Senior staff writer
There were two turning points in Roncalli’s baseball season that propelled the Rebels to Friday’s 7:30 p.m. Class 4A state championship baseball game against No. 1 Zionsville (30-4) at Victory Field.
The Rebels stood 6-5 midway in the regular season when second-year coach Aaron Kroll again encouraged his team to play up to expectations. Kroll was trying to combine 10 seniors and a deep pitching corps with a blend of seasoned sophomores and juniors.
“We asked our guys at that point to just stick together,” Kroll recalled. “They made a commitment to do that and now they’re seeing the reward.”
They won 11 of their next 14 games and finished the regular season with a 16-9 record. Their last regular-season loss to Terre Haute North, 10-1 May 21, amazingly led to their surging turnaround of six playoff wins by scoring 59 runs.
“This is a senior-laden group,” Kroll remarked. “After that last regular-season game, they came together. We had struggled dearly, lost a lot of close games, but we put together a tough schedule for moments like this and we feel it has paid off.”
The Rebels latest moment came Saturday as they battled Center Grove (25-4) for eight innings before emerging with an 8-5 semistate triumph.
The Rebels built a 3-0 lead after three innings, fell behind 4-3 after six, tied it 4 in the seventh and exploded for a game-winning four runs in the eighth.
Roncalli rallied in the eighth after a leadoff double by sophomore Dylan Williams, an infield hit by classmate Mark Cobb and an intentional walk to senior Tyler Lucas to load the bases with no outs. Senior Jake Franklin drove in two runs with his third hit. The other runs came on a throwing error that scored Williams and a fielder’s choice that scored senior Robbie Strader.
Franklin’s three hits and sophomore Nick Schnell’s two hits resulted in four runs against Center Grove starting pitcher Jacob Cantleberry (7-1), who struck out eight in 7 1/3 innings.
“I knew he (Cantleberry) would come with a fast ball and curve ball, but I was trying to watch the curve balls and wait for the fast ball,” Franklin said. “I had trust in my teammates and knew we were going to win; we had been down in games like that in the season and came back.”
Roncalli starter Michael McAvene pitched seven innings but hit the Trojans’ lead-off batter and walked the next batter before giving way to relief pitcher Conrad Daniel. McAvene (8-4) gave up three earned runs, four hits and struck out 12, including six straight batters.
“We did the same thing we’ve been doing all along in this run to the state,” McAvene said. “I gave it my all and the guys gave it their all.”
The first batter Daniel faced in the eighth hit into a double play, but the Trojans scored one run before center fielder Schnell caught a fly ball for the final out.
Roncalli scored first run on a throwing error and Hayden Harper’s RBI drive to right field in the second. In the third Schnell drove in Franklin with a double and later scored on a fielder’s choice.
The Trojans retaliated with an RBI single by Ryan Sauter in the fourth, a ground-out that scored Ethan Brooks from third in the fifth, and a dropped third strike and Brooks’ run-producing single in the sixth.
The Trojans are coached by Keith Hatfield who moved to Center Grove two years ago. He was attempting to guide the Trojans to their second trip to the state finals.
“That was a great baseball game for both teams; you hated to see it end,” Hatfield said. “Jake battled the whole game, but it’s hard for a pitcher to get through a lineup three times, let alone four times.”
“We were fortunate to get the double play (eighth inning),” Kroll said. “That took a little bit of the pressure off. They kept battling back and never quit. It was really tough for us to seal the deal.”