The walls of Lancaster Gymnasium have the dates of Dukes and Duchesses
titles, from the state championships for the boys cross country and girls bowling teams to the slew of regional titles the boys and girls basketball teams have captured.
Under baseball, the sections for regional, sectional and supersectional titles have stood blank.
Until this year, that is.
This year’s Dukes rode a 17-game winning streak to the program’s first regional title, and ultimately all the way to state. And for the second time in 3 years, Dixon’s Jason Burgess is the Sauk Valley Media Coach of the Year.
Along the way, he helped the Dukes forge a sense of family.
“With this team, it was all about the mental,” Burgess said. “How do we get them to stay focused instead of getting in the prima donna mode? Instead of it’s just about me, it’s about us. I’ve been harping on that for 4 years with them. I don’t know what it was about this year, but I think it was just being laid back, having fun, being loose.”
That road ended in Joliet at Route 66 Stadium, but it began in 2015, when Burgess moved up from coaching Dixon’s fresh/soph team to replace Sam Gallucci as the varsity head coach.
When Burgess stepped into that job, a large group of
players was about to start
their high school careers as freshmen.
“He paved the way for us freshmen 4 years ago when
he first came here,” Dixon shortstop Tucker Cole said. “We knew we were going to have a really good coach and
a really good foundation, and he was going to set the tone for everybody.”
Cole and 13 others in that class grew from freshmen on Burgess’ first team to seniors on the team that went to state.
“When I took this job, I gave myself a 4- to 5-year window to see where we were going to be,” Burgess said. “I kind of set a plan. The first year was a rebuild to kind of set the stage a bit, kind of get guys within my mindset. At that point, we brought up kids off and on. Kyle [Crawford] played 4 years. Payton [Lawrence] came up a bit, Tucker came up a bit. Andrew [Long] came up a bit.”
Throughout the process of building the Dukes into the kind of team that would make a state run, Burgess thought 2018 might be the year, with his pair of aces in Lawrence and Long joined by another great pitcher in John Oldman. But being paired in the 3A Rock Falls Regional with a young and hungry Rockets team and a loaded veteran team from Sterling did not bode well, and the Dukes bowed out in a regional semifinal loss to Rock Falls.
“We didn’t get it done,” Burgess said. “We didn’t mesh well. And that has been my whole battle for 4 years with this group, trying to get them to mesh and buy into each other and the team concept.”
Though things were better at the start of this season, there were still some speed bumps. The Dukes opened the season with wins over Rockford Christian and Rockford Lutheran, then split with Winnebago. After a sweep of Stillman Valley, the Dukes lost a pair of nonconference games to Sterling and LaSalle-Peru to bring their record to 5-3.
After one game this year when Burgess was giving his postgame talk to the players, he had them hold hands. He told them that baseball was about being a family.
“It seemed like that kind of turned the tables a bit,” Burgess said. “At first the kids were looking at me like ‘Are you kidding me?’ The next thing you know, every day they were saying ‘Coach, we’ve got to hold hands.’ They bought into that, and that’s something I thought brought us together.”
That feeling of being a family extended to the bus rides to and from games. Knowing Burgess’ love for the Yankees, players would play Red Sox anthem “Sweet Caroline,” which would cause the coach to respond by revealing his Yankees t-shirt under his Dixon windbreaker.
After a loss to Freeport on April 20, the Dukes rattled off what would become a 17-game winning streak that would take them further than any Dixon baseball team had been before.
Early in that winning streak, the Dukes faced a unique test. They had been playing Genoa-Kingston, and trailed the Cogs 4-1 in a game that got called in the third inning on account of rain. When the two teams picked things back up 2 weeks later, the Dukes rallied and tied the score, then went on to win 9-5.
Despite the win, Burgess saw things in his team that could be better, and let them know it.
“After that time, every game from there on out, something drew them together,” Burgess said. “Even from there, you could see them start to pick each other up.”
The Dukes were able to frustrate opposing teams with strong pitching. Lawrence struck out 113 batters this year while walking just 24 in 62 1/3 innings. Long took a 1.03 ERA into the state tournament. Neither lost a game until the Dukes got to Joliet.
Through it all, Burgess had his pitchers take a simple approach on the hill.
“Just keep pounding the zone and making the hitter work was what he taught me,” Lawrence said.
Pitchers sometimes get in jams, even pitchers as good as the ones Dixon had, which would draw Burgess out for a mound visit.
“Sometimes he comes out and says the goofiest things in the world,” Lawrence said. “You wouldn’t even understand what he’s saying, but it’s just to loosen us up. Sometimes he lets you hear it. It depends on the moment, it depends on the person on the mound.”
In Lawrence, Burgess developed a pitcher who was a key part of the Dukes’ pitching rotation for 3 years. Lawrence said Burgess really helped him with the mental aspect of the game, staying focused no matter what was happening.
Something that will stay with Cole is how locked-in Burgess would get calling pitches from the dugout. Cole would glance over from his spot at shortstop and see in his coach – a Dixon alum – the fire of someone wanting the Dukes to succeed.
