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Baseball

Lawrence and Cole fuel Dukes’ first run to state

Dixon’s dynamic duo

Dixon’s Tucker Cole and Payton Lawrence are SVM’s co-players of the year. Cole’s hitting and 
Lawrence’s pitching helped pace a Dukes team reach its first-ever state tournament.
Dixon’s Tucker Cole and Payton Lawrence are SVM’s co-players of the year. Cole’s hitting and Lawrence’s pitching helped pace a Dukes team reach its first-ever state tournament.

One player
liked the jingle jangle of change in his pocket on a baseball diamond.

The other was affectionately known, for a short period of time, as “Soaking Wet” to his fun-loving teammates.

Together, Payton Lawrence and Tucker Cole helped the Dixon High School baseball team reach new heights in the 2019 season.

A program that had never even won a regional championship advanced all the way to the Class 3A State Tournament in Joliet, and the Dukes came home with a fourth-place
trophy.

It was Lawrence, a lock-down right-handed pitcher, and Cole, a slugging shortstop, leading the way, and they share the Sauk Valley Media player of the year honor. They were the straws that stirred the drink, so to speak, for a club that finished 26-6, won a Big Northern Conference title, as well as regional, sectional and supersectional crowns.

“I think that urgency of our senior year, this is our last chance – let’s just put our heads on right and play the baseball we can play,” Lawrence said. “We finally did that.”

Entering the state tournament, Lawrence was the kind of ace hurler that doesn’t come around too often. In 56 1/3 innings on the mound, he was 10-0 with a 1.37 earned run average. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was 103-to-22, and he gave up a mere 33 hits and 11 earned runs.

Getting ahead in the count and throwing the ball wherever catchers Kyle Crawford and Owen Rick put their mitts were the keys. More than that, however, was a bulldog mentality that made him effective no matter what.

“Every time I went out there, my mentality was that I had to win,” Lawrence said. “If I don’t have my stuff, I’m pushing through it. I’m not coming off that mound, even if I don’t have my best stuff. I’m going to challenge you as a hitter. I don’t like walking people. If it’s 3-2, I will throw it down the middle so you have to hit it. It’s up to the hitter, because I know what I’m going to do.”

The Dukes had a formidable 1-2 punch on the mound in Lawrence and fellow senior Andrew Long, but that was only for the second half of the season as Long served a suspension. If the Dukes had a big game before Long (5-1, 1.25 ERA, 80 K, 12 BB) came on board, it was Lawrence who got the call.

“I wouldn’t ask for another guy to be going out on the mound,” Dixon coach Jason Burgess said. “He can throw any pitch at any time. You didn’t have to worry about him not being able to throw this one or that one. If one wasn’t working, he could throw something else.”

When Long pitched, Lawrence played center field. At the plate, he batted .442 and was the team’s second-most productive hitter with 32 RBIs. The top slugger was Cole, who entered the state tournament batting .454 (44-for-97) with four home runs, four doubles and a team-high 43 runs batted in.

After a smacking the last of his home runs in a 5-2 win against Rockford Boylan at the Sycamore Sectional final on June 1, a newspaper column described Cole as being maybe 5-foot-9, 150 pounds soaking wet. He subsequently corrected the scribe with his proper dimensions – 5-foot-10, 165 pounds – but for the rest of the season, to teammates, he was called ’Soaking Wet.’

The slugging Cole, who was also a slick-fielding shortstop for the Dukes, often left opponents high and dry.

“[Tucker’s] work ethic when it comes to the game of baseball is by far the best you’re ever going to find,” Burgess said. “On the field, his intensity comes out. This year, you saw as a senior a lot more leadership. Commitment, dedication to the game and work ethic, it’s one of the best you’ll ever see. All the years of hard work paid off for him, and you saw that in our biggest games.”

•••

Every baseball season has its ups and downs, and the 2019 Dukes were no exception. Their record stood at 5-3 through eight games, following back-to-back losses to Sterling (11-5) on April 5 and LaSalle-Peru (9-0) on April 6.

Cole remembers taking his position at shortstop, looking at the scoreboard at Sterling’s Gartner Park and seeing his team down 11-2 through five innings.

“I was honestly questioning myself: Did we put enough time in? Did we do enough?” Cole said. “Then we got beat by LaSalle-Peru [at home] and it was like, wow, we’ve got to get our stuff together.”

Two days after that L-P game, on Monday, April 8, the Dukes had a practice at Veterans Memorial Field. Before running foul poles in the outfield, Cole had a message for the team.

