College baseball players Garrett Cleavinger, Colin Toalson and Shane Willoughby all shared different versions of the same story last week, before the start of the NCAA Tournament. In their respective clubhouses and locker rooms at Oregon, Kansas and Youngstown State, each Lawrence product looked to a nearby television and saw fellow city native Tim Lewis playing for Maryland in the ACC Tournament.
Lawrence High alumni Cleavinger, a sophomore pitcher at Oregon, and Willoughby, a freshman shortstop at YSU, as well as Free State graduates Lewis, a junior left fielder at Maryland, and Toalson, a junior pitcher for KU, all represented the city this past weekend in NCAA regionals.
“It’s really cool,” Toalson said of having so many of his contemporaries in the hunt for the College World Series.
As it turned out, only Lewis’ Terrapins won their four-team regional and moved on to the next stage, the super regionals. Maryland will play at Virginia this weekend.
But each city player pointed to the baseball programs at LHS and FSHS as key parts of their development.
“I think it’s just the great competition,” Toalson said of what set the players up to succeed at the college level. “The two high schools are right across town. I remember as a little kid going to those games and thinking how cool it would be to play there.”
That attitude, the KU pitcher added, sticks with players all the way through high school.
Willoughby, who just completed his first season of college baseball, said it was an honor to represent Lawrence in the postseason, and all four of the players ended up in great situations at their different programs. He had hoped both Youngstown State and Oregon would advance, because that would have meant Willoughby could have faced former Lions teammate Cleavinger at a super regional, which would have been an “unbelievable” experience for both of them.
Willoughby praised the coaches at both city high schools and said he had a great experience in his four years, under the tutelage of LHS coach Brad Stoll.
“I learned a ton about baseball and about life,” Willoughby said.
Likewise, Cleavinger said Stoll and Firebirds coach Mike Hill teach players the game for years and prepare them to perform amid adversity. The left-handed Oregon reliever said the foundation for college success begins when city players are preps.
“I think it just speaks volumes,” Cleavinger said, “about the programs that we have in Lawrence.”
Lewis echoed those thoughts: “At both Free State and Lawrence High, the coaches set a high standard for baseball there. They get their kids ready for big-time stages like all four of us (were) in.”