July 25, 2016

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Baseball: Highland’s Luke Raley’s season to be remembered

Highland's Luke Raley is the 2013 Gazette baseball MVP. (PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY RON SCHWANE)

Highland center fielder Luke Raley was born Sept. 19, 1994, as the second child of Doug and Beth Raley. It is amazing he didn’t enter the world with a baseball bat in his hands.

Now a well-built 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, Raley readily admits the game has been with him from Day 1. Despite never really having much of a choice, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Doug Raley was a record-setting All-Gazette pitcher for the Hornets and later played for Cleveland State. Luke’s older brother, Brad, was all-county in 2010 and recently completed his junior season on the mound for Division II Lake Erie.

Playing in their shadows never bothered Luke. He embraced it.

“We’re a big baseball family,” he said. “It was always a big theme, and my mom loves baseball just as much as we do.

“There was a little bit of pressure from the family, but at the same time I know that even if I didn’t succeed, I wasn’t going to get made fun of or not accepted. It was just one of those things. They wanted me to do well like they had.”

Luke Raley chose the batter’s box over the mound. Instead of being known as Doug’s son and Brad’s brother, those roles are reversed after he hit .568 with 50 RBIs, 40 runs, 12 doubles, seven triples, eight home runs and a school-record 26 stolen bases this season, earning him D-I first-team All-Ohio honors from the Ohio High School Baseball Coaches Association.

Only Highland’s Ben Klafczynski (2007) and Black River’s Brian Ensign (2001-03) have posted better offensive seasons in Medina County history, and they used non-BBCOR bats. With his name among such prestigious company, it’s hard to question why Raley, who respectfully turned down D-I offers to play with his brother at Lake Erie, is Gazette MVP.

“He’s definitely the one guy in their lineup that we prided trying to get him out,” said Cloverleaf coach Josh Boggs, whose team “limited” Raley to a 2-for-7 showing with three RBIs and two runs over two games. “We definitely feared him, and we definitely pitched cautiously to him for four years. Well, it wasn’t four years (it was three), but it felt like six. If we got him out, we felt really good about ourselves.”

That feeling came infrequently, but as first-year Highland coach Jay Grissom quickly pointed out, Raley “didn’t roll out of bed and hit .580.”

Raley gave up football following his sophomore year to concentrate on baseball. Last winter, he practiced two days a week with the Midwest Pelicans — their director is Brunswick coach Todd Winston — and honed his swing with area coach John Adams. He also got stronger and faster by working out at Evolve Inc.

Baseball turned into a year-round affair for Raley. He wasn’t satisfied after a standout junior season in which he hit .474 with 37 RBIs and 28 runs. He wanted more from himself and, more importantly, more for his tight-knit team.

“Obviously, he’s blessed, but he wouldn’t be who he is without how hard he works and the intensity he goes at things,” Grissom said. “It’s a sight, for sure.”
So, too, was the way the left-handed hitter bashed pitches into oblivion.

Raley started hot and never slowed down. Featuring an open stance with high hands, he began the season with a 25-game hitting streak, had RBIs in 22 of 30 games and scored a run in 15 consecutive contests.

The consistency was harder to believe. Raley hit .562 in the Suburban League, .568 in non-league games, .600 in the postseason and .600 in 10 combined games against Walsh Jesuit, Tallmadge, Nordonia, Wadsworth, Cuyahoga Falls and Hudson — the top teams on Highland’s schedule.

To top it all, Raley also hit an absurd .644 with runners in scoring position.

“The thing is when you think about what he did, if he went 2-for-4 in a game, his batting average was going down,” Grissom said.

When Raley’s hitting streak came to an end in a 6-5 win over Copley on May 4 — it officially was 29 games dating back to last year — it didn’t lead to a mini-slump. It only motivated Raley to put forth one of the best hitting performances in county history.

The next day at Copley, Raley went 3-for-4. Despite his two-run triple in the second inning, Highland, which was saving its top pitchers for the tournament, entered the sixth trailing 13-4.

The deficit was almost single-handedly erased by Raley.

Following an RBI double by Alex Harris, Raley crushed a two-run home run to center to make it 13-7. The Hornets kept rolling and Raley got another shot with the bases loaded.

Another bomb to center gave him two home runs and six RBIs in the inning and Highland its first lead at 15-13. The Hornets ultimately lost the game 16-15, but Raley’s effort was hard to fathom.

“To be honest, every time he came up to the plate, you expected something to happen,” Grissom said. “That was the same thing with Ben (Klafczynski).

“He had two home runs in one inning, and we saw him do it all year long. It was as close to Klafczynski as anything I could have imagined.”

For all his exploits, Raley remained humble. Unprovoked, he credited All-Gazette leadoff hitter Ricky Esker and Ryan Miller reaching base a combined 97 times for his RBI totals. He credited All-Gazette cleanup hitter Anthony Ondrejcak for great lineup protection that inflated his batting average. He credited the pitching staff for inducing fly balls that helped him compile a perfect fielding percentage.

In his eyes, he couldn’t have been successful without them.

“Another 20-win season, that’s huge,” Raley said. “We didn’t think we were going to be quite as good as last year, but we definitely outdid our expectations.

“Some people stepped up. Ryan Miller, Clay Condon and Alex Harris all stepped up and we expected big things out of Ricky and Anthony and they did what they were supposed to do and then some. We all had our part.”

No one had a bigger one than Raley, whose gaudy numbers made him one of the most talked about players in Northeast Ohio. Most wondered why he didn’t land a scholarship to a bigger school.

Raley acknowledged the thought of playing D-I has crossed his mind, but the opportunity to play with his brother and put Lake Erie on the map meant more.

“I’m happy where I’m going,” he said. “I love Coach (Brian) McGee, my brother likes Coach McGee and he only has good things to say about Lake Erie. I think we’re going to do big things there.”

If Raley’s high school career is any indicator, the Storm will be in good hands for years to come.

Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or agrindle@medina-gazette.com.

Albert Grindle About Albert Grindle

Albert Grindle is a sportswriter for the Gazette. He can be reached at 330-721-4043 or agrindle@medina-gazette.com.