“I kind of told everybody, ‘We need to get this going,’” Cole said. “We’re a better team than this. We should not be getting beat by this caliber of teams. We have players that have beat a lot of these teams before, and we need to go out there and make things happen.”

Lawrence noted that Burgess mostly kept his distance during this rough patch, preferring the veteran club (14 seniors) figure things out for itself.

“He left it up to us,” Lawrence said, “and a lot of us took a leadership role together. We started leading in a more positive way, and we brought the fun back. We didn’t have the fun we should have had. Keeping everybody loose was big.”

On Tuesday, April 9, the Dukes defeated Byron 11-3, as Long didn’t allow an earned run in six innings on the mound. Dixon lost just once more before the state tournament semifinal against Montini, a 17-game winning streak.

Many of the games were against overmatched foes, but that certainly couldn’t be said about the home-and-home series against league foe Rock Falls. The games were going to determine the Big Northern Conference title.

On Tuesday, May 7, Dixon won 5-2 on the Rockets’ turf. Six days later, the Dukes protected their home field, winning 2-1. Long allowed one earned run in 6 1/3 innings. Dixon was unable to get to Rockets’ starter Jay Schueler (1 R, 0 ER in 7 innings), but nicked reliever Grant Wasson for an unearned run in the bottom of the ninth to pull out the win in the BNC showdown.

“Jay Schueler pitched one of the best games I’ve seen him throw in the years I’ve played against him,” Cole said. “He absolutely shut down the plate, and so did Andrew Long. It was who was going to make the least amount of mistakes to win that game.”

“Once we finished off that second game [against Rock Falls], that showed me we’re in it to win it,” Lawrence added. “We’re not trying to share anything this year. This is about us.”

The Dukes finished off the regular season with wins against Rochelle and Rockford Christian to go into the postseason on a high note. The winning streak stood at 12 games at that time, and Dixon’s players had an air of confidence about them.

“You’ve got to have the mentality that you’re better than other people, their stuff can’t beat you, but your stuff is better than theirs,” Cole said. “That’s the whole mentality we had going in.”

Dixon, however, had a history of underachieving in the postseason, with zero regional titles to its credit. The Dukes opened with a tough Sterling club at the Rochelle Regional, and for a good chunk of the game, it looked as if the Golden Warriors were going to pull an upset.

Sterling led 4-1 through 6 1/2 innings, and Dixon was three outs away from yet another postseason flameout. The Dukes, however, rallied for three runs in the bottom of the seventh inning, with Finn Brandon’s RBI single with two outs tying it up.

“A couple of days before that Finn Brandon told me, ‘I’m one of most clutch players on the team. If we need a big hit, I’ll get a big hit,’ ” Cole said. “I hit a sac fly to score a run and make it 4-3, and then Finn comes up and gets that big hit. I was like, ‘Yeah Finn, you weren’t lying.’ That game was a very special game, and once we won it, I knew we’d be fine.”

After a rain delay and with darkness fast approaching, Cole won the Sterling game with an RBI single, and the Dukes’ season was still alive.

Lawrence then pitched the Dukes past Rochelle 8-2 in the regional title game on Saturday, May 25, and the regional drought was over.

“Our mindsets were that we’re the ones that have to do it,” Lawrence said. “We’ve been saying that since we were sophomores, that we were going to be the first ones to win a regional title. We had to wait till our senior year for some odd reason, but it just happened.”

Wins over Kaneland and Boylan at the Sycamore Sectional followed, then a nail-biting 1-0 win against Dunlap at the Rock Island Supersectional punched the Dukes’ ticket to state.

One of Lawrence’s neighbors is DHS wrestling coach Chris Bishop, who guided his program to third place at state in the 2016-17 season. They would talk over the course of the season, and Lawrence predicted greatness was coming.

“I told him, ‘I’ve got a feeling this year. I think we’ve got it,’ ” Lawrence said. “He’s like, ‘Hey, ride the wave.’ I told everybody, ‘Keep riding the wave and keep having fun.’ If we keep having having fun, we’re going to keep winning. We played with emotion on the field. It worked, and it was awesome.”

For a few weeks, the Dukes were rock stars.

As the wins piled up, more and more fans began showing up to the games. Bleachers were a sea of purple, and police cars escorted them back into town after each sectional and supersectional victory.

“I went into Oliver’s Food Market and people I didn’t even know were coming up and talking to me,” Cole said. “Everybody was rooting for us and pulling for us. It was an awesome thing to be a part of.”

