June 4, 2010

'Better than the game': Special bond forms between Catholic school, public school on Indianapolis softball diamond

Softball players from Roncalli High School in Indianapolis and John Marshall Community High School in Indianapolis practice together on May 4. The special connection that has developed between the two teams once again shows “the amazing power of God,” according to a Roncalli softball coach. (Photo by Alan Petersime/The Indianapolis Star)

Softball players from Roncalli High School in Indianapolis and John Marshall Community High School in Indianapolis practice together on May 4. The special connection that has developed between the two teams once again shows “the amazing power of God,” according to a Roncalli softball coach. (Photo by Alan Petersime/The Indianapolis Star)

By John Shaughnessy

The situation could have led to resentment and embarrassment—a situation where both sides could have walked away in disgust.

Instead, it’s turned into a special story that has emotionally touched people across the country because of its pure goodness.

It’s a story best told by Jeff Traylor, a religion teacher and softball coach at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis.

During his five years of teaching and coaching at the archdiocesan school, the 28-year-old Traylor says he has been “blessed to see the amazing power of God time and time again,” but nothing has compared to the blessing that he has watched unfold this spring.

The story began on April 14 as Roncalli’s freshman softball team prepared for a game against a team from John Marshall Community High School in Indianapolis. At the time, the freshman softball team at Roncalli hadn’t lost a game during its past two seasons. For the Marshall team, it was the first softball game in its high school’s brief history.

As the girls from Marshall stepped off their bus and walked toward the field, Traylor—the junior varsity softball coach for Roncalli—was helping prepare the diamond. Before long, he started a conversation with one of the Marshall coaches, a conversation in which he learned that it was their first game ever, most of the girls had never previously played the sport, and they had only been practicing a short time—on a field that had trees growing in the outfield.

Looking at the Marshall players, Traylor noticed they didn’t have cleats, sliding shorts, long socks or good gloves. He also saw that the inexperienced coaches weren’t sure how to fill out the team’s lineup card so he helped them. Then he offered to stay in their dugout and answer any questions that the Marshall coaches had—an offer they accepted.

After one and a half innings of the game, it was clear that the contest was shaping up as a mismatch between a team that prides itself on a strong, winning tradition and a squad of inexperienced players who were just learning the game and wanted to be part of a team.

Traylor arranged a conference between Marshall’s coaches and the coaches of Roncalli’s freshman team. They talked about stopping the game and spending the time instructing the Marshall players in the fundamentals of the sport. There was just one problem.

“The Marshall players did not want to quit,” Traylor recalls. “They were willing to lose 100 to 0 if it meant they finished their first game.”

To show their sincerity, Roncalli’s freshman coaches, Sarah Barna and Laura Laycock, offered to forfeit the game and still spend the time with Marshall’s players—an offer from the team that hadn’t lost in two years. That’s when the Marshall players chose to forfeit the game.

“The Roncalli freshman team came over, introduced themselves and, with the Holy Spirit active in their hearts, took the field with the Marshall girls,” Traylor notes. “They were practicing hitting, pitching and fielding. I could see the determination and a desire [among the Marshall players] to just be better. As they hit the ball, their faces lit up. They were high-fiving and hugging the girls from Roncalli, and thanking them for teaching them [how to play] the game.

“They were having a blast.”

Traylor was so moved by the interaction between the two teams that he sat down the next day and wrote an e-mail describing the experience to the parents of Roncalli’s softball players and to the school’s staff.

“If you are still reading, you may be as teary-eyed as I was and I am right now,” Traylor wrote near the end of his message. “I tell all of you this story not only out of pride, but out of a sense that we can do more. I have some ideas of some great things we can do for these kids. I think every one of them deserves to have their own bats, gloves, cleats, sliders, batting gloves, helmets, all of it.”

Traylor then sent his message for help, never expecting what would happen next.

“The response was shocking,” says Traylor, a 2000 graduate of Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis and a 2005 graduate of Marian University in Indianapolis. “The e-mail spread like a popular YouTube video. I’ve gotten e-mails and phone calls from people all over the country. We’ve gotten massive amounts of equipment and monetary donations.”

On May 4, the Roncalli freshman softball team invited the Marshall team back to Roncalli so they could practice together again. During the practice, the Marshall players were offered all the gloves, batting helmets and any other equipment that they needed. But one of the true gifts of that beautiful sunny afternoon was the attitude of the Marshall players.

“When they came back the second time, the Marshall players wanted to show us everything they had learned, and they wanted to learn more,” Traylor says. “Their girls are so willing to learn. That willingness is a great testimony to the special things that are happening at Marshall.”

For Marshall’s principal, Michael Sullivan, the best part of the story is the respect and camaraderie that the girls from both teams have given each other.

The plan for the future is to continue the bond between the two softball programs. The plan is to also use the extra equipment and money that have been donated to help other teams and individuals.

“It’s an expensive sport to play,” Traylor says. “We can help a lot of programs in need.”

The unexpected outcome has fulfilled the essence of the e-mail that Traylor wrote regarding the first meeting of the two teams.

At the end of that message, he referenced this Bible quotation from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13).

Traylor then wrote, “After last night, through the example of the Roncalli Rebels and the Marshall Patriots, I feel that the presence of Christ on that softball field could have moved mountains.”

Everything that has happened since that night has increased and reinforced that belief.

“As a coach, I have a responsibility to teach a lot to my athletes,” Traylor says. “It goes beyond teaching a kid how to throw and hit. It’s teaching them how their faith and their belief in God can be applied in their everyday lives.

“In sports, we’re taught that winning is everything, and being the best is what’s important. We’re very strong as a program at Roncalli. We win a lot of games. But this time, it was bigger than winning, bigger than the game. Our girls knew that. It was more important for them to be there for another person and help them. The way everything has happened has been so moving for a lot of people, but for our girls it was so natural. They just saw it as what Jesus would have done.” †

Local site Links: