JPII grad Jake Rucker selected in MLB draft

Jake Rucker, a 2018 graduate of Pope John Paul II Preparatory Academy, prepares to make a throw while playing for the University of Tennessee. Rucker was selected by the Minnesota Twins in the 2021 Major League Baseball draft. This is the third year in a row that a JPII grad has been selected in the MLB draft.  Photo By Caleb Jones/Tennessee Athletics

Jake Rucker’s baseball career has taken him to many places, from Williamsport to Knoxville to Omaha. Now there is a new destination: Minneapolis.  

Rucker, a 2018 graduate of Pope John Paul II High School – now known as Pope John Paul II Preparatory Academy – was drafted in the seventh round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Minnesota Twins. He was the 219th pick overall.  

His selection in the draft completes an incredible junior year for the University of Tennessee Volunteers. Rucker started 67 games for the Vols this year at third base, batting .330 and leading the team in hits with 90. He also set career highs in at-bats (273), runs (48), doubles (21), home runs (nine), RBI (55), total bases (142), walks (27) and stolen bases (7).  

Rucker, who started as a true freshman at UT, this year was named first team All-SEC, first team all-Southeast Region, and third team All-American. 

Rucker also helped lead the Vols to their fifth ever College World Series appearance, and first since 2005. It was his first World Series appearance since 2012, when his Goodlettsville team advanced to the finals of the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.  

“The College World Series was a great experience because all our hard work paid off,” Rucker said. “It was great to see the fanbase supporting us, and the field was beautiful. But it wasn’t nearly as cool as the Little League World Series, because I was 12 then, so playing in front of 50,000 people made you feel like a celebrity.” 

Rucker points to three things that have driven him to reach this point: faith, family, and hard work.  

“I just can’t thank God enough,” Rucker said. “I was following His plan and waiting for a phone call.”  

Faith holds a central role in his preparation and outlook on baseball. Rucker uses the Bible as an anchor to center his mind on game days.  

“It’s actually something I developed on my own in college. I needed something to do with all that free time,” he said. “I felt like I got a calling to be able to get back into the Word and share my experiences. Reading the Bible also gets me in a calm place to just have fun and do it all for the Lord.”  

Jake credits his mother, Jill Rucker, with developing his faith. They are parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes in Springfield, where Jill taught religious education for first, third, and fourth grade for nine years. Jake was an altar server and also helped out with the first grade class.  

“He’s always been kind to others, willing to help at home, school, church, and a leader on any baseball team he played on,” Mrs. Rucker said.  

Jake emphasized her help in developing that leadership mentality, however. “She always got on to my brother Carson and I about going to church every Sunday and being the best person you can be,” he said. “I can’t thank her enough for helping me become mature enough to understand the Bible, stay in the faith, and stay positive.” 

Rucker graduated from Pope Prep in 2018, and he thanked Coach Chris Parker and the program there with giving him the foundation for success at the next level and beyond.  

“JPII has always been known for baseball, it’s kind of why I went there,” Rucker said. “It’s a very successful program, and Coach Parker is always successful and a winner. He knows everyone and wants to coach everyone he can. Having his knowledge definitely helped me and Mason (Hickman),” who helped lead the Vanderbilt Commodores to the national championship in 2019.  

Parker was just as effusive in his praise of Rucker. 

“I think the number one thing he carries is that he’s a young man with very high character. Just a great kid,” Parker said of Rucker. “I called him to congratulate him on being drafted, and all he wanted to talk about was my son and his baseball endeavors. Not a lot of kids would do that.  

“He’s a family-centered person, and that’s a big tribute to Mr. (Andrew) and Ms. Rucker,” Parker said. “Very humble young man. All he knows is that he gets a chance to keep playing baseball, and now he gets paid to do it.” 

This year was the third straight that a Pope Prep grad was selected in the MLB draft, with Rucker following Mason Hickman in 2020, drafted by the Cleveland Indians, and Whit Drennan in 2019, drafted by the Houston Astros. All three played together on the Pope Prep varsity in 2015, then coached by Michael Brown, when Drennan was a senior, Hickman a sophomore and Rucker a freshman. 

“I think we have some kids with good ability,” Parker said. “The work ethic we teach them here in class and on the field helps them rise above. … We teach them to work hard, and that nothing comes easy. Those are two things you learn at JPII, and you take them to college and things are going to be easy.”  

Rucker is headed to Fort Meyers, Florida, to begin his professional baseball career with the Twins’ single-A affiliate Mighty Mussels. He hopes to spend a short time there before heading to Iowa to join the Cedar Rapids Kernels. 

Troops of St. George combine outdoor adventures and faith

Cadets with the Troops of St. George at St. Rose of Lima Church in Murfreesboro enjoy the view during a recent camping and hiking trip. The organization combines outdoor adventures with the Catholic faith for boys, teens and their fathers.