One of the people to reach out to Cole via text message was an ex-Dixon player, Shea Cullen.

“It said, ‘Heroes get remembered but legends never die,’ “ Cole said. “We kind of made a local legend around here, making it to state. We didn’t pan out like we wanted to at state, but we still got there.”

Lawrence had special motivation in his younger brother, Brady, who will be a fifth-grader this fall. Before Lawrence even got on the bus for the trip to the Augustana baseball field in Moline to face Dunlap, Brady Lawrence had a message for his big brother.

“I think he was more jacked up than I was,” Lawrence said. “He was like, ‘Alright Payton, we’re going to state. You can’t not go to state. I want to stay in a hotel.’ I’m like, ‘Alright man, I’ll get you there.’ It was awesome.”

Cole and Lawrence were part of a special senior class that made the most of their final opportunity to shine, at no time more than in the postseason. Lawrence and Long provided a 1-2 punch as starting pitchers that few teams could match. Cole slugged home runs in both sectional wins at Sycamore.

Brandon kept the Dukes’ season alive with the game-tying hit against Sterling. Talbir Chima led off that fateful inning against the Golden Warriors with a base hit, and later provided a game-saving catch in right field against Dunlap in the supersectional. Oscar Van Sickle played wherever he was needed on a given night and delivered game after game, whether it be in the field or on the mound (28 1/3 IP, 3-0, 1.48 ERA).

Cole noted he played on a team, the Rockford Lumber Company, as a 12-year-old that included Lawrence, Crawford and Van Sickle, along with Amboy’s Hunter Zimmerly and Mitchell McLaughlin. He thought big things were possible, even then.

“We knew that we were going to have a good group of guys coming here,” Cole said, “and then when Andrew Long came here his 8th grade year, we knew we were going to be tough. We had a tough team, and then we added players. Joseph Heckert played travel ball his whole life. Isaic Sanchez, Owen Rick played travel ball. We knew we were going to have a solid team, but it was getting everybody to mold together and play together as a team.”

When asked who he thought the team MVP was, Lawrence didn’t hesitate for a second. It was Rick, a first baseman who took over at catcher for Crawford after an early-season wrist injury. Rick batted .314 (22-for-70), but more importantly, handled a pitching staff that had to make due without Long for half the season.

“He isn’t really a talker, but he played with a purpose and practiced with a purpose,” Lawrence said of Rick. “Without him, I’m serious, this season doesn’t happen.”

Lawrence and Cole each had superstitions to put them in the right frame of mind for each game.

For each of the 31 games that Lawrence played, he had some change jingling in his front pocket. It was a nod to his uncle, former AFC basketball star Josh Lawrence, who passed on some advice when Payton was a young ballplayer.

“He said I’m always money, so I had to play with money in my pocket,” Payton Lawrence said. “He said that a while ago. I don’t know if he remembers telling me that, but I remember it to this day. It stuck with me.”

Also sticking to Lawrence were several bottles of McCormick’s brand paprika. He had one in his back pocket each game this season.

After each of the 13 doubles he hit, he’d jog to the dugout to discard the elbow guard that he wore while batting. On his way back to second base, he’d secretly sprinkle the infield with paprika.

Lawrence also added more than a dash of paprika to the mound before each of his starts. He estimated going through five or six bottles of the seasoning over the course of the season.

“We needed a little spice in the game, and that was it,” Lawrence said. “It was about mojo.”

As for Cole, the No. 3 batter in the Dukes’ lineup, he began each game using the batting helmet with the No. 3 on it. Sanchez, the No. 2 hitter, used the helmet with the No. 5 on it.

If each went hitless in the their first at bats, they’d switch batting helmets in the second plate appearance.

“Usually our second at bat, when we got comfortable with the pitcher, we got hits,” Cole said. “It was a thing that worked, we hit good at 2 and 3, and it just worked.”

Lawrence file

School: Dixon

Class: 2019 graduate

FYI: Starting pitcher and outfielder for Dukes. … Posted a 10-1 record with a 1.80 ERA this past season. … Batted .442 (42-for-95) with 32 RBIs and 13 doubles. … Will play at Black Hawk College next spring

Cole file

School: Dixon

Class: 2019 graduate

FYI: Starting shortstop and relief pitcher for Dukes. … Batted .447 (46-for-103) with 4 HR and 45 RBIs this season. … Will play at Southeastern Iowa next spring

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