Turks’ Outfielder Jaylon Lee Takes the Road Less Traveled

Friday, July 8, 2022

Shelton Moss

HARRISONBURG, Va. — It’s not uncommon for kids to play multiple sports growing up. Many play football or baseball. Others try basketball, or even track.

Harrisonburg Turks’ outfielder Jaylon Lee had an unconventional passion as a kid: bowling.

Lee picked up the game at the age of three thanks to his parents, who played in a bowling league. The passion carried on throughout his life, and he joined his own league playing with friends and relatives.

“I started bowling from the moment I could pick up a bowling ball,” Lee said. “Growing up, bowling was a main hobby. I found out our high school team had a team. It was just one of those weird things where nobody really heard about someone bowling in high school, so I like to be different.”

Fast forward to 2022 where Lee is now showing off his skills on the baseball diamond. The Newport News, Va. native has been one of the Turks’ most reliable hitters, sporting a .284 batting average while tying for the team lead with 17 RBI.

Lee first dipped his toes into the Valley Baseball League last summer with Woodstock, recording nine home runs and 37 RBI while being named to the league’s All-Star team. In January, Harrisonburg head coach Bob Wease gave the veteran outfielder a call and asked if he wanted to play for the Turks. The quality facilities and proximity to his home made that an easy choice.

“They play on this beautiful field here at JMU,” Lee thought. “It’s right here, five minutes away from my apartment. So why not?”

It’s been a long road for Lee, who began playing baseball in the ninth grade as conditioning for football. The baseball program at Heritage High School needed more players, and its head coach offered Lee a spot on the team, figuring he could use his athleticism.

“I had watched baseball on TV and was like, ‘Hey maybe I’ll try it and it’ll be fun,’” Lee said. “It kind of kept me from doing other things outside of school.”

Eventually, baseball stuck. Lee went on to have a standout career for Heritage before transferring to Denbigh High School for his senior season.

But despite his physical tools, Lee’s belated entry to the sport hurt his visibility in the recruiting process. He had only two offers out of high school: one from Norfolk State as a preferred walk-on (they did not give scholarships to position players), and another from Division III Eastern Mennonite.

Although the prospect of playing Division I baseball was certainly enticing, Lee felt a stronger connection to the coaching staff at EMU. He was recruited by then-Royals assistant coach Adam Posey, who was promoted to head coach in 2019 following the resignation of Ben Spotts.

“The moment I came up here and saw Harrisonburg, I fell in love with it,” he said. “I met Coach Posey, Coach Spotts and the rest of the coaching staff. It was a no-brainer for me.”

His freshman season was certainly not without trials and tribulations. As a full-time starter, he hit .270 with a meager .311 on-base percentage, recording just 16 RBI in 36 games. Whereas in high school he could coast on his athleticism, the college game showed him how raw his skills were.

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know what a slider was when I came into college, until everyone started figuring out that I couldn’t hit it,” Lee said with a laugh. “My freshman year, I got benched for five games because I couldn’t touch water if you dropped me over the ocean.”

Over the offseason, Lee got to work. He performed one-on-one drills with Posey that were designed to help him identify spin and hit offspeed pitches. The results were staggering: Lee raised his batting average to .320 as a sophomore while hitting 10 home runs. No other Royal hit more than two.

He also picked up on the subtleties and nuances of the game that were foreign to him as a younger player. In high school, he would take off to steal a base whenever he saw the pitcher throw; in college, he learned about making anticipatory reads, such as getting jumps on balls in the dirt and timing the pitcher’s throwing motion. As a defender, he perfected his routes in the outfield and would read balls off the bat.

“EMU changed my life, honestly,” Lee added. “It went from me being just a football player who was athletic enough to play baseball, to focusing on hitting offspeed because I never faced that in high school. EMU has literally developed the tools that I have as a baseball player today.”

After five seasons, Lee will depart Eastern Mennonite as one of the program’s most decorated players. He batted .332 for his career and was twice recognized as an All-ODAC First Team selection. As a fifth-year senior this past spring, he was tabbed to the VaSID First Team All-State after hitting a career-best .382 with a 1.141 OPS and 43 RBI.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic granted Division III players two additional seasons of eligibility, Lee has one more year to play. After entering the transfer portal, he was contacted by JMU head coach Marlin Ikenberry and assistant Alex Guerra, who offered him a spot on the Dukes’ roster. Lee didn’t have to think twice about it.

“I committed on the phone with them,” he said. “They asked me, ‘Do I need to talk to my parents or anything?’ I told them, ‘I already had the conversation with my dad, and he knew from the jump that if you guys offered, it was a no-brainer for us. So I committed on the spot.”

The game of baseball will humble even the best players. But for Lee, the struggles that he has had to overcome as a late bloomer makes his success that much more sweet.

“Baseball picks you up and knocks you down,” Lee remarked. “Coming in, I didn’t know much about baseball. But once the game develops on you, you start to pick up on things. You realize you’re going to fail more than you succeed. You just have to be okay with it.”

Finding his maturity level helped Lee recognize that no matter how long you’ve played the game, you can be successful if you can handle the ups and the downs that are inherent in baseball.

“Being on the Division III level, I got a lot of judgment because I wanted to play pro ball. But now I’ve changed a lot of minds. I’ve had a lot of people supporting me so it feels good to be able to prove someone wrong and have someone along the way with me the whole time.”