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Izarra Living his Dream at Miami

Izarra Living his Dream at Miami

by David Villavicencio

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Every kid has dreams growing up.

Whether they want to be a famous actor or musician, a doctor, lawyer, pilot or even President of the United States, kids grow up hoping to reach their goals and make them a reality.

Like many of his teammates, Jose Izarra’s dream was to be a baseball player. But unlike his fellow Canes, Izarra did not grow up with aspirations of suiting up in orange and green at Mark Light Field.

Izarra grew up wanting to be like legendary shortstop Omar Vizquel, but life in his native Venezuela had him and his mother looking for better opportunities.

“The situation that was happening over there was bad,” Izarra said. “People were getting sick and we didn’t have medication for it, people being hungry and dying. My mom wanted to support me to have a better future for myself.”

Five years ago, Izarra, his mother, Lissette Criollo, and his best friend picked up their lives in Venezuela and relocated to Miami. Leaving family and friends behind, they struggled as they restarted in a new country.

“We were looking for a school so I could study right away when I got here, but it was hard; I’m not going to lie,” Izarra said. “We wanted to buy a house, but we didn’t have the money to buy one ourselves. So, basically my first two years, I had to live with some of my mom’s friends. I was sleeping on the couch or on the floor, so it was really hard for me.”

Despite the difficult situation in Venezuela and the challenges he and his mother faced when they arrived in the United States, Izarra always stuck to his core values and continued to chase his dreams.

“I always try to see the positive side of things and block out the negative stuff,” Izarra said. “I like to push myself to get better every day and I’m a family person, so I just focused on getting better as a person, as a student and as a baseball player and I made sure to support my mom because she always supports me.”

Jose Izarra and his mother, Lissette Criollo, came to Miami with little more than each other. Now, Izarra hopes to repay his mom for all the sacrifices she made for him.

Izarra enrolled at Miami Christian and began to flourish on the baseball diamond for the Victors. A two-time state champion, he was a standout shortstop that caught the attention of Miami recruiting coordinator Norberto Lopez.

“I was playing a game at Miami Christian and I saw coach Lopez in the stands. He called me later and told me he really liked what he saw and that he wanted to talk to me about my future and what I wanted to do,” Izarra said. “That is where it all started.”

Lopez is charged with bringing in Miami’s recruiting class each year and he saw a lot of potential in the gifted infielder.

“Jose is a super athletic kid with a high ceiling,” Lopez said. “He’s a really good defender and has good bat speed as a hitter. He has such a high ceiling and there’s so much more in there; that’s why I loved Jose Izarra so much when I recruited him. I thought that over the next few years with Jose, everybody is going to be like, ‘Holy moly. Look at this guy and how much he’s developed.’ The ceiling is so high with that kid and he really wants it and works at it.”

“It was really exciting to hear that from coach Lopez because I was really looking to go to a school in Miami so I could stay here,” Izarra said. “I really wanted to go to Miami so my family could come to see me play. After seeing coach Lopez in the stands that game, it made me give 120 percent on every play because I knew it was my chance to get noticed by Miami. And after talking to coach Lopez that night, I was really excited because I felt like I had an opportunity to go make my dream come true.”

Izarra and Lopez developed a bond as the coach recruited Miami Christian’s shortstop to The U. He got his first look at Miami on his visit and quickly fell in love with the school and its baseball program.

“My visit to Miami was awesome,” Izarra said. “In my childhood in Venezuela, we didn’t have all the things that Miami has. So, when I was on my visit and seeing all these things like the locker room and the weight room and the nutrition center and the field, it was awesome to me.”

Early in his senior year at Miami Christian, Izarra committed to the Hurricanes. Miami offered him everything he was looking for in terms of a college: a quality education, a winning baseball program with a history of developing players, and proximity to his family.

“I really appreciate the University of Miami for offering me a scholarship so I can go play there,” Izarra said. “I knew I wanted to go to college, and I was hoping to stay here in Florida so my family can see me play. I was looking at Miami, specifically, and reading all the history that they had with their baseball team. That got my attention to come here and now I’m living a dream for myself.”

As a family-oriented person, Izarra is very close to his mom and he wants to give back to her after all that she has done for him.

“I feel like my mom gave everything for me. So, it’s really important for me to give back to her and the way I can do that is by going to school, getting good grades, and playing baseball,” Izarra said. “For me, that’s my way to say, ‘thank you’ to my mom.”

A career .358 hitter in his four-year varsity career at Miami Christian, the Miami baseball program is eager to add Izarra to its roster.

“When you get to the field, he’s going to stand out because he looks athletic in a uniform, so right away, he’s standing out,” Lopez said. “He’s playing shortstop so he’s standing out there. And he’s hitting in the top of the order, so he’s standing out there. Then you watch him, and he plays with a lot of energy and he hustles. He has a good internal clock when he plays so when you’re out as a recruiter, those guys that hustle and run hard and do all those things, they stand out. And then when you look at him, you say, ‘Man, this guy is very projectable.’

“He needs to get stronger, that’s the biggest thing Jose needs to work on, and he’s already started doing that since he got here and started working with our strength coach, H.R. [Powell],” Lopez added. “When you see all these things and you add it all up, that’s why I fell in love with him so much and why we are so excited to have him here.”

