By JARRETT GUTHRIE
Oftentimes an athlete’s competitive days end in a whimper, a slow spiral downward until he or she is forced from the field. Other times, they can end in a snap, a break, or a fluke injury. And still, there are times for a lucky few where an athlete gets to pick his spot and go out on his or her own terms.
New Tampa resident and King High senior pitcher Brian Lee made the most of his moment, capping a stellar senior baseball campaign with four straight, complete-game, post-season wins as he lifted the Lions baseball team into the Florida High School Athletics Association Class 7A State championship game.
The final moment on the field for Lee, a Tampa Palms resident who grew up playing in the New Tampa Little League and with the New Tampa Predators travel team, included a pair of seventh-inning strikeouts as the Lions won 3-1 on May 31 in the state semifinal. A large group of King supporters chanted his name as he walked off the field.
“I never imagined something like that would ever happen,” said Lee, who finished with a 11-3 record and sterling 1.00 ERA this season. “It’s kind of overwhelming to have all those people come to Fort Myers to watch you. It was really special.”
“It’s as a good a performance I’ve seen in my 42 years,” King High veteran coach Jim Macaluso said, “and I’m not saying just in King High School … I’ve never seen anyone in the county, around the state, that threw the pressure games he threw, and won.”
Unfortunately, King just didn’t have enough to finish the 2017 campaign with a championship, falling to Ponte Vedra Nease 11-0 the following evening.
Lee had a stellar career at King, winning 25 games in 43 appearances as a pitcher. Despite a average junior year, Lee showed signs in the offseason of having a breakout year.
“Brian had experience as a senior because he started in our rotation as a freshman,” Macaluso said, “but he kind of leveled off a little bit there through his junior year. Then, we saw something in the fall. You could see that bulldog in his face, you could see it in his eye, you could just see the type of competitor he had matured into.”
Lee said this was due to a reduced travel baseball schedule, which he said began to tire him out in his previous high school seasons. After his junior year, Lee said he focused on a weight-training regimen and eliminated the added wear on his throwing arm.
“I think it just all clicked for him that he just wanted to dominate,” Macaluso said.
Lee, who opted to attend King for its International Baccalaureate (IB) program, was a member of the National Honor Society and a number of service clubs. He said that when he started seriously looking at colleges in his junior year, baseball at the college level wasn’t an option.
By the time baseball had crept back into the college picture, he had already fallen in love with the business program at Boston University – a school without competitive baseball.
So, he knew his senior year would be his last. “It was a thought, but when I was looking for colleges I kept baseball separate from it,” Lee said. “By the time I realized I could maybe think about baseball in college, I’d already found the school for me.”
At just 5-foot-10, Lee doesn’t have an intimidating mound presence and there is no fireball coming from the lefty’s arm. What he did have was a variety of deceptive arm angles, some good movement on his off-speed pitches, a funky delivery that often saw his follow-through end with his head mere inches from the ground, an intelligence for the game, and most important to Macaluso, a determination that grew throughout his senior season.
“If you are going to throw a complete-game you are usually going to have an inning you have to (fight) through when the other team goes on a run,” Macaluso said. “We saw it go first and second, no outs and you’d see him take a moment. You could see it. You could feel it. He’d step behind the rubber and just say, ‘No, I’m gonna get through this.’”
That determination helped King reach the state semifinals for just the fourth time since the school opened in 1960, and its first-ever appearance in the final. Although it ended just shy of a championship, Lee said his final season will be something he will always remember.
“Yes, I’d have liked it to end a different way,” Lee said. “But, that’s baseball … and I’ll remember this team the rest of my life.”