KRAVITZ: Roncalli baseball star Schnell starts his journey toward realizing his Major League dream

Photo: Nick Schnell (left) and Coach Aaron Kroll (right)
Bob Kravitz

Around 1 p.m. Monday afternoon, Roncalli baseball coach Aaron Kroll called his star player and Indiana Gatorade Baseball Player of the Year, Nick Schnell.

"How ya doing?'' he wondered.

"Just sitting here on the porch, eating,'' Schnell said. A pause. "And trying not to throw up.''

"Let's meet at the field,'' Kroll said.

The field being Roncalli's La Pinta Field, where Schnell played four years of varsity baseball and established himself as not only the best player in Indiana, but one of the very best in the nation.

So why the nerves? Monday was the night of the Major League Baseball draft, and Schnell was seen as a player – a center fielder – capable of being drafted in the first round or early in the second round. He already has committed to playing for the University of Louisville, but the overwhelmingly majority of players chosen in the early rounds end up signing for a hefty bonus and going the professional route.

Turned out, Schnell needn't have worried, not even a little bit. He was selected 32nd overall by the Tampa Bay Rays, becoming just the 15th Hoosier native to be drafted in the first round straight out of high school since 1965. He became the first first-round pick from Indianapolis since Ashe Russell (Cathedral) and Nolan Watson (Lawrence North) were selected in the first round of the 2015 draft. Only five Indianapolis-area players have been selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft.

So what we're saying is, this kid can play. He hit .535 with 15 homers and 37 RBI, setting season school record for homers, runs (52) and walks (41). In his career, he set six more school records for average (.473), hits (155), runs (151), walks (101), homers (25) and RBI (109). In the process, he helped lead the Rebels to the state 4A title in 2016 and was a central part of them winning three straight sectional titles and the 2018 Marion County tournament. Roncalli won 91 games during that four-year stretch.

Now, though, it was Monday afternoon on a picture-perfect spring day, and both Schnell and Kroll were sitting in the dugout, the same dugout where Roncalli and Schnell have had so much individual and team success the last four years.

"Before you guys got here, I went to the backstop and took some pictures of the field,'' Schnell was saying. "Lot of good memories here.''

At this point, he was nervous with the Major League Baseball draft looming, with more than 35 friends, family and teammates heading to his Indianapolis home. Athletes like to think they can control everything, but this was completely out of his control, and that was giving him the jitters. "I could go from four to 40 (in the draft),'' he said. "If I was still playing (high school baseball), I could keep my mind off it, but once we lost (to Cathedral in the regional championship), everything started going through my mind.''

That's why Kroll and Schnell were sitting here with a visitor, just talking about baseball, talking about school, talking about nothing in particular – just anything to get his mind off what might happen later that night.

"Being in Indiana, you're at a little bit of a disadvantage just because guys on the West Coast and down South are always going to be more known; that's just how it is,'' Kroll said. "The fact he might go in the first round is really pretty incredible. It says a lot about his talents…Like I told one of the scouts, his ceiling is just crazy.

"He was born to play baseball. His sophomore year, I told some people I thought he had a chance to be a first-round pick and some people thought I was crazy. What they didn't know that I knew, was how hard he worked.

"I remember watching the draft in 2016 and watching (California high schooler Mickey) Moniak going first (to Philadelphia) and I texted Nick, "I don't see any reason why that can't be you". It's something I saw coming because of his work ethic. I've said this several times, including at our banquet: In addition to his talent, what makes him great is his desire to be great... He's got a good head on his shoulders and he loves playing baseball. A fair amount of guys get drafted because they're really good, but I wonder how much they really love it. Some of those guys don't work out because they don't have the passion to make it a career. He absolutely does, and that's going to set him apart.''

The scouts began coming around early in Schnell's senior year. In fact, just last Saturday, Cubs president Theo Epstein and Cubs GM Jed Hoyer gathered around the Roncalli batting cage to watch Schnell go through his paces. Schnell admits, the sight of all those Major League Scouts got him a little skittish, and while his numbers remained solid, he told me he felt like he was pressing to impress them just a little too much. Once he began relaxing and taking those scouts' appearances in stride, he went on a tear.

The homers came more easily and frequently, largely the result of having added 20 pounds of muscle between his junior and senior seasons.

"I had a scout tell me Saturday that nobody in the country helped his draft stock as much as Nick did this spring,'' Kroll said. "He's put in the work, and now it's just a matter of waiting.''

Turned out, the Schnell family and friends didn't have to wait long. He was selected 32nd, a spot that suggests the Rays someday see Schnell as their starting center fielder. Now comes the decision, although it figures to be an easy one: Go to Louisville or take the money and begin the journey to the Major Leagues. Most players choose the latter. It's fair to assume Schnell will do the same.

Wherever he goes, he's ready, even if it means being an 18-year-old playing baseball in Small Town America. "This is my life now,'' Schnell said. "It's all I've ever wanted to do. Wherever I end up, I'll be happy because I'm playing the game.''

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