By STEVE KRAH
Rick O’Dette is enjoying his new baseball home.
But he’ll always have a warm place in his heart for the old one.
After Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind., closed at the end of the 2017-18 school year and 1999 SJC graduate O’Dette’s tenure as Pumas head coach wrapped after 17 seasons, he and his staff found landing spots for about 30 players from the top-20 NCAA Division II program then found a job of his own in Florida — taking a few familiar faces with him.
While there are former SJC players now at all levels of college baseball, there are four contributing this spring with NCAA Division I programs not far from Gil Hodges Field.
Junior right-handed pitcher Quinn Snarksis wound up as starter at the University of Illinois.
Sophomores Noah Powell and Lukas Jaksich are both at Ball State University — Powell (who went to Mount Vernon High School in Fortville, Ind.) as starting shortstop and lead-off hitter and left-hander Jaksich (who went to Andrean High School in Merrillville) as a starting pitcher.
Sophomore left-handed reliever Jarrett Hammel is now wearing the colors of Valparaiso University. Hammel went to South Newton High School.
Junior Joe Kenney went to the University of Indianapolis — one of Saint Joe’s old foes from the Great Lakes Valley Conference — to be a starting second baseman.
“We miss those guys,” says O’Dette of his former players. “They were put into a spot. I stay in contact with a lot of them.”
O’Dette is now head baseball coach at Saint Leo University in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area. There are about 2,600 students on campus with many more connected in various ways around the country.
Playing in the powerhouse NCAA Division II Sunshine State Conference (along with Tampa, Nova Southeastern, Florida Southern, Palm Beach Atlantic, Eckerd, Lynn, Barry, Embry-Riddle and Rollins), the Lions were off to a 36-10 start and still fighting for a regional tournament berth in 2018.
“It’s considered the best Division II conference in the country,” says O’Dette, whose team recently took two-of-three in an SSC series against Florida Southern. (Saint Leo is) literally one of the best places in the country. The school looks like a resort.”
Just since O’Dette got there, there has been $35,000 in upgrade to the baseball facilities.
School has been out for two weeks and the team has been practicing multiple times a day in 85-degree weather.
Matt Kennedy, who served with O’Dette at Saint Joe in two different stints, is his top assistant at Saint Leo.
Former SJC player Morgan DePew is a volunteer assistant coach for the Lions.
Sophomore Amir Wright, a Griffith High School product and former Puma, is Saint Leo’s center fielder and lead-off hitter.
Once part of the SJC mound staff, sophomore right-hander Joey Antonopoulos is one of SLU’s top relievers.
Redshirt freshman infielder Danny Torres, a South Bend St. Joseph graduate, was already at Saint Leo when O’Dette and he rest of the newcomers arrived.
O’Dette hit the ground running when he arrived on campus in late June of 2017, signing 13 new players in the first six weeks or so. Six of Saint Leo’s signings for 2019 are from the Midwest, including Center Grove senior Mikey Wyman.
Among the many standouts for the 2018 Lions is junior Peyton Isaacson. The former Coastal Carolina University player is both a power-hitting catcher and closer for Saint Leo. Swinging from the left side, he has 11 home runs and has also used his right arm to notch 14 saves.
Senior second baseman Zach Scott is another head-turner for the Lions.
Isaacson and Scott are expected to go in the 2018 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft June 4-6.
Many folks with ties to Saint Joe have gotten a chance to watch Saint Leo.
“Pumas became Lions,” says O’Dette. “Alumni have been great. During the month of March, I bet I saw 25 alumni on spring break.”
O’Dette has been featured on the Top Coach Podcast twice — both at Saint Joe and Saint Leo.
After 17 seasons as his alma mater — Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind., Rick O’Dette is now head coach at Saint Leo University in Florida. (Saint Leo University Photo)