The energy Izarra brings on the field comes naturally, but also is derived from the style of play his favorite shortstops exhibit when they’re on the field.

“Being from Venezuela, I look up to Vizquel, but of the guys playing right now, my favorite shortstops are [Francisco] Lindor and [Fernando] Tatis,” Izarra said. “I see how they put everything they have, like 100 percent into every play. They make the game so fun and that fun gets into you. You want to play like them so you can inspire other people to play like them, too.

“When I’m on the baseball field, I try to give everything I have in myself but still have fun,” Izarra added. “It’s just a game and games should be fun, so I try to do that when I play.”

Izarra made a lot of plays in the fall, showing an ability to be an impact player on the field and at the plate, but the biggest benefit of the fall was an opportunity to build relationships with his new team.

“The fall was awesome just because I was finally here and playing baseball again and getting to know my teammates,” Izarra said. “At the beginning, it was a little scary because I was the new guy and didn’t really know anybody. But once we started playing in the fall, I met all the guys and they welcomed me. The team really came together this fall and I’m really looking forward to the spring and my first season.”

On the field, Izarra developed all aspects of his game. While he was considered a good prospect coming out of high school, he has worked hard to elevate his game ahead of his first collegiate season.

“I feel like I got better on my defense and especially with my hitting this fall,” Izarra said. “I feel like my hitting is much better than it was in high school. I worked with coach Lopez a lot during the fall on my timing and keeping my hands back. We also worked on my approach and I feel like I am so much better now after the fall than I was before.”

Lopez saw an improvement in Izarra’s strength from when he arrived at Miami in August to when he finished the fall semester in December. Like many freshmen, Izarra has made significant gains after spending time in the collegiate training system.

“I think H.R. is doing a hell of a job in getting him stronger and I think the nutrition that we provide here is going to help him, too. With Jose coming here and having access to our nutrition room, our refueling station and the meals we provide on days we can give the guys meals, that helps him gaining weight and he’s getting stronger having access to H.R. in the weight room and a proper strength training program.”

Izarra struggled some initially, as he was not accustomed to such a rigorous strength and conditioning program and player development work. But he got up to speed quickly and saw the benefits of his hard work come to fruition, motivating him to work even harder to continue evolving as a player.

“At the beginning, it was really hard because it wasn’t what I was doing at my high school,” Izarra said. “It was new, different, and challenging compared to what we did at my high school. At Miami, we have a lot of things to do but I feel like I got better at it with time and trusting the process that they have for us. I accepted the plan that they have for me and we went from there.”

A shortstop in high school, Izarra has the athleticism and ability to play all over the infield. While his natural position is at shortstop, he can also play second base and third base, giving him a lot of position flexibility.

“He has tremendous instincts in the field,” Lopez said. “He plays hard, which some guys don’t like to play hard. Jose plays all out, all the time and he gets after it; he’s a grinder. Defensively, he has good footwork, he moves well, he has good hands, very soft hands and he has a good, explosive arm.”

While his goal is to be the starting shortstop at Miami one day, Izarra is the consummate team player and will play wherever the Hurricanes need him.

“I will be playing whatever the coach wants me to play,” Izarra said. “For me, it’s about always giving 100 percent of myself on every play, and that means in every position as well.”

Izarra’s ability to play all over the diamond creates more opportunities for him to earn his way into the lineup. It also lengthens Miami’s roster by having a player that can fill in at a variety of positions.

“Jose’s versatility gives us depth, Lopez said. “If somebody goes down and gets hurt, we know we can plug Jose in. We’ve never had the depth that we have right now. We can move him around anywhere. If you have that and he shows that he hits more than someone else, now we could put him somewhere else because he earned it.”

Add in the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and a player with the ability to fill in at multiple positions becomes extremely important to a ball club.

“With COVID still around in the world, we know there is the possibility of guys not being available to play all the time,” Lopez said. “You don’t know what team you’re going to have available to you every day, so having versatility is huge. Jose gives us more depth in every single position on the infield. Having a guy that can play multiple positions, especially in a year like this with COVID, that guy is very valuable for the team.”

I felt really awesome when I committed and signed to come to Miami. I felt like part of my dream was coming true."

Jose Izarra

Regardless of where he plays, Izarra’s focus is on getting better as a player and helping his team improve, too. With the deepest roster in recent history, competition is fierce at all positions and that has brought out the best in every player wearing a Miami uniform.

“We have really great players in the infield, so we all make ourselves better by competing with each other,” Izarra said. “We are all pushing each other every day and that has helped all of us to get better.”

With the start of the 2021 season quickly approaching, Izarra is eager to show what he can do against the elite competition Miami faces in the ACC and beyond.

“I’m really looking forward to the competition that we’re going to have,” Izarra said. “When I was in high school, some people would say, ‘He’s really good, but he’s not playing against a lot of competition,’ because my school was in Class 2A. So, I’m looking forward to proving to everybody that doubted me back then that I’m really a good player that can play well against every competition that there is.”

While he has been at Alex Rodriguez Park a lot since he enrolled at Miami in August, Izarra has spent years imagining what it would be like to finally play in a game as a Hurricane and he cannot wait for that moment to arrive.

“To be honest, I might be a little scared that first time I step on the field to play but I think it’s going to feel awesome,” Izarra said. “It’s been my dream to play here and now I’m going to live that dream.”