The heart of a Bulldog

Wednesday, June 9, 2004

Over the last 20 years, Notre Dame has created a baseball tradition around this area like few others.

The Bulldogs have made nine state final fours, won three state championships and have produced a bevy of all-state caliber players.

This year's Southeast Missourian Player of the Year, Notre Dame senior Lee Essner, is one of a strong group of Notre Dame players who helped carry on the Bulldog tradition.

"It's a point of pride," Essner said of donning the Bulldog jersey these past four years. "It's a point of being more than what you are. Of being a part of a team I watched from the sidelines as a kid."

Essner, a shortstop and pitcher, was the Bulldogs' ace this season. Whether he was starting or coming in to nail down a victory, Essner was Notre Dame's go-to guy. Essner threw 63 innings, pitching in 15 of 25 games. Overall, Essner compiled a 10-1 record with two saves.

"It was a lot of studying, a lot of tendencies," Essner said of his success. "You're trying to stay ahead of hitters and not being afraid to throw inside. You have to trust yourself, trust you're better than the hitter."

Over his career, Essner posted a 19-4 mark, and during his senior campaign he was at his best. Essner allowed 24 runs over his senior season, with one-third of those coming in a rough outing against Sikeston in the district finals.

Essner and fellow senior Blake Urhahn combined to make one of the toughest one-two pitching combinations in the area. Urhahn finished with a paltry 1.87 ERA and held batters to a .182 average.

Essner said having someone like Urhahn beside him really helped him grow as a pitcher.

"I was talking pitching with Blake Urhahn all the time," he said.

Although he is not an overpowering pitcher, Essner's intelligence on the mound helped him put up strong numbers. Essner struck out 83 batters to only 21 walks, and allowed only 49 hits.

"He's just very intelligent," Notre Dame coach Jeff Graviett said. "He came in as a freshman knowing how to pitch. He came in and just had a good understanding of baseball."

After starting in the field his sophomore season, Essner came into his own as a junior. He posted a 7-1 record with a 1.58 ERA, to go with 53 strikeouts and only eight walks. Those numbers came after Essner got his feet wet as a sophomore, pitching 17 2/3 innings and posting a 2-1 record.

Graviett said Essner's relentless desire to improve helped make him an elite pitcher.

"He's really a perfectionist," Graviett said. "He's never satisfied, which is good and bad. Sometimes he doesn't realize his accomplishments, but he just wants to get better."

While it was his work on the mound which stood out, Essner quietly became one of the top hitters in the area. After batting .307 as a junior, Essner hit .430 out of the leadoff spot this season. He scored 24 runs, drove in 22 and struck out only seven times in 79 at-bats.

Essner said offseason work with teammate Matt Wulfers really helped him became a more professional hitter.

"I was going up there with an approach on every pitch," he said.

Although his time as a Bulldog is over, Essner's baseball career is not. He's playing for Cape Girardeau Ford and Sons American Legion team this summer, and this fall he will attend Maryville University in St. Louis, where he will play baseball.

Essner said his time on the diamond at Notre Dame will always be a bright spot.

"My class especially feels a sense that we're a part of something bigger," he said.

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