Chemistry, selflessness give LHS baseball opportunity to host regionals

LHS center fielder Payton Cummins (11) bumps fists with a teammate during a home game against Olathe West on March 28, 2019.

Moments before his first game of the season, Lawrence High freshman pitcher Grant Cleavinger was battling nerves during warmups.

Senior utility player/pitcher Chris Ritter, who was a first-time varsity player himself, took the time to put his arm around Cleavinger and pump the rookie hurler up before the opener. It is a moment that still sticks with head coach Brad Stoll, as the LHS baseball team prepares to host regionals Thursday after a successful regular season.

“Here is a senior that never played, pumping up a freshman that is getting a start,” Stoll said. “Some people could pout, some people could be jealous. There is none of that with this group of kids. There is no jealousy or hard feelings. As long as we get a (win), they don’t care.”

There are countless scenes just like that for the Lions (14-6) throughout their 2019 campaign.

In a game against Olathe South, Stoll elected sit senior catcher Colby Stumma and junior catcher Ryan Lauts to give sophomore Karson Green an opportunity behind the dish. When Green recorded a hit, Stumma and Lauts were the first two players to congratulate Green when he made his way back to the dugout.

That selflessness was instrumental during Lawrence’s nine-game win streak after starting the year with a 3-4 clip. It is the biggest key to the team hosting regionals, despite having to replace 90% of its pitching production and multiple key offensive players from last year.

“Everybody is just playing for each other,” senior outfielder Payton Cummins said. “Nobody really cares about who gets the credit. We just want to win. Everybody does what they can to pitch in and help, even the people that aren’t on the field. Everybody finds a way to contribute.”

But that camaraderie has been many years in the making for this ball club.

Cummins played on the C-team during his freshman campaign along with many members of the 2019 senior class, which is now made up of nine members. Ritter, Cummins, Stumma, Garrett Romero, Caleb Mondi, Preston Harris, Hank Dobson, Jackson Hewins and Ethan Rorabaugh are all entering their final postseason.

“It as much of a family for a team that I have been a part of,” Cummins said. “That (c-team experience) gave us confidence going into this year. We knew we could play well together.”

The commitment was evident before the first pitch of the season was even thrown. In January, LHS players took part in yoga and mindfulness under the guidance of Tami Nevels in the mornings.

“We really built that team bond in the preseason,” Mondi said. “Once the season started, it was just like playing with a bunch of your friends like backyard baseball.”

The underclassmen have followed suit, too. Sophomores Devin Neal and Carlos Vasquez have anchored the top of the lineup for much of the year. Juniors Jake Miller and Aidan Bannister have consistently delivered on the mound when called upon.

Most of all, players are having fun on the diamond. That mindset has allowed LHS to thrive in late-game situations and mount multiple comeback efforts. Lawrence has played in 10 one-run games, and come away with five victories in such scenarios.

“That’s what gets us through,” Stoll said. “When we are in those games, that camaraderie and that closeness pays off. The thing I appreciate about these guys is that there is never any panic at all.”

As a result, Lawrence is equipped to handle just about any situation this week during regionals. LHS, the No. 3 seed in the 6A West, will face No. 14 Wichita North (7-11) at 3:30 p.m. Thursday for the regional opener.

With a win, Lawrence would face the winner of No. 6 Washburn Rural (11-5) and No. 11 Garden City (11-9) at 5 p.m. Thursday for a chance at the program’s first state berth since 2012.

“We are still slept on even after we had our streak,” Mondi said. “My whole family went to LHS and every single one played baseball here. So it is really important to me. Coach Stoll is like a father to me. Since this is his first time hosting a regional here, I think it would be super special.”

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