Lions’ Leaders: Foundation Academy baseball’s leadership pushed team to historic season

Leadership can make or break a team. In 2024, a core of leaders for the Foundation Academy baseball team is making this season one to remember.

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Winning a championship isn’t easy. It’s the goal of every team to hoist that trophy at the end of the season. Because of that, over the course of any season, there will be difficulties, challenges and a need to adapt.

Beyond dealing with the obvious — the competition — one of the biggest obstacles teams face throughout their quests is the team itself. 

Often, teams simply aren’t talented enough to beat the opposition. Sometimes, a coach isn’t good enough to put players in the best position to win. And arguably, the most common occurrence, teams often lack leadership from within their own ranks to put them over the top.

Luckily for Foundation Academy baseball, the leadership on its roster is one of the biggest reasons why the Lions are having a historic season that includes the most wins in program history (24), the Class 2A, District 11 Player of the Year and Coach of the Year.

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Setting the example

“It starts with the 2024 class of seniors; we have some amazing leaders,” Foundation coach Dakoda Grove said. “Guys like Matthew Hazelwood and Jonathan Bosque have been incredible leaders. When I think about how far the culture shifted, it’s because they lead by example; things like showing up every single day for morning weights on time and attacking practice every day, the young guys really followed their lead. … I think the No. 1 thing that has led to our season has been the team chemistry we’ve built because of the leadership from our seniors. It’s amazing how much these guys really love each other. They have fun at practice, have fun at games, have fun on the bus ride — more so than I’ve ever seen before — and it’s just been a fun environment to be around.”

But words such as “leaders,” “culture” and “chemistry” are tossed around as easily as a baseball these days, so what does Grove mean when he points out his senior leaders? What are they actually doing that has helped this group of individuals become a team?

“They hold everyone accountable, and what I mean by that is they lead by example,” Grove said. “Instead of just yelling at the younger kids to do something — like fieldwork or cleaning up the dugout — they go ahead and just do it themselves. Matthew Hazelwood, our catcher, is always the first one here and the last one to leave, and there is no task that is too big for him. You don’t always see that nowadays; kids can be entitled, sometimes. The work ethic isn’t always there, especially as you get older and you’re the best player on the field. 

“We’re really lucky and blessed that all our leaders and our best players are also the guys who do all the little things, and they lead by example,” he said.

Words of advice

For Hazelwood, the role of being a leader is inherent to being a catcher. 

“I’m a catcher, so (I’m) constantly working with pitchers and being a point of reference for the whole team,” Hazelwood said. “I have to be able to help my pitchers through tough situations. I’ve had a couple of the younger pitchers just get kind of flustered in some situations — even some of the older ones. I’m good at going out there and being a different voice from the coaches, and I just try to be calm and help keep the situation from getting too big.”

According to junior pitcher Rylee Gibson, the district’s player of the year, the reason why his catcher is so good at helping pitchers is because he just knows how to read people. 

“When we get in the game, he knows if I’m getting a little too rattled, and he’ll call time and come out and talk to me,” Gibson said. “And that’s not a step that coach has to take. It’s something he takes initiative and ownership of. I feel like he knows me; he knows how my pitches move. … I have confidence in him and that he’ll do his job.”

Gibson said Hazelwood knows him so well that sometimes on a mound visit, he won’t say a word to the Lions’ star pitcher. 

“Most of the time, he just tells me to breathe, tells me to relax,” Gibson said. “He knows if I’m rattled, then my heart rate is going to be up and if the heart rate is up, I’m going to get twitchy and my mechanics can be off by a degree, and that can make all the difference in the world. He’s just good at getting me to settle down … he’ll even just come out there and won’t say anything, and the next pitch, I’ll throw a strike.”

Beyond the impact Hazelwood has on Foundation’s pitchers, his unique positioning on the field — being able to see every one of his teammates and the opposition batters — means he’s able to use his perspective to help his team win games. 

“Because the team knows me, they trust that I know what I’m saying when I point something out,” Hazelwood said. “They trust me to see everything and know everything on the field and communicate what they need. We have play calls that are on me, I will make comments to our guys about their game. Or, if we’re in a meeting on the mound, I’ll tell them things I’ve noticed — like this guy is going to pull it. Because I’m sitting there catching, I see all the batters come up, I know how they swing, how they stand, their tendencies. There are a few things you can do to help at the moment … because you’re so spread out. But as soon as we get back to the dugout, we’ll go over stuff that we saw, and we’re able to fix as we go.”

The wins on the bus go round and round

One of the most important roles a leader can have is building camaraderie and chemistry among a team’s players.

For Foundation, that chemistry is most evident on the bus rides following an away game. Win or lose, the team makes those trips together. 

“Everyone fits with everyone on this team; we don’t have little cliques,” senior shortstop Jonathan Bosque said. “We really use that bus ride to grow as a team. When we lose, everyone’s on there talking, taking ownership for this or that, and committing to getting better each day. It’s a moment that we all chip into. But also, when we win, we have fun with it, we keep it light, especially on the bus ride back.”

When Bosque says the team has fun on the bus when it wins, he means it.

“It all starts when we get on the bus on the way to games and we start getting the younger guys to do karaoke,” Bosque said. “Everyone picks a song, and we bring a big ol’ speaker with a mic, and everyone just has a good time. It helps get the younger players out of their shells and even some of the older guys (who) aren’t as vocal. I feel like it brings confidence to the team and keeps us loose before the game. And when we win, it’s like a party on the bus. Everyone’s singing and dancing, it’s a lot of fun. … Those bus rides are amazing.”

Lead by learning

Leadership isn’t a linear thing. 

Anyone can be a leader, regardless if they are a team’s senior four-year captain and all-time best player — or if they’re a transfer player leading by setting the example of being coachable. 

That’s where senior transfer Coby Vallee comes in. 

One of the biggest fundamental changes Grove made this season is focusing on his players’ swings staying as flat as possible.

“We worked our butts off all off-season trying to change our players’ swings from this new thing that everyone loves doing, which is getting the ball in the air and getting under it,” Grove said. 

Vallee, a 6-foot-4 outfielder, is the perfect example of what being a leader by learning is about. He bought into what the coaching staff preached, worked hard and saw a jump in his production. When his teammates saw that, they followed his example.

“Coby transferred from South Lake,” Grove said. “He’s a senior this year, and unlike a lot of kids, he’s physically blessed. He’s 6-4 and looks like an NFL player, body-wise. He came in swinging as hard as he could, trying to hit the ball in the air and crush it with every single swing — and didn’t really have much of an approach. He didn’t realize you don’t have to swing very hard, especially when you’re his size, you just need to hit it with the fat part of the bat, and everything else will (come). Credit to him, because he’s toned it down a lot; his swings are much flatter through the zone. He’s really bought into that concept, and he’s having a really, really good year.”

This season, Vallee is batting .385, has driven in 23 runs and has hit five home runs. Last season, he batted .186 and had no home runs.

Sam Albuquerque is the Sports Editor for the Orange Observer. Please contact him with story ideas, results and statistics.

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Sam Albuquerque

A native of João Pessoa, Brazil, Sam Albuquerque moved in 1997 to Central Florida as a kid. After earning a communications degree in 2016 from the University of Central Florida, he started his career covering sports as a producer for a local radio station, ESPN 580 Orlando. He went on to earn a master’s degree in editorial journalism from Northwestern University, before moving to South Carolina to cover local sports for the USA Today Network’s Spartanburg Herald-Journal. When he’s not working, you can find him spending time with his lovely wife, Sarah, newborn son, Noah, and dog named Skulí.

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