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Next spring, Central Catholic’s Jake Rudnicki plans to be pitching for Ohio University, making good use of his baseball scholarship.
What happens with that part of his sports career — and his dream of reaching the major leagues — remains to be seen.
But to make certain of his next step, the senior right-hander made a personal sacrifice last summer.
When he had transferred from rival St. Francis de Sales in 2011 along with good friend Jayme Thompson prior to their junior year, Rudnicki was not only a promising pitcher but a talented football lineman.
He and Thompson, who would eventually earn a football scholarship to Ohio State, became starters for the Irish. While Thompson drew attention for his ability as a defensive back, Rudnicki became Central’s right offensive tackle.
Then came a fateful 2011 Division II first-round playoff game against Olmsted Falls. Rudnicki broke the tibia (lower leg) bone in his right leg. Surgery was required to insert a rod to support the fractured bone, but he healed in time to join the baseball team last spring.
The hard-throwing Rudnicki emerged as one of the area’s top pitchers, posting a 5-3 record with a 1.18 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 53 1/3 innings.
“We’ve had a few good ones over the years, obviously, but Jake is no doubt as good as anybody we’ve had,” said 27th-year Irish coach Jeff Mielcarek. “Last year he came in, his first year in the program, and it was a new situation for him, new surroundings, new teammates, and a new coach. It took Jake and I a while to adjust to each other. I can’t say enough good things about how he’s grown up the last couple years.”
Mix in a strong summer season pitching for the Brownlee Lookouts, a Cleveland-area-based travel team, and the 6-foot-3, 212-pound Rudnicki drew several scholarship offers from Mid-American Conference schools, including Toledo.
“My junior year was huge,” Rudnicki said. “Coming off my injury I knew that I had to get better as soon as I possibly could, so I could get my arm ready for the season.”
A solid summer season followed, then came Rudnicki’s big decision.
Concerned that another injury would kill his chances at securing a baseball scholarship, Rudnicki decided he would not return to the football team — at least as a player.
He committed to Ohio last September, then signed a letter of intent in November. By then, Central was well on its way to a 14-1 football season that would culminate in a Division II state championship.
Missing out on that experience was the sacrifice for Rudnicki, who still “managed” to earn a championship ring anyway.
When he advised Central football coach Greg Dempsey that he would not be rejoining the football team, Rudnicki asked if he could remain with the team as a student manager.
“It was a big loss to not have Jake back,” Dempsey said. “He was a starter, a good leader, a hard worker, a great kid, and a very good player. That’s difficult to lose.
“Understanding that he had [the scholarship offer], and he was at a position where the shoulders receive a lot of hits, it made sense. For him to still want to be a part of the team made me feel good. He still wanted to be around the guys, and he felt invested in the team. That tells me a lot about him, a lot about the kids on the team, and a lot about our program.”
Rudnicki’s manager role lightened the sting of his regret.
“That was one of the toughest things I’ve had to overcome in my life,” he said. “I had been playing football since third grade. Even though I really wanted to be out there with those guys on the field, I knew the smart decision was to sit out. Especially after my injury the year before.
“It was awesome being around that team. I was at practice just about every day. I went to all the team meals. It was still a great experience and one of the highlights of my high school career.”
This baseball season, Rudnicki has picked up where he left off on the mound. Through three starts, he has worked 19 innings and has yet to allow an earned run.
He is 2-0 with 19 strikeouts and has allowed just 10 hits and six walks. Central is 4-5 overall after an 0-3 start in spring-break games played in Florida, and 1-0 in the Three Rivers Athletic Conference.
Rudnicki’s latest outing came Monday at Central’s Mercy Field, where he worked his way out of two jams in a complete-game six-hitter in a 1-0 win over defending TRAC champion St. John’s Jesuit. He struck out five batters and walked one.
It was on that field last year where Rudnicki won a classic 1-0 pitching duel against St. John’s ace Jesse Adams (now at Boston College). Rudnicki fanned 12 Titans in a one-hit victory.
“Jake is still growing into the season,” Mielcarek said. “Last year when he beat St. John’s 1-0, he was better than when he beat them this time. I just think he’s going to get better when he gets into rhythm. Like everyone else, we haven’t been able to do that so far this spring because of the weather.
“I don’t think Jake has even come close to seeing the upside of what he can accomplish as a pitcher. He’s still learning what he can do. He’s got a great fastball, a great pitcher’s body, and he works hard. I’d be shocked if he’s not ultra-successful at Ohio University and beyond that.”
Rudnicki’s fastball was clocked at 90 mph at a showcase held at Walsh Jesuit High School last summer. He routinely ranges between 80-84 mph in games.
Rudnicki also has decent command of a curveball, a slider, and a changeup, but throws the fastball about 70-75 percent of the time. Bigger than locating his fastball, however, his success as a pitcher climbed when he stopped losing his cool on the mound when he encountered trouble.
“I just decided I didn’t want the other team to feed off of my negative energy,” Rudnicki said. “When I’m on the mound now, I want to look as professional as I can.
“When adversity comes, I just have to step back off the mound and focus on what I need to do to get out of the situation. I can’t get mad and show it if something doesn’t go my way.
“I want to take baseball as far as I can go. It’s my dream to, not only play Division I college baseball, but also to try to get to the major leagues. That’s been my dream since I was a little kid.”
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com, 419-724-6461, or on Twitter@JungaBlade.