Early in the season, coach Aaron Kroll had reason for concern.
Despite a talented roster, wins didn’t come easily or frequently for the Roncalli baseball team. The Rebels lost five of their first 11 games and scarcely resembled postseason contenders.
“We kind of struggled early, lost a lot of close games, five or six games by one run,” Kroll said. “We just kind of fought through it.
“We were able to stick together and keep things together.”
Story continues below gallery
Today, the Rebels not only look like championship contenders, they are championship contenders.
One of only four teams left in the Class 4A state tournament, the Rebels (21-9) are sectional and regional champions and one win away from reaching the state finals.
To get there, however, they have to get past a formidable and familiar obstacle — southside rival Center Grove (25-3).
Roncalli plays Center Grove in Saturday’s semistate at Plainfield. The winner advances to the state championship game.
In light of recent performances, Kroll likes the Rebels’ chances of moving on.
“Our starting pitchers have been fantastic all year long,” he said. “In the last few weeks, we’ve been really hitting the baseball well, and we’ve been strong defensively.
“We feel pretty good about all phases right now.”
For Roncalli, the timing couldn’t be better.
In Center Grove, the Rebels encounter an opponent who, like themselves, is unranked and playing at an exceptionally high level.
Center Grove survived the notoriously tough Evansville Reitz Regional and is in the semistate for the first time since 1996. The Trojans beat No. 9 New Albany 5-4 in the regional final and are on a six-game winning streak.
Roncalli, meanwhile, made it through the Decatur Central Regional and is in the semistate for the first time since 2012. The Rebels defeated unranked Pendleton Heights 12-6 in the regional championship and have won five straight heading into Saturday.
“Everybody’s feeling good about things right now,” said Kroll, who’s in his second season with the Rebels. “We’ve scored 51 runs in the last five games, so we feel really good. We’re confident.
“We’re where you’re hoping you would be this time of year.”
Although Roncalli’s offense has come to life in recent games, pitching has been a season-long strength.
Led by Purdue recruit and Major League Baseball prospect Michael McAvane, the Rebels have a staff ERA of 2.29 and collectively have struck out 247 batters.
McAvane, a senior, has a 7-4 record, a 1.71 ERA and 110 strikeouts. Senior Cody Smith is 5-1 with a 2.08 ERA, and senior Conrad Daniel is 5-0 with a 1.05 ERA.
Offensively, Smith is the top hitter with a .476 batting average and a team-high 30 RBIs. Sophomore Nick Schnell hits .442 and has 20 RBIs, and senior Tyler Lucas hits .323 and has 24 RBIs.
As a team, Roncalli hits .304 with a .435 slugging percentage.
The overall numbers reflect improvement from where the Rebels were earlier in the season.
“We just kind of kept working at it each day,” Kroll said. “Our guys stayed committed, and I just kind of feel like they’re being rewarded for that commitment right now.”
Roncalli’s reward is a shot at reaching the state finals and a shot at redemption against the Trojans.
“Two really good programs, lots of talent on both sides,” Kroll said. “We weren’t too happy with the outcome the first time around; we’re most definitely excited about getting another shot.”
What: IHSAA Class 4A baseball semistate
When: 3:15 p.m. Saturday
Where: Plainfield High School, 1 Red Pride Drive, Plainfield
Who: Roncalli (21-9) vs. Center Grove (24-3)