By PAUL GOTHAM
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Johnny Ricotta‘s time as a Monroe Community College Tribune is nearing its end. His college baseball career, though, will continue.
Not that it was ever in doubt.
On Thursday, Ricotta signed a National Letter of Intent to attend Ball State University of the Mid-American Conference (MAC) in the fall of 2017.
“It doesn’t even feel real right now,” Ricotta said by phone on Thursday from the Muncie, Indiana campus. “It’s always been my dream to play Division-I baseball now I got the opportunity. It’s just crazy to me. I never thought this day would come.”
Ricotta will join a Ball State program which took the MAC West title a year ago and has averaged more than 33 wins per year over the last four seasons.
“It’s a great team and a great program,” said Ricotta who will study exercise science. “The facilities are out of this world. They fit me academically just as much as anyone else. I’m glad to be a part of this team.”
As a freshman, Ricotta earned Region-3 Division-II honors hitting .401 with five home runs and 61 RBI for Dave Brust‘s Tribunes. Last month, Ricotta smashed the single-season program record with his 13th home run of the season.
“He’s the best hitter I’ve seen at MCC in 12 years,” said Brust who has been a part of the MCC coaching staff since 2005, the last four as head coach. “He hits to all fields. He hits to all fields with power. He consistently hits the ball harder than any kid I’ve seen in 12 years. His swing is so mechanically sound.”
Ricotta will take the same path as Brust who went from Monroe to Ball State in the late 1980s.
“To follow in his footsteps means a lot to me,” Ricotta said. “Coach Brust was a great player and is a great coach. He’s had a great legacy and great career throughout baseball.”
A third-team NJCAA All-American as a shortstop in 1987, Brust played two years at Ball State where he was a two-time captain and MVP. His senior season he hit .342 with 14 home runs and 36 RBI to go with a .712 slugging percentage.
“He’s as passionate and as hard-working of a player as I was,” Brust said of Ricotta. “Last year he had five home runs, and I thought the next step was if he can more home runs, he’s ready for Division-I baseball. Man did he do it. He did it easy.”
Ball State head coach Rich Maloney has won more than 750 college games in a 22-year career including now his second stint with the Cardinals.
“I’m thrilled that he’s able to have a similar experience that I did,” Brust said. “I’m really happy that I was able to connect the dots for these guys. I think the world of Rich Maloney, and I think the world of Rico, so getting these two guys together that was easy. I knew once they got their eyes on this kid, how do you not like John Ricotta.”
Maloney spent seven years as head coach of Ball State from 1996 to 2002 before leaving to take on the same role with the University of Michigan where his teams reached the NCAA Regionals from 2005 to 2008 including a Regional Championship in 2007. Maloney returned to Ball State in 2013.
“He put in a good for me with Coach Maloney which means a lot coming from him because he was such a good player,” Ricotta commented. “I was looking for a school where I felt comfortable. This school has fulfilled everything and more. The facilities are ridiculous. Everyone seems to be a family here. Everyone knows everyone even with how big it is. It’s like I’m already a part of it.”
Ricotta joins eight teammates from the 2016 MCC squad who have continued their playing careers: Alex Bellardini (Youngstown St.), Matt Brooks (MLB draft of the Miami Marlins), Luke Brust (Tiffin University), Anthony Santoro (Youngstown St.), Alex Saville (Eastern New Mexico University), Collin Stack (University of Maryland-Baltimore County), Luke Tomczyk (UMass-Lowell) and Zach Vennaro (Mount Olive University).
“The program’s job is to give kids an opportunity to go somewhere and play,” Brust said of Monroe’s continued success in sending student-athletes on to four-year programs. “It’s the culmination of a lot of work, a lot of ups and downs. It’s the very first thing we talk about. Ultimately, it’s the goal of every single recruit the day we meet to move on to a four-year program.”
Ricotta, a Greece Athena alum, is first Trojan to sign with a D-1 school since Brian Dupra went on to play at Notre Dame from 2008-2011.
“I am very thankful for everyone in my life who has helped me grow as a person and a baseball player,” Ricotta said. “I couldn’t be happier with the coaches and teammates I’ve had over the years. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
For Jason Bunting, the long-time Athena head coach, Ricotta’s success has added significance.
“He’s one of my son’s best friends and he’s a kid who I look at as a second son,” said Bunting referring to his son, Justin, who is also a member of the MCC Tribunes. “For him to do that I’m really proud of him. Not that I’m more proud of him than anybody else, but it is a little bit more special when it’s a kid who has slept over your house a million times. It’s a little different.”
Ricotta is hitting .397 with 53 RBI and a slugging percentage of .822.
“When Johnny was younger he was always able to hit,” Bunting added. “Hitting came naturally to Johnny. He had that going for him. I saw a big jump in him when he went to MCC. I saw him really change his body and decide that he was going to make something of himself. He’s worked extremely hard at being the strongest player he can be and be the best player he can be.”
Dupra, a 2007 and 2011 MLB draft pick, went on to play five years in the Washington Nationals system.
Four Ball State Cardinals were selected in last year’s draft: Alex Call (3rd round-Chicago White Sox), Jarett Rindfleisch (9th round-Miami Marlins), Zach Plesac (12th round-Cleveland Indians) and Colin Brockhouse (37th round-Pittsburgh Pirates). The quartet of Cardinals were part of MAC draft class of 15 including Fairport’s Conner Simonetti (Kent State) taken in the 13th round by the Washington Nationals.
More than 50 Ball State Cardinals have been taken in the MLB draft through the years including current Arizona Diamondback Jeremy Hazelbaker.
Both Brust and MCC assistant, Cory Brownsten spent time in the Atlanta Braves system. Brust played three years with the Braves from 1989 to 1991. Brownsten had a four-year career with the Braves from 2010-2013.
Brust was an assistant coach at the University of Rochester in 2013 before assuming the head coaching duties at MCC.
Monroe hosts Ithaca College (JV) and Herkimer College this weekend before traveling to Mercyhurst NE next weekend for the NJCAA Region-3 Division-II championship. MCC advanced to the 2016 NJCAA D-II World Series.