Taylor Lewis could be making a name for himself during the fall playing college football at Boston College.
Instead the sophomore took a different path in college, passing up the chance to play Division I football for the chance for college baseball at the University of Maine.
“It was a really tough choice,” said the Montville, Conn., native. “I was being recruited by some top schools for football. You get the fan base at the big football schools and all the perks. In the end, I kind of thought the better choice would be baseball, especially on my body. It’s a sport that you’re always going to miss playing, but overall I think I made the right choice.”
It seems to be working out for the America East Conference’s top hitter, who leads the preseason favorite Black Bears into conference play and is the early favorite to garner the Player of the Year award.
Lewis leads the league in batting average (.417), hits (50), runs (38), RBIs (35), triples (9), total bases (88), on-base percentage (.486), slugging percentage (.733) and stolen bases (16). He also ranks near the top in doubles (8 – fourth), walks (15 – fourth) and home runs (4 – sixth).
The three-time America East Player of the Week hit for the cycle in a 9-2 win over the University of Albany on Sunday. In that game, he set the single-season record for triples at UMaine with nine.
Coach Steve Trimper and his staff knew the center fielder had the talent to be a top-tier talent.
“We said it when we recruited him that he could be the potential [America East] Player of the Year for multiple seasons and he’s on track to do that,” Trimper said. “He could get drafted out of here if he keeps this up.”
In Lewis’ freshman season, he played a reserve role for the Black Bears, who had a veteran-laden outfield led by former standouts Billy Cather and Kevin McAvoy.
Lewis played in 35 games last season with 18 starts, and batted .282 with two home runs and 12 RBI.
Despite coming off the bench most of the season, Lewis was groomed to replace Cather, a four-year starter. Cather has since taken on the volunteer assistant coach position for the Black Bears and has been Lewis’ biggest influence.
“I give nobody on this team more credit than Billy Cather,” Trimper said. “He took him under his wing last season as a player. He’s worked with Taylor all fall, more than any other coach here.”
Lewis calls Cather his “biggest mentor” and added that having him around as a coach has helped him immensely.
“It was great coming here,” Lewis said. “In some ways, I’m actually glad I didn’t play every day. Just sitting on the bench seeing what [Cather] did, what he did up at bat — every day I was asking him questions.”
This season, Lewis got off to a scorching start during UMaine’s spring trip to Florida and has since kept up his torrid streak. In the conference-opening series at Albany this past weekend, Lewis had a streak where he had eight straight hits.
“Baseball’s all about confidence,” he said. “Going up there knowing that whatever they pitch – if they pitch around you, you’re not swinging, and if they make a mistake, you’re going to hit it where it is. I have that confidence and I had it in Albany.”
While it has been a pleasant surprise for the coaching staff to see Lewis emerge after the Black Bears lost three of their top hitters to graduation, Trimper believes he is just scratching the surface of his potential.
“We recruited him and went really hard after him knowing that he was a raw baseball player. He’s a football player,” Trimper said of the 6-foot, 200-pound Lewis. “He can run through the walls and he could play for three-quarters of the schools in the country. He chose baseball because, once he learned to play, he could be a superstar.”
The football mentality has also helped Lewis deal with the day-to-day grind and 50-plus game college schedule.
“You go out some days where you’re sore and I’ve had plenty of those days,” he said. “Coming from a football background, you learn to play with little injuries.”
Trimper credits Lewis for waiting for his chance in the lineup and a strong summer performance for the Forest City (N.C.) Owls of the Coastal Plains League.
“I think Taylor was patient with that process and played in a good summer league last year,” Trimper said.
As a first-year starter, Lewis has exceeded many expectations, but has not surprised himself.
“You always go into the season expecting to do great things,” Lewis said. “I hope that I keep on putting up these numbers and helping out my team especially.”
Trimper compares his current star to former Black Bear standout Joe Hough and believes Lewis has the “tools to play at the next level.”
This summer, Lewis is slated to play for the Amsterdam Mohawks of the New York Collegiate Baseball League, where shortstop Tony Patane played last summer.
For Lewis, this summer could be the last time he plays in a collegiate summer league, as he is draft-eligible in 2011. Right now though, Lewis and the Black Bears are focused on winning the America East title.