Christopher Snopek has played baseball as long as he can remember. The son of a former major leaguer, Snopek was seemingly born with a bat in one hand and a glove on the other. From an early age, he's spent countless hours taking batting practice, or fielding ground balls – all under the watchful eye of his father and namesake, who starred at Ole Miss and later played with the Chicago White Sox.
"Baseball has always been my thing," Snopek said. "I've been working at it my whole life."
So it should come as no big surprise that Snopek excels at the sport. The middle infielder led MRA in nearly every offensive statistical category a year ago as a junior, and he enters his senior season as the 12th ranked player in Mississippi for 2020 according to Prep Baseball Report.
What may surprise you is where Snopek, also a stellar student, will be playing baseball this time next year. He is taking his academic and athletic talents to the Ivy League, more specifically Harvard. Yes, that Harvard, the highly-prestigious college located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the one with instant name recognition and venerable reputation worldwide, where a myriad of political giants, movie stars, famous authors and entrepreneurs have attended.
"It's a very difficult school to get into. You have to have the academics, the resume, all that," MRA baseball coach Allen Pavatte said. "It's a great honor for him."
Snopek is believed to be the first MRA athlete to attend Harvard, or any Ivy League school for that matter. He carries a 4.5 GPA and a score of 32 on the ACT. Athletic scholarships don't exist in the Ivy League, therefore Snopek had to go through the regular admissions process along with thousands of other applicants in what year in and year out is a remarkably strong applicant pool. Once admitted, the decision was a no-brainer for Snopek, who also considered Samford, South Alabama, Georgia Tech, and Liberty among others.
"Harvard really popped out, obviously," Snopek said. "Once I found out that I got in, it was hard to say no. I think it's such a cool thing, a once in a lifetime opportunity. I wanted to go somewhere that was really strong academically where I could also play baseball, so it was the perfect fit."
Harvard's baseball coaches contacted Snopek via email this past summer to gauge his interest in the school and the program. They asked for his test scores, and his transcript and later came to watch him play in a Perfect Game Wood Bat tournament in Atlanta. They liked what they saw, and a week later extended an offer. Two weeks later, Snopek went on a visit and a week later decided that's where he wanted to go.
"I loved it when I went there on my visit," he said. "It has such an old school feel to it. And it was 70 degrees in the summer. I'm really looking forward to it. I think it will be a neat experience."
A near-impossible dream for some will become a reality for Snopek next year as a collegiate freshman when he trades in red and blue for crimson. Until then, he's got more pertinent matters to attend to such as finishing out his high school career - hopefully on a high note. MRA opened the season this past Thursday night with a 7-2 victory over Winston Academy in Louisville. The Patriots' next game is slated for this upcoming Thursday at home against the same opponent, weather permitting.
Snopek, who went 1-for-3 in the opener, is one of six full-time position players returning. The majority of the pitching staff also returns from last year's team, which finished 28-12 and advanced to the Division I championship series for the seventh time in the last 10 seasons. The Patriots opened last season with a 10-game winning streak, won conference series against PCS, Parklane, Oak Forest and Jackson Academy, and registered victories over Class 6A runner-up St. Martin, 5A runner-up Lafayette, a Warren Central team ranked inside the top five, and perennial power Oxford among others.
That was with a relatively inexperienced team as just two full-time position starters returned from the previous year. That's not the case this year.
"This is probably the most experienced team I've had since I've been here," said Pavatte, who begins his 10th season as MRA's skipper. "And we're faster and deeper than we've ever been. I think 1-9 our hitting lineup is probably the best we've ever been, we have a deep pitching staff. But the thing I like the most about this team is the chemistry is so good. They all have bought in, they hang out with each other, they go eat dinner with each other. They have tremendous chemistry.
"The biggest thing about this team is every player accepting their roles," Pavatte continued. "We have a lot of players who can play, and I can only play nine. It's a good problem to have, but at the same time they have to accept their roles on this team. I feel like we've got some guys who aren't going to start who could start for other teams. That hasn't happened here."
Pavatte celebrated the 600th win of his coaching career late last season, and also earned his 200th win at MRA. His team batted .318 and averaged seven runs per game. Meanwhile, the pitching staff compiled a 2.58 ERA and recorded 300 strikeouts. Those numbers should improve this season, although Pavatte and his coaching staff do have to replace departed All-Stars Cody Swanson and Bryce Ishee - Swanson played in center field, while Ishee split time between first base and third base. Pitchers Grant Case and Patrick Smith also graduated.
Bryce Chance, who led the team in batting average (.437) a year ago from his leadoff spot, returns in left field. He has been slowed by a nagging hamstring injury, opening the door for Tyler Starnes and Peyton Martin to also see some playing time at that position. Stone Blanton, a Mississippi State commit, takes over for Swanson in center. And Hinds Community College signee Justin Williams returns in right field. He batted .337 last season.
Jake Carr, who has performed at a high level during preseason practices, returns at third base. Southern Miss commit Niko Mazza (.325) returns at shortstop. He doubles as a pitcher, so when he's on the mound Snopek will move over and play that position. When Snopek isn't manning second base, that position will likely be occupied by Kaleb Lipscomb or Toby Trowbridge. Sam Thomas McInnis (.307) and Jackson Evers are expected to split time at first base, with McInnis also being utilized in the designated hitter role.
Steady Hayes Puckett (.295) returns behind the plate at catcher. He will be called upon to handle a talented pitching staff, led by returnees Josh Thomas (7-1), Brayden Jones (1-0), Hinds Community College signee Nasson Rodriguez (3-0) and Mazza (1-1). That quartet combined on 147 strikeouts a year ago. Reliever Kyle Savell (3-1), the hero of Game 1 of last year's Division I championship series, is also back, as is Carr (3-1).
Mazza, Chance, Rodriguez and Snopek were first-team All-Conference selections a year ago.
"We have about 14-15 players who can really hit and really play, and we've got a good pitching staff," Snopek said. "We're going to have to figure out how to play them all, but we have a lot of depth for sure."
Snopek, who bats in the three hole, led the team in hits (48), RBI's (40), on-base percentage (.534), slugging percentage (.684), runs (42), doubles (19), home runs (3) and walks (25) a year ago while splitting time between second base and shortstop. His .421 batting average ranked second on the team. He fielded at a .925 clip, committing only eight errors.
That's a far cry from four years ago when he struggled mightily after being thrown into the fire as a freshman.
"His freshman year he led the team in errors and had the lowest batting average on the team," Pavatte recalled. "We hung with him, though, and through hard work he's evolved into the player he is now. He's emerged as one of the top players in our league. I expect him to have another big year this year.
Snopek had 11 multi-hit games last season, highlighted by a 5-for-5 (4 doubles) performance against Oxford. As good as he was last season, Snopek sees room for improvement.
"I started off really hot last year, then I kind of slowed down in conference play," he said. "I think the conference teams got the scouting report on me, and were throwing me more curve balls early and things like that. I really want to try to stay more consistent as the season goes on this year. I think I struck out a little too much last year, so I'm looking for more contact . . . not just rely on the big fly ball every time. I want to put the ball in play more often, use my speed, and not strike out as much."
Pavatte has seen as much improvement off the field as he has on it where Snopek is concerned.
"He's definitely a leader on our team now," Pavatte said. "That's what I'm most impressed with about Christopher more than anything is his maturity and leadership is at a five . . . he's a five out of five. To me that's where he's grown the most in his game. That's what I'm most proud with him. Obviously, he's really good in the classroom, also."