched against the USA National Team, against 18-year-old teams that have guys committed to SEC and ACC schools. With that, high school seemed just not as important."
'It's ridiculous and selfish'
The McDonalds say they talked to West Virginia head coach Randy Mazey and other college coaches about taking a year off from high school baseball. NCAA rules prohibit Mazey, a former Clemson player and Charleston Southern head coach, from commenting on a recruit.
But Lee thinks the McDonald situation is part of a problem that goes far beyond one player sitting out this season.
"I think we have lost some of the competitiveness in our kids," Lee said, "because while kids play 100 travel ball games a year over the summer and fall, except for a wood bat tournament in Atlanta in the summer and a tournament in Jupiter (Fla.) in the fall, these kids are not playing for anything. But you play for a state championship in high school. I won a state championship in 1993 (at Lugoff-Elgin High School). That's something I'll always cherish. You're supposed to put everything you have into playing for your community and your high school. But that's not the way it is now."
High school coaches feel for West Ashley head coach Mitch Miggenburg.
"I hope it works out for (McDonald), but we always take pride in our kids having a bond in the heartbreaking losses and the tremendous victories," said veteran Stratford High School baseball coach John Chalus, a state championship winner. "As a child, those are things that you remember - going to school the next day, kids seeing you at school and cheering you on. You don't get that with summer ball."
Another high school head coach, who asked for anonymity, was more direct.
"It's ridiculous and selfish," he said. "First of all, there is something traditional about representing your school and playing for titles. And summer teams don't really practice. High school baseball is where you learn how to bunt, how to field bunts and how to play defense within a team concept. In travel ball, you just show up and play games. I can't imagine any college coach liking this."
John Rhodes, founder of the Mount Pleasant-based Diamond Devils travel baseball program that has included 290 NCAA Division I signees and 51 major league draft picks, doesn't see McDonald's decision as part of a trend.
"He does have a commitment, but the way I look at it, when you have a commitment, your work just begins," Rhodes said. "It's not that you're already set. I've heard guys say a half-dozen times, 'Maybe I'll just skip high school baseball and wait for the summer.' But the problem with that is you're not going to be in baseball shape by the time the summer rolls around."
West Ashley won the Region 7-AAAA title in 2013 with McDonald playing a key role, and the Wildcats have done just fine without him. They repeated as Region 7-AAAA champs, led by Tyrie Blalock, Jonathan Sabo and Taylor Oden.
"I'm so proud of the way our team has performed this year," said Miggenburg, a former College of Charleston third baseman. "I thought we snuck up on some people last year but to have the high expectations this year and still perform, I'm really proud of our guys, particularly our seniors. It's been a lot of fun."
But the high school playoffs start next week.
A power pitcher and able catcher hitting in the middle of the batting order might come in handy against the state's top teams.
Miggenburg declined comment on McDonald's decision to leave the team, except for a brief player evaluation: "Ryan is a good baseball player and he obviously has a strong work ethic."
West Virginia, of all places
Ryan McDonald was in frequent contact with "plenty of SEC and ACC schools" last December when the family set out for Morgantown, W. Va.
"It was really bizarre," Gary McDonald said. "We drove up there just as a courtesy. We didn't know anything about West Virginia baseball. We did a lot of research but as we were driving up, Ryan had no intention of going to West Virginia."
Despite the cold weather, Ryan McDonald was instantly struck by Mazey's zeal for building a winning program. He was impressed that West Virginia in 2013 went 13-11 against a rugged Big 12 schedule in Mazey's first year as Mountaineers head coach.
"Coach Mazey has completely turned the program around," Ryan McDonald said.
He saw the plans for a new $22 million ballpark.
"After I went to West Virginia and met the coaches, I completely bought in to everything they're doing," Ryan McDonald said. "I can't think of one thing wrong with West Virginia. I've been on other college visits, but West Virginia just made me feel like I was their guy and that they were developing me as an adult more than a baseball player."
He phoned Mazey with a commitment on the way home.
West Virginia might be getting a pitcher, or a catcher, or both. McDonald has grown from 6-4 to 6-6 over the last year.
"I describe myself as a catcher/pitcher," he said, "but I'd say I'm becoming more of a pitcher as I get taller and taller. But I've only been pitching for about a year, so to say I'm a pitcher when I've been catching my whole life is still kind of hard for me, but I can see myself as a pitcher in the future."
The workout/Chinese routine
To refine his skills while not playing high school baseball, McDonald follows a weight-lifting and cardio routine borrowed from the Toronto Blue Jays at least six days a week. He hits almost every night at the Mid Atlantic Baseball Academy and throws regular bullpen sessions.
Tuesday and Thursday workouts are scheduled around the online Chinese classes. Attendance is mandatory.
"Ryan took Mandarin Chinese through middle school and we didn't find out until fall that it was only offered from 5-6 p.m. in the spring," Gary McDonald said. "It seemed like a waste of time to stop one language study and have to start another."
If some people see Ryan McDonald's decision to leave the West Ashley High School baseball team as selfish, he has an opposite view.
"If I never showed up to Tuesday or Thursday practices, that's not fair to my teammates," he said. "I believe you should be at every single practice and I didn't want to feel like I got any special treatment."
McDonald said he might return to the West Ashley team as a junior.
"I really want to," he said, "but I still have another year of Chinese. I don't know. I'm taking it day by day."
Not many families find themselves in the McDonalds' situation.
The sophomore has a baseball scholarship offer on the table.
The parents own a baseball academy.
Mandarin Chinese requires diligent translation.
"It's unique," Gary McDonald said. "The majority of kids are going to play high school baseball. But there is going to be a small percentage that see that high school baseball isn't as important to them as some other things."
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff