It may have been Friday the 13th, but bad luck was not a problem for Devon Prep’s Varsity Baseball team as they defeated Elk County Catholic at Penn State University for the PIAA Class A State Championship.
This small, private school, with barely 200 students, competed against schools with more than three, four and five times the enrollment, and went all the way to the state championship for the first time in the school’s history.
How did they do it? Great coaching, lots of talent, even more heart, and a secret weapon they called their “lucky charm” — the school’s ailing facilities director, Mr. Pat Nattle of Phoenixville.
The team started the season with high hopes, expecting their ace pitcher to take them far until he got hurt early on and didn’t pitch again. Then their number two pitcher got hurt. So, in stepped number three, Patrick Rohr of Audubon, a junior distinguished honors student who never expected to be in this position. But Patrick played better than he ever thought he could and the whole team rallied, finishing the season 15-8.
Going into the District 1 tournament, they suffered another blow, this time a personal one. Their beloved mentor and number one fan, Pat Nattle, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer at the age of 51.
Prostate cancer is the most common cancer among men and the second leading cause of cancer death among American men. More than 240,000 men each year are affected by the disease.
“It’s not curable, but it is manageable and containable,” Nattle explained. “I’ve got a good chance. My [PSA] numbers dropped significantly after the first two chemo treatments.”
After hearing about Nattle’s diagnosis, the young men on the team were looking for a way to show their appreciation and support for him. A former Phoenixville high baseball player himself, Nattle always took a special interest in Devon Prep’s baseball team. He personally took care of the field, often gave advice to the players, and supported them at all times.
According to Mark Aquilante, the team’s head coach, “He was a baseball player, so he loves the game. He takes so much pride in our program. The seniors go to him after every game and thank him for the field, when he was able to do all that, and ask him if he’s coming to the next game. Pat is very honest with the kids. I think they look at him as a mentor in a lot of ways.”
“He means a lot to us,” agreed Rohr, who has played baseball at Devon for three years. “He’s always taking care of the field and making sure we’re ready. Sometimes at a game when I’m pitching I can hear him yelling ‘good mix, way to keep it down,’ stuff like that. He played the game, he knows what he’s talking about. He’s just dedicated to us and we really appreciate it.”
When the team won the District 1 Championship for the first time in four years, Nattle was there cheering them on from the sidelines. After each player received his championship medal, there happened to be one left. “Let’s give it to Pat,” the seniors said. The rest of the team agreed. The entire team left the field, surrounded Nattle and presented him with the District medal. He was shocked and thrilled and near tears as were many of the spectators. Then the boys insisted he join the team for their official photo.
He couldn’t believe what was happening.
“When those boys came over to me, I was shocked,” he said. “It took everything in me not to break down. It’s just awesome for those boys and the coaching staff to think that much of me. I told Mark [Aquilante], as long as I live, as long as God lets me on this earth, that is something I will take to the grave with me.”
From that point on, Nattle was with the team for every game in the state tournament. He traveled on the team bus, ate with the players before the games and yelled support in his familiar, loud, raspy voice from the sidelines. The “lucky charm” was working because they won every game, bringing them to the championship at Penn State.
According to Nattle, “The strength of this team is togetherness. They never quit. They have a heart as big as the baseball field they are playing on. It’s awesome to see. If someone makes a mistake, an error, they never get down on each other. They are what Devon is all about.”
Two days before the state championship game, Nattle underwent his third chemotherapy treatment. But he was determined not to let fatigue or nausea or anything else keep him from going to Penn State. So on Friday the 13th he was in the dugout cheering on his team.
After several delays, the game finally got underway nearly 2 ½ hours later than scheduled. Elk County Catholic scored first in the fourth inning with one run. In the sixth inning, Devon Prep tied the game 1-1. That’s where the score remained as the game went into extra innings until Devon Prep Senior Chris Bauers stole third base with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
A rushed throw from the catcher to the third baseman forced an error. Bauers ran down the third baseline and slid head first into home plate winning Devon Prep the first State Championship trophy in school history with a final score of 2-1.
The team exploded onto the field, piling on top of Bauers as the Devon Prep spectators who made the three-hour trip to State College went wild. Nattle had been watching from the dugout, trying to take it easy. But this was the moment they had all been dreaming of and he wasn’t going to miss it. He burst onto the field, smiling from ear to ear, hugging and high fiving any player or coach he could reach.
Once again Nattle was part of the championship team photo. But this time he had an official title – Honorary Team Captain.
“As a former baseball player, and loving baseball growing up, to watch this happen, and for me to be part of it, was just awesome. It’s good therapy,” he said. “This was better than chemotherapy. I felt great watching the kids.”
After a long bus ride back to Devon Prep, which included an escort to campus by the Berwyn Fire Company at 1 a.m., Nattle finally made his way home. He needed to get some rest because at 9 a.m. the next morning, the first annual “Batting for Pat” whiffle ball tournament would take place on campus. Several students and faculty members had organized the tournament to raise money for Prostate Cancer research. They were doing this in his honor, and he wasn’t going to miss it.
“Pat is special to us,” explained Rohr, Devon Prep’s 2014-15 Student Council President. “He’s always in good spirits about everything, especially with the cancer diagnosis. He’s always been positive about it. He still came out and watched the games and cheered us on. He’s a special part of Devon for us. Any way we can help him we want to. He helped us a lot so we want to give something back to him.”
The entire team attended the tournament, some sporting State Champion t-shirts and carrying their new trophy. Over 100 alumni, students, parents, friends and relatives participated. Nattle spent the day talking to people, helping out where he could and thanking everyone for coming. Over $5,000 was raised, three times more than they had hoped, for “ZERO - The End of Prostate Cancer” (https://zerocancer.org/), a national nonprofit organization involved in prostate cancer research as well as providing education and support to men and their families.
“That was a great gesture,” said Nattle. “Whatever money was raised through the fundraiser, maybe will help someone else not have to go through this. I just hope there will be a cure someday.”
At the end of the day, Nattle was understandably exhausted. But he couldn’t have been happier.
“My wife, who has been my rock through this, was so impressed with everything,” he said. “She told me, ‘you must be doing something right down there.’
“But you know, they are my second family, the people at Devon Prep. Anything I can do to help a young man or lead him in the right direction to keep him out of trouble, I’ll do,” Nattle explained. “I’ve been getting cards and notes wishing me well from students and parents and alumni since I started this battle. It makes you feel loved. It makes me want to really fight. Over the past three months my life sure has changed… but for the better.”