From skates to spikes
NEW CARLISLE — His fascination with hockey started when he was about 5, when Roman Kuntz saw “Miracle,” the movie about the 1980 U.S. Olympic team’s unforgettable run to the gold medal.
Soon after, his family made the short drive to South Bend to catch a Notre Dame game and Kuntz was hooked.
“I fell in love with it,” he said.
For fans of New Prairie baseball, Kuntz is the hard-hitting right fielder for the Cougars. For followers of South Bend Riley hockey, he’s the defenseman turned high-scoring forward nicknamed “Little Kaner” (after the Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane) who helped the Wildcats to the Class 2A state title this winter.
“My cousin had played it, but other than that, (hockey) was pretty foreign to us,” Kuntz said. “My dad, brother and I are always watching baseball.”
Kuntz initially joined the Irish Youth Hockey League in South Bend at the age of seven. As he progressed, he started to travel, latching on to the South Bend Irish Rovers. New Prairie doesn’t have a hockey program, so in order to play in high school, Kuntz had to go into a player draft and was chosen by Riley, with whom he spent three seasons.
“I knew from day one,” NP baseball coach Mark Schellinger said. “As a freshman, I think he was known more as a hockey player. I went out and saw him play. It’s fun to watch. I’m not a hockey expert, but the kid’s pretty good.”
The Riley team was comprised of a wide range of schools, including fellow New Prairie student Sean Stone, long-time travel teammate Drake Ott from La Porte, who will be part of Purdue Northwest’s new program next school year, and Ott’s younger brother Owen.
“Drake’s a good friend,” said Kuntz, whose dad Brett was Riley club president the last two years. “The hockey community’s really tight. You get to know the guys really well.”
A back-liner until this season, Kuntz moved to the offensive third with some graduation vacancies in the Riley lineup and the change was a revelation for both. A speedster with a strong lefty wrist shot, the Wildcats’ No. 88 lit the lamp 27 times in helping his team to the 2A title. Riley blanked Indianapolis Brebeuf Jesuit 4-0 in the finals in St. John.
“It was nice having it close by,” Kuntz said. “A lot of people were able to go.”
The competitive seasons didn’t conflict, though there was a few weeks of overlap between hockey and pre-season baseball conditioning.
“It was a grind,” said Kuntz, a Cubs/Blackhawks fan. “With ice being so limited with all the teams out here, (hockey) practice would be 9, 9:30, then I’d come to 5 a.m. (baseball) workouts the next morning. We made it work though.”
It was never an issue for Schellinger, who sees the benefit of having players in other sports.
“I love having multi-sport athletes,” he said. “I tell all the time we want you to play in the winter. Whatever it is, we encourage it. There were times in the fall, winter workouts, he was going to hockey, and we were fine with that. Hockey’s a pretty demanding sport, it’s only going to make him a better athlete. There’s always going to be carryover. Just the mental side of it is big, the accountability, getting out there and competing. In hockey, you better compete or you’re going to end up on your back. You get a toughness out of that, and you see it. Roman’s tough. He’s a competitor. You see it in his at-bats. He never gives away an at-bat.”
The sports may not seem to have much in common, but Kuntz finds some parallels.
“Whenever I do something, whether it’s hitting or shooting, it’s with intent. That’s my mindset,” he said. “Shooting is pretty similar to hitting. You have to have a lot of core, use your legs.”
Like many all-season athletes, Kuntz prefers whatever one he’s playing at the moment, though he has committed his immediate future to baseball at Lake Michigan College.
“I decided to hang up the skates and stick with baseball,” he said. “Baseball’s the game I love. It was the best thing for me. Leading up to this year, I was really torn on what I wanted to do. I had some junior hockey teams, colleges, talking to me. It just clicked with me that baseball is what I wanted to do. I’ll still pop into the rink here and there.”