Among the south deanery parishes, St. Roch is not exactly considered a baseball factory. Most years, they are unable to field a CYO team. In the others, winning records have been few and far between. Yet, this year’s Roncalli varsity team is full of Rockets. They run the gambit of bench players, everyday starters, and potential first-round draft picks. Feeding off each other, they are quietly helping to push this year’s team back to Victory Field.
For four juniors, it has been a dream come true. Many of them have been playing travel baseball together dating back to fifth grade. Aside from being classmates, they have grown up in the game together.
Jacob West (11) shared, “We’ve watched each other develop over all of these years. It’s been awesome to see my friends’ hard work pay off.”
“It really is amazing,” added Tommy Hansen (11). “We have such great chemistry. It’s cool to see how far we’ve come since grade school.”
These sentiments were echoed by pitchers Casey Donovan (11) and Erik Hommel (11), both of whom stated this added level of familiarity gave them a comfort and advantage most teams do not enjoy.
While freshman Dom Brown is the youngest on the team, he knew many of the St. Roch alum pretty well thanks to having a sister in the junior class. Being able to turn to these familiar faces eased his transition into the varsity lineup so early in his career.
“Right when I stepped in the door, they were there for me,” Brown confided. “I was so nervous, but they helped me calm down. They told me to just go out there and play, which I did.”
In fact, he has played pretty well. Typically batting fifth, he has seen regular playing time at third base, right field, and designated hitter. He is hitting .301 on the season with three home runs and six doubles – outstanding numbers for a ninth grader.
“At the beginning of the year, I only expected to see some playing time in games that didn’t matter,” Brown shared. “The biggest lesson I’ve learned so far is always to be ready when your name is called. No matter what your job is, always train and put the work in like you’re the best player on the field.”
Brown credits his parents for his desire to put his best self forward consistently.
“They use the tough times I experience to serve as lessons. Also, we always go to Mass together. I feel like that has had a huge impact on who I am as a person today.”
Hommel and Donovan also pointed to their parents as continuing to play a huge role in their development, both on and off the field. They noted appreciation for all of their parents’ support and the lessons they continue to teach them.
Hommel is enjoying a productive year for the Rebels. He leads the team in wins (6) and innings pitched (41.1). On top of that, he even has a home run to show from his three at-bats.
“It was against Guerin Catholic,” Hommel recalled. “The pitcher floated a fastball down the middle, and I jumped on it.”
Donovan has not seen as much action, but both of his times on the bump have been memorable.
“My favorite memory from this season was making my varsity debut on the mound against Speedway in the county tournament,” explained the junior. “I wasn’t nervous, but I was trying to get through the inning as quickly as possible.”
He survived his first outing unblemished, only giving up one hit and a hit batsman while striking out one. His next time out, he went for five innings against Lawrence Central, earning his first varsity win.
Hansen burst on to the national scene last year by hitting three consecutive grand slams – a feat never before accomplished by a high school player. The achievement was significant enough to earn a shout-out in Sports Illustrated. This season, he is hitting .313 with an OPS of .946 while often handling right field and designated hitter responsibilities.
He credits his success to the lessons he has learned from his father, Bishop Chatard’s principal, Joe Hansen.
“The biggest thing he’s taught me is how to be a man, how to handle myself in tough situations – which I face all of the time in baseball,” detailed Hansen. “I also really appreciate how he is always willing to play catch with me, workout with me, or throw BP to me.”
Jacob West serves the squad in a more behind-the-scenes role – bullpen catcher and bench hype man. Whether it is providing some lighthearted chatter from the bench or figuring out the other team’s signs, West takes his role seriously.
“I just try to stay positive and keep everybody in the dugout engaged,” West declared.
Having been a starter for most of his career, West credits senior teammate Hank Daniel as being a great mentor and leader for him personally.
“Hank has taught me to be humble and set my pride aside in order to be a good teammate. He’s a hard worker who always puts the team first,” credits West. “He’s inspired me to recognize and fill my role on this team.”
Daniel is not the only senior team members look to for direction. There is no question who the undisputed leader of the team is – the Gatorade Indiana Player of the Year, Nick Schnell.
Since graduating from St. Roch, Schnell has levied an all-out, four-year assault on the Roncalli record book. As it currently stands, he is the career leader in hits, runs, walks, home runs and RBIs. He also holds the single-season records for home runs, runs scored, and walks. It is highly likely he will finish the season with the highest single-season and career batting averages in program history.
Offered a scholarship to Louisville as a sophomore, Schnell has long been on the national radar. That said, his stock has exploded in the past few months. One mock draft from December showed him going to the Mets with the 77th pick. In early March, Baseball America declared Nick one of the top two high school hitters in the country. Recently, he has been projected as going anywhere from 14th to 28th in this weekend’s draft.
Ability aside, it is his relentless work ethic that both set him apart and serves to inspire his teammates.
“Playing with Nick has really helped me in every aspect of my game,” Brown testified. “Watching him work and the way he does everything has set the standard for me.”
“He’s just got a crazy energy and winning mentality that’s fun to be around,” Hansen added.
“He’s a tremendous talent, but I believe our players have also learned from him how hard one has to work to be that good,” offered Roncalli’s head coach, Aaron Kroll. “I thought Nick had a chance to be a first round pick his sophomore year, not just because of his talent, but I knew how hard he worked.”
The significance of his role and the impact his work ethic has on his teammates is not lost on the 6’2” senior.
“Knowing that all of these younger guys are looking up to me makes me work that much harder,” said Schnell. “I know if they see me working hard, then they will too. I try to lead by example, giving 120% every day. That way when I step on the field, I know I am going to be able to do the most I can do every day.”
While leading by example, he also makes it a point to share his knowledge and insights with his teammates.
“He knows so much about the game and takes the time to work with me on my stuff that I need help with,” reported Hansen. “We talk about my swing, how to improve my positioning in the outfield, and my mentality, which is very cool.”
“Watching his mechanics and asking him about my swing has greatly improved my game,” added Brown.
Hommel also echoed, “Nick is such a great leader. He really knows how to lift everyone up when they need it. When he sees something the other team is tipping off, he always shares it so that everyone can exploit it.”
“I think talking about these things is really important,” explained Schnell. “I remember when I was an underclassman, I learned so much from the older players on the team. I now try to relay this knowledge I gained to the younger guys. If successful, maybe they can do the same when they are upperclassmen, and the cycle will continue.”
Nick credits his older brother Aaron as his inspiration. A multi-sport varsity athlete and natural leader, Aaron graduated from Roncalli in 2014 before heading to Belmont to continue his baseball career. A top performer in the classroom as well as in athletics, he served as a phenomenal case study for Nick to emulate.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I followed him everywhere. I probably annoyed him lot,” Nick reminisced. “But growing up, I just strived to be like him. He helped me grow as both a baseball player and young man.”
When asked what he hopes his legacy will be after he moves on, Schnell stated, “I want to be remembered as not only a great player on the field, but just as good of a person off of it – a good role model for kids to look up to.”
“He’s just a really special kid. We’re really going to miss him,” reported Kroll. “The impact he’s had on this program will carry on well past his time here.”
With solid leadership, a determined resolve, and a selfless core, these Rocket-powered Rebels are set to accomplish great things over the next few weeks. Go Rebels.