Nate Keller walked into the Spring Grove baseball coaching office after the team's final tryout with some hesitation. The senior knew how this conversation played out before.
During his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons, he'd busted his hump at open gyms, weight room sessions and tryouts. He'd done everything asked of him with a positive attitude. All three times, it was the same result.
The talent pool in his class was too high. He wasn't quite up to the caliber the coaches were looking for. They encouraged him to come back next year.
Most kids wouldn't, Spring Grove coach Eric Zeigler said. Most kids are humiliated, their confidence shattered.
But Keller isn't most kids.
"Every one of those years, he'd look me in the eye, shake my hand and thank me for the opportunity, and (say) 'I'll try again next year,'" Zeigler said.
When Keller came back a fourth year, Zeigler had never seen anything like it. He realized quickly that he couldn't say no. The starting positions were mostly decided, but Keller would have a spot on the bench.
"You wish as a coach that you could instill that heart and enthusiasm into all your players," Zeigler said. "He's the kind of kid I'll point to years down the road, as a kid who stuck with it and had a positive attitude. Every shot was his best shot."
Keller began playing tee ball at 4 years old, and is passionate about the New York Yankees. He models his work ethic after shortstop Derek Jeter, who plays hard even as he has slowed down because of age.
Keller didn't start playing baseball as seriously until his freshman year of high school. In a large school district like Spring Grove, that would put him behind even in a normal graduation year. But with 14 seniors on this year's YAIAA Division I-winning team, the class of 2014 was anything but normal.
Each time he was cut, Keller played summer and fall ball the following seasons. In addition, he took private lessons with long-time Major League Baseball scout Carmen Fusco at the Pro Baseball & Softball Academy in New Cumberland.
The second baseman considers himself a better defender than a hitter, but he said his offense has improved more since his first tryout.
"It really kind of fuels the fire," Keller said. "It doesn't make me angry, but it just lights another kind of flame. It gets me amped up to do better. When people doubt me, it makes me want to prove myself so much more."
Surrounded by friends, Keller said he never felt uncomfortable returning to tryouts.
Not long after he'd made the team, he got a text message from Will Maughlin, congratulating him for his achievement. "Welcome to the family," it read.
This season, Keller had three at-bats and recorded one inning in the field at South Western. He also pinch ran in the YAIAA championship against Susquehannock. It's not much, but for Keller, it's proof that he made it.
"It's a double-edged sword," he said. "Of course I want to play more, but there is so much talent on the team that I understand. I accepted my role before the season started, and I had fun. I wouldn't go back and change a thing."
Zeigler said Keller kept busy tracking down equipment, or cheering on his pals. Keller excelled in knowledge of the game.
"He'd watch during batting practice and tell me if a kid hit the other way or was a dead pull hitter," Zeigler said. "He knew things about guys he'd play summer ball against. He was almost like having a third coach on our staff. I'd love if he wanted to come back to coach."
Keller remembers fondly how, every time the team broke out of a huddle, they yelled the word, "Together."
"You can't imagine what it's like to be part of a family like that, where everyone is supporting each other and picking each other up," Keller said. "You have to experience it to really understand how a team really affects you, how being on a team can be life changing."
This fall, Keller heads to Alvernia University to study political science. He will try to walk on to the baseball team, but knows it will take even more work.
As for his high school career, he knows he won't be the name everyone associates with the Rockets' historic 2014 season. He only wants to be remembered as a kid who never gave up.
"Especially this year," he said. "The team we had, we never gave up either. We were down a few runs and we'd keep coming back. If you put your mind to it and you desire it, then it will come true."