In a year where the entire world took a pause, one outdoors organization has swelled. The Troops of St. George at St. Rose of Lima Church in Murfreesboro has grown from three families to 15 as it finishes up its second year.  

The Troops of St. George is a fraternal, nonprofit apostolate for priests, men, and young men looking for a life of adventure coupled with virtue, combining outdoors activities with spiritual activities. The organization was founded in Texas by Dr. Taylor Marshall, a Catholic author and professor, and has more than 50 troops across the country.  

The troop at St. Rose of Lima was established in 2019 by three fathers, Chad MacIsaac, Ivan Ospina and Michael Arndt. They were looking for an outdoors community that was “authentically Catholic,” Arndt said.  

They also chose the Troops of St. George because of the involvement of the fathers in the program, Arndt said. Other organizations focus on stepping away from the father and becoming more independent, he said. “With the Troops of St. George, fathers are expected to be involved every step of the way.”  

Members of the Troops of St. George are split into junior and senior cadets. Junior cadets range from first through fifth grade, while senior cadets can be any age from sixth grade to seniors in high school.  

The troops meet every Tuesday night for prayer, exercise and games. The cadets are also expected to work towards physical and spiritual requirements, such as running or reciting prayers. There are also patriotic and masculine requirements, like knowing how to fold a flag or use power tools.  

The senior cadets have a camping or hiking outing once a month, with the junior cadets joining every other month.  

While these outings are usually individual achievement driven for the senior cadets, Arndt said, the junior cadets can expect lots of quality time with father and son. “For juniors, the point of the outings is fathers and sons working together, setting up camp, and playing games,” he said. “We really feel like the most important element at that age is brotherhood and the relationships being developed between father and son and friends.”  

Father Edwuin Cardona, associate pastor at St. Rose of Lima Church in Murfreesboro, celebrates Mass for the cadets of the Troops of St. George at the parish during a camping and hiking trip to South Cumberland State Park.

There is no prior outdoor experience necessary to join the Troops of St. George, Arndt said. “There are no requirements, and thank goodness. None of us came from an outdoorsy background, so it was a huge learning curve for us. My camping gear has gone from nothing to four tents.” 

For anyone looking to join the Troops of St George, or start their own troop, Arndt welcomes anyone who reaches out with questions. “We would love to see the Troops grow,” he said. “There are families that travel an hour here and back every week. It’s great to see people coming from so far away, but the distance can be problematic for some families.” 

The national website for the troops of St. George – troopsofsaintgeorge.org – also has plenty of information and start-up materials.  

Finally, Arndt said, anyone can join the Troop at St. Rose of Lima for a few meetings. “We believe in this organization to the depths of our souls, and we are willing to help anyone interested.” 

For more information, email Arndt at Michael.Arndt@mtsu.edu. 

Backyard grotto inspired by iconic Notre Dame landmark

Chris Casa Santa was inspired by the iconic grotto at the University of Notre Dame in his hometown of South Bend, Indiana, to build his own grotto at his home.

The University of Notre Dame and its iconic grotto have been important in Chris Casa Santa’s life. Inspired by the school’s grotto, he built one of his own in his Middle Tennessee back yard.

Casa Santa grew up in South Bend, Indiana, as a diehard Notre Dame fan. His grandfather even composed the music for the university’s alma mater “Notre Dame, Our Mother.”

As the years passed, the grotto became a meaningful part of his life. “I was around the grotto quite a bit when I lived up there, and I even proposed to my wife there,” he said.

On the 10-year anniversary of that proposal, he got the idea to build a grotto in his own back yard in Middle Tennessee.

“I had a friend who does the masonry work, and there was a place in Nashville that had a big scrap rock pile,” Casa Santa said. “If you could haul it, you could have it. And so I ended up getting about 17 tons of rock. We put it together in time for the anniversary and had an opening party.”

The initial project was completed in 2004, and Casa Santa has slowly added to it as the years went on. He works as a guidance counselor in the elementary school system on the U.S. Army post at Fort Campbell, so he has to save his ideas for the summer when he has the most time. “I keep getting ideas, and say let’s do this. The guy who puts it together just has to scratch his head.”

Since that initial project, Casa Santa has added an entrance, the Ten Commandments, and a crucifix. After these additions, the grotto is now made up of more than 50 tons of rock.

He and his wife Tricia use the space as a quiet place to pray while out in the yard. “I sit there at the grotto and meditate and say thank you for this. The Lord has been good,” Casa Santa said.

About five years ago, the Seminarians Education Dinner and Auction was looking for silent auction items, and Casa Santa decided to offer a Mass and group dinner at his grotto. It was a hit at the auction, and he has decided to offer it again every year since.

