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Baseball

Second-year coach guides hometown team back to baseball prominence

Burgess has Dukes on vision quest

Dixon alum Jason Burgess is trying to put the baseball program at his alma mater back on the map, and took a big step forward this season by leading the Dukes to a 21-8 record in his second season at the helm.
Dixon alum Jason Burgess is trying to put the baseball program at his alma mater back on the map, and took a big step forward this season by leading the Dukes to a 21-8 record in his second season at the helm.

Jason Burgess has a vision for the Dixon High School baseball
program, and it has to do with what he’s already witnessed on the basketball court.

He keeps the book at boys basketball games. Not too long ago, Dukes hoops was in a sad state, with losses piling up and game attendance sparse at best. Burgess saw it up close and personal, night after night at the scorer’s table.

Then a few back-to-back classes featuring the likes of Cal Jarrett, Laron Carr, Isaiah Roby and Riley Mehrens got things turned around, and Dixon noticed. The Dukes won big, and people flocked to games.

“It’s so important to have the community behind you,” Burgess said. “You need that support, and if you put a winning team out there, people are going to come watch you play.”

Burgess envisions the day when the baseball Dukes will pack ‘em in at Veterans Memorial Field in Dixon, and he’s off to a good start after the recently completed 2017 season. Dixon finished 21-8, a vast improvement over his first year as head coach, when the squad went 6-20.

Burgess had a three-phase plan of attack when he got the job before the 2016 season.
Phase 1 was to instill a bit of a culture change.

“We had to change some things because a lot of those kids weren’t used to my ways, and my practice plans and schedules,” Burgess said. “It was a little bit of a learning curve, but not much.”

On the surface, with losses in 20 of 26 games, the 2016 season didn’t appear to be too much to shout about for Dixon. Burgess pointed out the team was very close to a breakthrough.

“Last year we blew six or seven seventh-inning leads,” he said. “When you look at our season, we could have had a 13-win, maybe 14-win season, but we just couldn’t close games.”

Part of Phase I was to keep a talented core of freshmen and sophomore players together at the lower level, rather than rush them to the varsity. Kyle Crawford, a freshman catcher in 2016, was the lone exception, as he played up all year out of necessity. Classmates Andrew Long, Payton Lawrence and Tucker Cole also got spot duty with the varsity, but played the majority of the season at the fresh-soph level.

“With what I had with the seniors and juniors last season, we could get by with that,” Burgess said. “Even if I’d have brought those [freshmen] up at that time, it wasn’t going to change our outcomes. I’ve set a system in play and that was Phase I – keep them down there, get them used to high-school ball, get them playing together, and set the tone for the future.”

The continuation of Phase I into Phase II began last summer, when Dixon players played a lot of summer ball, be it for the Dixon American Legion Post 12 team Burgess coached, or some other travel ball team.

It continued into the school year, when players gathered for informal workouts at Veterans Memorial Field, weight training in the fall and winter, and getting in some swings in the indoor batting cage.

By the time the season came around in March, the Dukes were ready to play ball. Then, they overcame a late four-run deficit to beat Rockford Lutheran in the opener.

“The first game of the year when we played Rockford Lutheran, that started it,” Burgess said. “Right then and there, I knew we had something new coming.”

By the time the regional came around, the Dukes were flying high. They were 21-7 and earned a No. 2 seed in Sub-Sectional B of the Sycamore Sectional. Alas, that didn’t help them, as they were upset by Lutheran in the regional semifinal. The Crusaders lost twice to the Dukes in the regular season, but rose up when it mattered most.

For the Dukes, it was a bad day all around. They got to the field late due to bus issues, and didn’t get as much pregame batting practice as Burgess wanted. It showed in the game, as Dixon squandered many scoring chances in a 3-2, 10-inning loss to the Crusaders.

The Dukes played tight the whole game, with 10 strikeouts and six errors. Burgess admitted he was tight, and it trickled down to his players.

“Even some of my guys that have played so much ball, I could see it in them,” Burgess said. “When I talked to them about their approach at the plate, they wanted to do something so bad to get that huge hit, and they pressed. When they were pressing, they didn’t play their game anymore. A lot of times you get that way in a regional, even me as a coach.

“Before that game, my heart was racing a little bit. I even took a little walk before I got on the bus, which I never do. I’m like, ‘If I’m like that, what do I think the kids are doing?’”