“It sometimes comes off as him getting on us, but he’s seen the results we can put out and he just wanted us to do that every single day,” Cole said. “Going out and competing every day is Burgess’ mentality. He wants us to succeed, sometimes more than your parents do.”
That strong pitching helped the rest of the Dukes focus on what they had to do at the plate, knowing that one run might be all they needed.
“Our main thing was hitting, because we knew we had arguably the two best arms in the area in Payton and Andrew,” Cole said. “We knew they would get us through. Our biggest thing was scoring some runs.”
Where a two-strike count can put a lot of hitters on the defensive, the Dukes look for a chance to get something going.
“He talks to us about it every practice,” Cole said. “When we go in the cage, we have a bunting cage, a two-strike cage, and a drive-’em-in cage where we’re going out there and trying to put balls in the gap. The whole thing with him is, once we get two strikes, we want to foul off pitches, try to hit the ball the opposite way and get a single. It’s just making things happen when people think they have you down.”
Throughout the season, Dixon hitters had to face some tough pitching. Sterling sent Cooper Willman to the hill against them. Rochelle sent Johnny Beck. Rock Falls sent Jay Schueler. In the supersectional, the Dukes got to see Dunlap’s Taylor Catton, on his way to Bradley, pitching in relief.
“We just put together good at-bats against them and let it all play out,” Cole said.
That comes from the mentality that a batter can make good things happen by simply putting the ball in play.
“I feel much more confident putting the ball in play and having them make a play on us and maybe making a mistake, as opposed to some people who believe in taking your best hack and making solid contact,” Burgess said. “If you strike out, that doesn’t help me. My approach is to shorten up and put the ball in play with two strikes, and put pressure on the defense.”
Another thing Burgess had the hitters work on every day in practice was bunting.
In the bunting cage, the Dukes work on putting a bunt down in any situation: drag bunting, push bunting, squeeze plays, sacrifices.
“Burgess pounded into our heads that we had to get bunts down,” Cole said. “This year, we laid down some bunts. Isaic Sanchez, one of our fastest guys, can lay down a bunt whenever he wants and he does it very well.”
His Yankee fandom led Burgess to altering his lineup as well. Seeing the Bronx Bombers put Giancarlo Stanton in the leadoff spot led the Dukes coach to do the same thing with Long.
“I kind of went with the offensive mind of trying to alternate my big hitters and put some speed and some bunting in between,” Burgess said. “It just seemed to work.”
The rebuilding starts with the summer American Legion games. Burgess is the coach, but is using the summer season to evaluate the talent coming in.
As the postseason wore on, the sea of purple in the stands grew. When the Dukes played at Sycamore, the place was packed.
“I bet three quarters were Dixon people,” Burgess said. “Ex-players, ex-coaches, current players’ parents, community members who just love the sport.”
Because of their loose, tight-knit style, the Dukes never stopped having fun. In fact, on the way to Joliet, the Dukes came up with a new mascot.
In front of the Dixon dugout for most games throughout the season, one of the players would draw a character named Ooga-Booga.
That presented a new challenge to the Dukes when they were playing on the all-turf field of Route 66 Stadium in Joliet in the state semifinal and third-place game.
“We couldn’t put it in the dirt because they didn’t have dirt,” Burgess said. “That was the first thing they said: ‘Coach, what are we going to do? It’s turf, we can’t do Ooga.’ I said ‘Grab a towel,’ and they grabbed a hotel towel and a marker and Finn [Brandon] and one of the other guys went to town and made an Ooga on the towel.”
It might not have been in the dirt, but Ooga-Booga hung on the front fencing of the dugout at Route 66 Stadium for both state games.
For those 14 seniors, their last game in a Dixon uniform came in a loss, falling 9-2 to Waterloo in the third-place game in Joliet.
As the game reached the seventh inning against Waterloo with the Dukes trailing 9-2, Burgess came out and pulled his seniors off the field, giving them one last ovation from the crowd.
“I had seen it a lot on MLB Network where they pulled off [Derek] Jeter or they pulled off Mariano Rivera, anybody else that deserves that curtain call,” Cole said. “He pulled off me, Payton and Oscar [Van Sickle], and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life. Once I stepped over the foul line, the waterworks just started. I had so many emotions. At the time, I was kind of upset because we hadn’t played like we wanted and it was my last game in a Dixon uniform. My mom and dad told me I got a standing ovation, and I didn’t see it because I had my head down. I hugged Burgess and he teared up. It was just an awesome feeling now that I look back on it. It was the classiest move ever. Burgess loves the Yankees, and they’re one of the classiest teams in MLB. They do it for their players, and Burgess felt the need to do it for us.”
“When I had to go out and take those guys out the last time, that kind of hit me a little,” Burgess said. “I walked to the dugout and had to take a little walk, because at that time I knew we were done.”
With such a large group of seniors now gone from the team that went to state, a new cast of Dukes will be back next spring to try to make another run. And they will learn what the Class of 2019 learned in their 4 years of playing for Burgess.
“You have to compete, compete, compete,” Lawrence said. “You have to stay focused, but you have to stay loose at the same time. You’ve got to work hard 24/7, that’s what he always tried to build into us. That’s what we’ve got to take with us.”