The item has brought in from $800 to $1,600 in the past, and this year dinner and Mass with Father Patrick Kibby, the senior priest at St. Henry Church, at the grotto brought in $1,050. For the first several years, the same person won the auction item every year. “The individual who purchased it the first time liked it so much that he keeps buying it to come back.” Chris and Tricia Casa Santa have been parishioners at the Cathedral of the Incarnation for more than 30 years. He will be retiring at the end of this school year after 41 years in the U.S. Department of Defense school system.

Father Ryan grad named to UT’s Volunteer 40 Under 40

Billy Haley learned the importance of service as a student at St. Edward School and Father Ryan High School. His commitment to service landed him in the inaugural list of the University of Tennessee’s Volunteer 40 Under 40, honoring alumni who have excelled personally and professionally since their graduation.

Others on the Volunteer 40 Under 40 list include former UT women’s basketball star Kara Lawson and former football stars Inky Johnson and Jason Witten.

Haley

Haley, a financial advisor and partner at Compass Advisory Group in Franklin, graduated from St. Edward in 1997, Father Ryan in 2001 and the University of Tennessee in 2006 with a degree in sport management and a minor in business administration. After graduating from Tennessee, Haley immediately began giving back to the university, eventually serving as the president of the UTK Young Alumni Council and as a board member of the Nashville Region UT Knoxville Alumni for more than 10 years. He also is working to develop an alumni chapter in Franklin.

Most recently, he and his friend Mason Jones of the Tennessee Alumni Board have been working with the university to establish an endowed scholarship for UT students from Father Ryan. Similar scholarships are already being developed for graduates of other high schools in Tennessee, Haley said.

Once supporters of the new Father Ryan High School Scholarship at UT raise $12,500, the university will contribute a matching $12,500 to bring the total to $25,000, the minimum endowment level. Any money raised above the $25,000 will go into the Father Ryan High School scholarship endowment to help grow the scholarship’s yearly award.

Earnings from the endowment would fund a scholarship awarded each spring to a member of the Father Ryan graduating class to help cover the cost of tuition, fees and room and board at UT.

For more information about contributing to the scholarship fund, contact Haley at haley.billy@gmail.com.

Haley attributes his enthusiasm for community outreach to his Catholic upbringing.

“I was born into the Diocese of Nashville. My grandmother even worked at the Catholic Center growing up,” he said. “I saw all the sacrifices that my mom and dad made for us so my brother and I could go to Catholic schools, and we will be forever grateful. We will be doing the same for our children at St. Matthew.”

Haley and his wife, Lauren, have three children, daughters Aldyn and Perrie and son Calder. Aldyn is in the second grade at St. Matthew School. The family are parishioners at Holy Family Church in Brentwood.

While a St. Edward student, Haley remembered, the former pastor Father Joe Pat Breen, frequently exhorted the students to “be your best” to serve others. He was able to put that into practice while attending Father Ryan.

“Day one on campus, the motto was Faith, Knowledge, Service,” he said. His community service culminated with a senior service project at High Hopes, a non-profit organization that provides specialized care for special needs children in the Middle Tennessee area. His wife works there now as a physical therapist.

As his time at Father Ryan came to an end, he immediately looked for a way to give back to the place that meant so much to him. He joined the Father Ryan alumni board, which he has served on for almost 10 years as a class representative.

His time on the Father Ryan board prepared him for his involvement with the UTK board, as well as his career as a financial advisor, Haley said.

When Haley received the honor of being named to the Volunteer 40 Under 40 list, he was quick to thank the people who helped instill in him the commitment to service.

“As soon as I found out about the award, I called my parents to thank them,” he said. “It was also important for me to call and email a few teachers, coaches and my guidance counselor at Father Ryan to thank them for the impact they had on my experience before UTK.  Even though it had my name on it, it is a team award.”

Haley’s experience in Catholic schools has had a lasting impact, he said.

“The decision you’re making (to attend a Catholic school) is a decision for life,” he said. “At Father Ryan, it was not just a four-year experience. All alumni are part of the Irish family for life.  My closest friends to this day are from Father Ryan.”

Watching his daughter at St. Matthew School and the priority the school places on service projects has made Haley grateful for the sacrifices his parents made to send him to Catholic schools.

“Students might not understand now, but later they’ll be thankful for the experience,” Haley said. “I enjoy continuing to watch Catholic school students have a positive impact in our community.”

Information about Haley and the rest of the Volunteer 40 under 40 can be found on the University of Tennessee Alumni website, https://alumni.utk.edu, under the Events and Programs tab. The online ceremony to honor the inaugural class at 12:30 p.m. CDT on Friday, April 30, will be livestreamed on the UTK Alumni’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.