Bison two-sport protégé: Gonnella balancing football with pro baseball as true freshman running back
North Dakota State turning to Florida recruit to help carry the running-game load in first road game at Southern Illinois.
FARGO — People, those who paid attention to the high school football and baseball career of Dominic Gonnella, were constantly telling him to pick a sport. You can’t do both all the time, they said.
At some point, they said, one sport will win out over the other.
Maybe that’s true, but not now, not as a freshman running back for the North Dakota State football team.
“I stuck to what I wanted to do and never wanted to choose one,” Gonnella said. “I’m blessed to have the opportunity to play both.”
At some point after this football season and when his academics are finished for this year, Gonnella, from Riverview, Fla., will join the Arizona Diamondbacks organization as a center fielder. He signed as a free agent last summer with both NDSU and the Diamondbacks agreeing to his two-sport affiliation.
Right now, football has his full attention in more ways than one. With the season-ending knee injury to starting running back Seth Wilson and the departure of sophomore DJ Stewart to the transfer portal, the Bison need Gonnella more than ever.
He’s risen to the top backup behind sophomore starter Kobe Johnson for Saturday’s Missouri Valley Football Conference road game at Southern Illinois.
“He’s a big, strong kid,” said NDSU head coach Matt Entz. “Big, physical runner. He’s steady, he’s very good and I think we’ve only scratched the surface on where he can be. The more reps we can get him, the more comfortable he’ll become in our game plan.”
The Diamondbacks think so, too, in baseball. The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Gonnella received a $20,000 bonus, according to MLB.com. He hit .357 with two doubles, a triple and a home run in eight games for Bloomingdale High School, in Valrico, Fla., last spring in a COVID-19 shortened season.
Jonathan Mayo of MLB Pipeline said Gonnella’s athleticism and speed making him “an intriguing” addition to the Diamondbacks. If he does make the parent club, it may be awhile. Gonnella said the plan for him is to play four years of football at NDSU.
“And then see where it takes me,” he said. “I love both sports so it’s not really like a struggle or anything but it is something I love to do and I’m glad I’m able to do both.”
Gonnella has worked out at the Bison baseball hitting cage in the Dacotah Field bubble a few times thanks to the NDSU baseball coaching staff. He doesn’t know where he’ll be going after this college season because spring training for minor league players is still uncertain, Gonnella said.
He said the Diamondbacks call every so often to check on his COVID-19 situation and his weight lifting.
“They’ve let me be free with football so far,” Gonnella said.
There is no baseball element to his weight training at NDSU saying it’s “completely in Kramer’s hands,” referring to head strength and conditioning coach Jim Kramer.
There have been multiple high-profile football-baseball duo sport athletes over the years. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, while at Wisconsin, played minor league baseball for a New York Yankees affiliate.
“He’s gotten to the cages a few times but I think right now he’s worried about football and making sure he can make the most out of this spring,” Entz said. “He’s an unbelievable athlete.”
He’s a learning athlete. Before his first carry, Bison quarterback Zeb Noland had to get Gonnella lined up properly. And on another carry, he got a little high and took a hard hit from a Youngstown defender in what Entz called a “welcome to college football moment.”
But the fact NDSU is playing in the spring, and Gonnella had all fall and part of winter to decipher college football, has helped him in playing right away.
“The biggest aspect is football turns into a science,” Gonnella said, “where a lot of things need study and to stay on top of it more than high school. It’s more competitive within every week and every day.”