In the craziness that was 2020, the Leesburg Lightning were able to once again do what they do year in and year out- win. The objective, and ultimately the challenge, in 2021 will be the same as it was in 2020 and in recent seasons- win it all.
The Leesburg Lightning are coming off of another successful season that saw them perched atop the Florida Collegiate Summer League standings by playoff time. Head Coach Rich Billings, who returns this season for his seventh season in a row and his ninth overall, had the Lightning primed for the team’s third ever championship. The Sanford River Rats, who had also defeated the Lightning for the 2015 crown, wound up with a two-game sweep and their fifth Whiting Cup.
Billings, who has won 20 or more games in each of the last three seasons and five times in his six years at the helm, laid out exactly what it would take for the 2021 campaign to end on a happier note:
“Consistency within preparation and consistency in effort on the field” said Billings. “If we can get that out of our guys, we’re gonna outlast, we’re gonna outhustle, and we’re gonna out effort the other teams”
The Lightning will roll out an experienced and dangerous team for the upcoming season. Much of their roster is composed of returning players, with a whopping 13 former Lightning and Storm players returning to sunny Leesburg. Those returning players have Billings’ squad tied with the DeLand Suns for the most in the league.
Of those 13 returning members, nine of them will fill various roles on the pitching staff. That’s great news for the Lightning, who trailed the eventual league-champion Sanford River Rats by just .03 for the league lead in team ERA. Billings knows how crucial strong, experienced pitching is to succeed in the FCSL.
“Having those guys is so huge, especially on the pitching staff,” said Billings. “If you have good pitching, you have a chance to win every game”
Dylan Kelly (University of North Florida) and Matthew Coles (Carson-Newman), who are entering their third and fourth seasons with the Lightning, respectively, give Billings a potent one-two punch and a safety blanket on the mound.
“Those guys know what it’s all about,” said Billings. “They know what I expect of them. It’s nice knowing you have guys that can handle those roles”
The buck doesn’t stop there, though. Zach Henderson (Valdosta State), who pitched with the Storm in 2020, and Connor Gleeson (Gardner-Webb), who pitched with the Lightning last season, will add a huge boost to the staff. In 15 games a season ago, Henderson held a fantastic 1.82 ERA and an even better .89 WHIP, while Gleeson struck out 16 batters through just 13.2 innings and finished with a nearly untouchable 1.97 ERA.
The Lightning will trot out five more Division I pitchers in Jacob Bradshaw (North Alabama), Beau Fletcher (Troy), Dominick Madonna (North Florida), Tyler Tipton (Florida Gulf Coast), and Evan Waterbor (Florida Atlantic).
On offense, they’ll have big shoes to fill, with the departure of four of their best hitters in Collin Teegarden, Alejandro Figueredo, Austin Davis, and Gabriel Rincones. The lone returner, Robbie Scott (North Florida), will look to build off his impressive 2020 season that saw him hit .308 with 12 RBI’s. The other three returning hitters in Jalen DeBose (Florida Atlantic), Luke Harper (North Alabama), and Clay Stearns (Troy), who all play at Division I schools, will look to pace an offense that has potential to really pop.
One of the newcomers, Naphis Llanos (Francis Marion), comes to Leesburg after spending the 2020 season hitting .370 for the Seminole County Snappers. Guys like Cam Hill (Georgia College & State), who hit .350 last season and stole 17 bases, and Jesse Hall (Troy), who hit .281 with 15 RBI’s, will look to provide a spark for what could be a deep and prolific lineup.
As is always the case with the Lightning, every hitter on the roster will get a chance to earn playing time.
“The thing that makes Leesburg unique, as far as the player experience, is that rarely will you come here and see the same lineup two days in a row,” said Billings. “Whether you hit .350 or .150, they’re gonna be in the lineup at some point. I feel like I give everyone a chance to earn that spot where they’re in the lineup every single day.”
Coach Billings will once again be joined by his father, Rich Billings, Sr. (3rd season), and Matt Swiderski (2nd season) in the dugout. You can read more about the Lightning coaching staff here.
The Lightning will kick off their much-anticipated 2021 campaign at home against the Winter Garden Squeeze on Saturday, June 5th at 7 p.m. If you are unable to make the game, you can watch every pitch here. As always, Lightning games played at Pat Thomas Stadium will be free of charge all season long. With full capacity back in effect for all FCSL games, Coach Billings knows the return of a raucous crowd may be a welcome, but challenging, adjustment back to normalcy.
“You can tell the players ‘this is what it’s like when the stadium is full’, but until you get to experience it, it doesn’t mean quite as much.”
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Matias Weilmann (Ithaca College)