CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Players come from thoughout North America to be part of the Lee University baseball program that has become a perennial NAIA World Series contender, but hometown guys have continued to be important in the Flames' success.
This year, for instance, senior Brandon Rader from Cleveland High School and Cleveland State Community College has the second best batting average on the team, .381, and fifth-year senior pitcher David Eskew from Walker Valley High recently got the Charles Paul Conn Award as the school's top male athlete -- academics and community involvement included.
Cameron Brewster is a junior who followed Rader's path, playing in town for the Blue Raiders and the Cougars before coming to Lee. He's one of the nine Flames batting above .300 as they prepare for the 10-team NAIA championship series starting Friday in Lewiston, Idaho. And that doesn't count Roberto Duran, with a .378 average in 45 at-bats; his hand injury is what opened playing time for Rader, who admitted he was somewhat "intimidated" when he arrived at Lee because of his longtime respect for the program.
"Brandon Rader is the most improved player in our program, and I credit that to his work ethic," coach Mark Brew said. "He had nine at-bats last year. Obviously he had a good career at Cleveland State, and he got his chance when Robbie Duran got hurt early in the season. All year long the guy has hit. Be it at second base or third or the designated hitter, he's been consistent putting the ball in play. He's had a tremendous year.
"Cameron Brewster is another guy like that. He's a local guy who's had a great year, and what they're doing shows how they've translated work ethic into success on the field."
The Flames, who have stomped all around the national championship in recent seasons without landing on it -- one year they lost two finals to host Lewis-Clark State -- are 49-10 and seeded No. 2 in their final NAIA go-round and have a first-round bye. They are scheduled to play Saturday at 9:30 p.m. EDT against the winner of Friday's game between the hosts and Rogers State, the team that ended their run last year.
Facinig Lewis-Clark State would mean playing before about 6,000 fans with 5,900 or so rooting for the other team. Facing Rogers State would mean a chance for some atonement, Brew acknowledged before the Flames' departure.
"I don't see us looking beyond game one," Brew said. "Either way there will be something to ensure our focus."
He does think his last NAIA team is capable of being the last NAIA team standing on May 30 or 31. The Flames have won their last 11 games, the last five in postseason play by at least six runs each. But rain kept them from playing the No. 1 seed in the World Series, Faulkner, for the Southern States Athletic Conference tournament title.
"We've been swinging the bats well," Brew said. "It's not going to define our season if we win or lose [in Idaho] -- we've already had a great season -- but obviously it matters to all of us, from the coaches down to the team, to have a chance to go out with the national championship. And we probably have as good a chance or better than we've had in the past.
"Our talent is similar to a lot of the teams we've had before, but there are some things slightly different about this team. It shows in something as simple as not dogpiling the mound [when Lee won the NAIA opening series it hosted]. Every team we've had before has done that, but it's like these guys know there's a bigger prize out there."
Brew cited the Flames' pitching depth and solid defense as consistent strong points, "but this team seems to be able to find a way to put eight, nine runs on the board when we have to."
Josh Silver is batting .384 with 19 extra-base hits, 50 runs scored and 41 driven in. Rader has stolen 10 bases in 12 tries in addition to compiling 17 extra-base hits, 37 runs and 37 RBIs. Karsten Strieby is hitting .358 with 46 runs and 43 RBIs, and Corey Davis is at .357 with 62 RBIs, 56 runs, eight homers, five triples and 15 doubles.
Derrick Pitts has nine homers, 12 doubles, three triples, 53 RBIs and 44 runs with a .303 average, and Mark Silva and Brady Renner are batting .355 and .343 with 46 and 57 runs and 39 and 31 RBIs. Danny Canela is hitting .332 with 44 RBIs.
Ten Lee pitchers have at least one win, led by Myles Smith with 11 and Clint Terry and Jose Samayoa with 10 apiece. Andy Hillis has nine saves and a .053 earned run average.
Eskew has been a successful starter and won big games. He was the SSAC freshman of the year and he beat Embry-Riddle to put the Flames in the 2010 World Series. Yet he's gone through a series of injuries and now is a reliever with a 1.29 ERA and one win this season.
"He's the most resilient player I've ever coached," Brew said. "Nobody has had more adversity than Skew, and kept coming back. He's been in the program for five World Series now, and the fact he's had to morph his career into the bullpen worked out well for him. He's a great kid and a great leader. He's very, very even-keeled."
Eskew is getting ready to go to Belmont University to begin work on a master's degree in business administration. Rader just graduated with a B.A. in history and is ready to start work on a master's in teaching, probably at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He would love to teach history and coach baseball in high school.
But first comes a last try at a national title.
"One thing that's happened this year," Rader said, "is we've lost some games and we realized it was the players who had to come through. The coaches have prepared us and they support us, but we have to be the ones to win. And everybody is working hard because we know that and we want it."
Rader once lined a hit off Eskew's knee when they were in high school, but Eskew got him back with a strikeout in a Lee intrasquad game. Unlike Rader, Eskew didn't dream of playing for the Flames, but he can't imagine a better experience anywhere else.
"Growing up here, I didn't really understand or fully appreciate how high a level Lee played, and how respected they are thought of elsewhere," Eskew said, "but when Lee came calling I took the scholarship. And I've really enjoyed it. The best part is meeting people from all over -- California, Puerto Rico, the Dominican -- and building friendships with so many."