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Lions aim to join past baseball greats

Most of Lewisville's top-ranked baseball team weren't born the last time the Lions won a state championship on the diamond. Not one of them was walking this earth when Brian Williams was baffling would-be hitters from the mound and bashing opposing pitchers with tape-measure home runs on his way to a major-league pitching career.

The Lions won the last of their five state titles in 1992 when then-coach Bennie McMurray built somewhat of a dynasty at the Class A level. Lewisville won it three straight seasons from 1985-87; again in 1989 and most recently in 1992. The team finished runner-up in 2000.

Everyone knew Lewisville was a force to be reckoned with back then.

Lewisville coach Billy Keels, now in his ninth season with the Lions, grew up in Chester and played against those dominant teams of yesteryear. He remembers Lewisville, although a much smaller school, being one of Chester's rivals.

Keels has coached Chester's American Legion baseball team for many years and always had a few of Lewisville's players on his team. It was his Legion ball connections that put him in a position to take over at Lewisville when McMurray left for a job in North Carolina.

For Keels, who was coaching and serving as athletics director at Richard Winn Academy at the time, it was a chance to take over a program that he admired. He said he was envious of what Lewisville was doing and wanted to be a part of it.

The Lions are back and hungry to hang another championship banner.

The Lions (19-3) began the 2010 campaign ranked No. 3 in the Class A polls. They moved up to No. 2 midway through the year and took over at No. 1 last week. The team has three more regular season games left to play: today at McBee; Friday vs. Great Falls and at home on Monday against Chester.

"The rankings at this time of year don't really matter," Keels said. "I just want to continue on and do what coach McMurray started. We've come close."

Lewisville lost in the Upper State playoffs last season. One of the team's top pitchers suffered a torn rotator cuff and couldn't finish the year. The pitching staff faded down the stretch. Keels said the injury allowed some of his younger pitchers to gain varsity experience and that has helped his team this season.

"We have pitching depth with four pitchers that can be competitive," Keels said. "In years past we thought there were games we needed to have a complete game. This year we have confidence throwing more than one guy. I've never had a team where we feel good with four pitchers."

Logan Pemberton, Will Robbins, Dylan Bogue and Joby Moss are the Lions' top pitchers.

The ace of the staff is Pemberton, a left-handed senior who will pitch for Spartanburg Methodist next year. He is 6-1 with a 1.13 ERA and has fanned 50 batters in 37 innings. His only loss was against top-ranked Class AA Bishop England.

Pemberton had a 0.00 ERA in his first 29 innings this season. He had a sore back last week but is feeling fine now.

Jake Gaston played for Keels at Richard Winn and now is the Lions' pitching coach.

"I teach them all to throw strikes. None of them walk a lot of guys," Gaston said. "They mix their pitches pretty well and are pretty consistent hitting their spots."

The Lions clinched the Region 3-A championship on Friday night with a win against Chesterfield. Lewisville is 10-0 in region play with a chance to go 12-0 by week's end. Keels and Gaston also want to set up their pitchers for the start of the playoffs.

"We'd like to have Pemberton and Robbins at 100 percent this week. We may have them throw a little less but we don't want them to lose their rhythm. We want to finish unbeaten in the region."

Keels credits his coaching staff with the resurgence of the baseball program. Gaston and hitting coach Terry Johnson are both in their third year. Keels likes that Johnson has a calming effect on him.

"I can be pretty intense as a coach," Keels admitted.

Lewisville has more than just pitching.

Senior second baseman Trevor Hudson leads the team with a .471 batting average. He has signed to play for Limestone next year. Junior shortstop Chris Skidmore is hitting .446.

Hudson said the team expected good things this season.

"We were working out a lot earlier this year and we prepared a lot more," Hudson said.

Keels knew he had a good team returning and has had to work on keeping the team focused.

"It's been harder to motivate this team because they know they are good. Sometimes they think they can just step on the field and win," Keels warned.

To keep them sharp, Keels had the Lions play a demanding schedule against bigger schools. Over spring break they went to Summerville and won the Cane Bay Classic.

Lewisville has plenty of baseball to play before it can really begin to compare itself to the great teams of the past. They seem to be headed in the right direction, though.

Gaston said Keels has been telling the team about Lewisville baseball history a lot lately. "You can be remembered as legends like those teams in the past. But you have to put forward the effort."