John Knebels
Sports Columnist

As the days wind down toward the end of North Catholic’s physical existence, the Falcons’ baseball team is doing its best to help maintain a level of spirited excitement for the student body.

At 3-3 in the Catholic League Red spanision, North isn’t exactly a shoe-in to make the playoffs a few weeks from now. But considering that the rest of the spanision is in a bona fide logjam (three teams are 4-2; three are 3-3; one is at 2-4), it’s understandable for Falcon fans to envision some postseason play down the road.

If the Falcons do reach the playoffs, first-year coach Jeff Etsell will undoubtedly deliver a rather pointed history lesson that should serve as positive motivation.

“It’s weird how I can remember so many games from the past,” said Etsell. “I remember exact situations and the players who were involved. In some ways, it’s like it was yesterday.”

The most exciting “yesterday” in Etsell’s scholastic scrapbook took place in June of 1977. In addition to graduating from North Catholic, Etsell was the winning pitcher in the Falcons’ Catholic League championship and city championship.

While the latter was a 12-2 blowout over Northeast High, the former was arguably the most exciting game in Catholic League history.

North trailed Msgr. Bonner 2-0 heading into the home half of the last inning. A rally began, and seemingly out of nowhere, three-sport standout Leon Rysak smoked a game-winning shot over the center fielder’s head to score the winning run.

Etsell was on deck before Rysak’s heroic blast. He vividly recalls how his victorious teammates swarmed home plate, and he remembered how the entire scene was surreal because of the way North Catholic had entered the playoffs.

“We finished tied for fourth and had to win a pre-playoff game,” said Etsell. “Then we just ran the table. We ended up beating Father Judge in the Northern spanision championship, and then that game against Bonner seemed like it was over, but somehow we managed to score three runs at the end to win it.”

If North Catholic eventually comes close to emulating Etsell’s 1977 Cinderella squad, Etsell’s son, Ryan, will be the one making it happen.

A senior righthanded pitcher who has already committed to spanision I Marshall University, Ryan Etsell has been the Roy Halladay of the Catholic League. In his three victories, he has allowed only two runs.

In between was a 2-1 pitcher’s duel loss to St. Joseph’s Prep, as Pat Carbone fired a four-hitter and Kevin Melone provided both runs batted in for the victorious Hawks.

The younger Etsell, who this past summer competed in national tournaments along the East Coast, welcomes whatever pressure he may come under.

“I prepared so well that right now I feel great every time I’m on the mound,” he said. “I had some great experiences against some great players, so right now, I have a lot of confidence in my abilities.”

So too does his father.

“He’s the real deal, and he’s very easy to coach,” said the elder Etsell. “Whether it’s in school or playing baseball, he goes out and takes care of business. He has a lot of talent and great character, and he has great things ahead of him.”

Both Etsells are aware of how significant this year is, but they try not to dwell on it just yet. After all, there remains an entire month to enjoy the present.

“The tradition of this school is hard to describe, but it extends throughout all the neighborhoods,” said Dad. “The priests who taught us produced a lot of fine people who came out of this school.”

Son Ryan, whose two brothers are North Catholic grads, agrees.

“I knew I was going to North Catholic ever since I was a young kid,” he said. “I’m disappointed that I won’t get to come back and visit some of the teachers.”

At least he will always have daily opportunities to visit his high school coach.

“I definitely love this experience. It’s fun when we bounce things off of one another,” said Ryan Etsell.

Or when they take a trip down Dad’s memory lane, all the while hoping that something similar might occur in North Catholic’s ultimate final inning.

John Knebels can be reached at