•••

The last game notwithstanding, it is easy to see why the Dukes were a much better club in 2017. Simply put, they hit better, fielded better and pitched better.

As a team, Dixon increased its batting average from .246 in 2016 to .298 in 2017. The key – don’t strike out. Two-strike hitting was something Burgess pounded away at, in practice and in games.

“When you get two strikes, spread out a little bit, choke up a little bit, just put the ball in play and make things happen,” Burgess said. “We did a much better job of that this year.”

The team earned run average took a major dip, from 5.07 in 2016 to 1.48 in 2017, and a variety of factors resulted in a snowball effect. Better defense behind the pitchers allowed them to be more efficient on the mound, which reduced the wear and tear on the staff as a whole. That, and Burgess simply had some legitimate aces he was able to trot out to the mound regularly.

“The key was No. 1, the defense behind the pitchers,” Burgess said, “and No. 2, the work ethic of the pitchers. They have some solid arms, they’re quality pitchers, and we’ve got a lot to look forward to.”

Indeed, the Dukes had just three seniors (pitcher/outfielder Jack Doane, center fielder Devrick Sayles and second baseman Evan Munson) that started in the regional semifinal. Expectations will be high for the 2018 season, and the No. 1 goal will be to finally break through in the postseason.

Dixon has never won a baseball regional, and that is something that eats away at Burgess. That is the end result of Phase III – to win when it matters most.

“The major thing for me is we’ve got some unfinished business,” Burgess said, “and that’s winning that regional title. We’ve had many years, even back when I played, that we were the conference champions and the No. 1 seed or the No. 2 seed in the regional, then we’d get beat.

“We’re kind of in the Cubs’ situation – we’ve got to get rid of the goat here at Dixon, so I’m hoping we can do that these next couple of years.”

•••

Burgess wants to bring that title to a town in which his baseball roots run deep. He started in the Al Morrison baseball program, and was coached a lot of those seasons by his father, Troy.

Burgess was a member of the Dixon team that won a Mickey Mantle League state championship in 1990 – a sign commemorates that achievement at Veterans Memorial Field. He played baseball for the Dukes for four seasons, and counts his coaches, the late Bruce Scheidegger on varsity and Dolph Ricks at the fresh-soph level, as two of his biggest coaching influences.

“What Bruce taught me in terms of discipline and how to treat people is by far one of the best skills I’ve ever gained,” Burgess said. “What a great man he was. He really set the tone here, in my eyes.”

Burgess and Ricks are good friends who took a trip to Fenway Park in Boston to watch some games a few years back. Ricks is often a sounding board when Burgess has some team-related questions.

“If I ever need to pick a brain, I’ll pick his,” Burgess said.

On many nights during the summer, when there are no American Legion team duties, Burgess can be found down at Page Park, watching baseball. He’ll go from field to field, watching T-Ball, Koufax, Futures and/or Bronco games on a given night. He did it years ago when not coaching in the Dixon program, just for the love of the game, and now does it to get a look at young ballplayers – and just as important, to be seen by those youngsters.

“My plan is to come in here and create a winning atmosphere,” Burgess said, “and being a native of here, it makes me want it even more. I want Dixon to get back on the map. We used to be a really good baseball town.”

For Burgess, that means immersing himself into his program. He’ll be there watching, but not coaching, when his guys gather for workouts in the fall. He’ll be there for winter weightlifting sessions, when the music is blaring and the mood is light – a key time for team bonding.

“He really stresses that we get along with everybody, and that we work hard and have fun,” said Elijah McGlown, who will be a senior outfielder next season.

And when the snow melts and it’s time to play baseball again next spring, Burgess will be there to hit fungoes, take some ground balls despite a seriously balky right knee (“When you watch me during the games, I look like a wounded horse,” he said), and guide his team the best way he knows how.

“I expect better things every year, to be honest with you,” Burgess said.

Burgess file

High school: Dixon (1991)

College: Aurora (1995)

Family: Wife Cassie; son, Brock

FYI: Guided Dixon to 21-8 record in 2017, an improvement from 6-20 in 2016. … Played baseball at Dixon, Sauk Valley C.C. and Aurora University. … Coached at SVCC, various summer travel teams and the DHS fresh-soph team before accepting the Dixon varsity job prior to the 2016 season. … Health and P.E. teacher at Dixon High School for past 16 years.

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