Lee’s Summit baseball coach Jim Mellody has taken a team to the state tournament before. As he recalls, it was all a blur.
“We got off the bus, and immediately the tournament directors and handlers are telling you, you need to go here, you need to do this and the next thing you know you’re playing baseball,” Mellody said. “There’s no time to enjoy the moment.”
Mellody wants to savor it this time, and not just because he and the Tigers haven’t been there since 2005. This for him is a special team, and he wants them to have a special time. That’s why the Tigers left town Thursday for suburban St. Louis, even though they don’t play Jefferson City until 6:30 tonight in the Class 5 state semifinals at CarShield Field.
Mellody doesn’t want this team to have the same experience he had in 2005, or when he went as an assistant in 2003. Both times the Tigers pulled up to field, hopped off the bus, played and left. This time, he planned a workout Thursday at nearby Fort Zumwalt South High School, where a good friend of his coaches, followed by plenty of hanging out time before heading to the park early to catch some of the action.
“You have that opportunity to take it in and see what it’s all about, so that were not in such a big rush,” Mellody said.
The leisurely schedule will also give the Tigers, 23-9, a chance to get acclimated to the state-tournament atmosphere, not that Mellody is worried about this team being overwhelmed by it all. Not with a core group of five seniors – first baseman/pitcher Ben Lock, outfielder/pitcher Dalton Hill, outfielder Zavian Hill, shortstop Austin Polina and pitcher Dalen Blair - who have been instrumental in leading the team and fueling its late-season success.
“Those kids have been playing varsity baseball since they were sophomores,” Mellody said. “They know what they need to do and they go and do it. And in the last month, they’ve just done it.”
Lock has emerged as the Tigers top hitter, raising his batting average to .378 with a team-high 27 RBIs. Dalton Hill, who struggled early in the season with two-strike counts, has progressed enough to collect 25 RBIs and lead the team with three home runs. Polina is batting .340 and Zavian Hill is at .322.
“Ben Lock has been absolutely on fire the last 10 or 12 games,” Mellody said. “Dalton Hill has changed his approach. Once you got two strikes on him, Dalton was a strikeout waiting to happen. But he made a two-strike adjustment, changed his stance and I don’t think he’s got a strikeout in the last 10 to 12 games. It’s a credit to his hard work and recognizing what his weakness was.”
Blair has emerged as Lee’s Summit’s ace, compiling an 11-3 record with a 2.42 earned-run average. Mellody has several talented arms he can turn to such as Joe Vandenbos, who was brilliant in pitching a two-hit shutout to beat Platte County 1-0 in the quarterfinals. But Mellody said Blair is the one he trusts the most.
“He has an idea of what he wants to do every time he takes the ball,” Mellody said. “The other guys have got good stuff, but Dalen puts it in spots, he tries to outthink hitters, he’s thinking two or three pitches ahead.”
Lee’s Summit has already faced Jefferson City once before this season. The Tigers got drubbed in that April 1 contest 11-1, but Mellody believes that score is a little misleading. The Tigers had played a game the night before and lost in nine innings against Staley before playing the 29-2 Jays later that day.
That loss doesn’t even enter their minds now. Mellody said this team is more mature now, and their four-game postseason winning streak has made them even more confident.
“The kids are ready go,” Mellody said. “They want the challenge; they know Jeff City has been ranked No. 1 all year. And our kids want to play a good game and see what we’re made of.”
And Mellody wants his close-knit, senior-laden team to enjoy the experience.
“They like each other, they pull for each other,” Mellody said. “There’s no division at all. It’s a fun group to be around.”