August 9, 2014 9:09:39 PM
While Trace Lee put together his standout career in football, baseball and soccer at Columbus High School, he felt like he was part of something more than a trio of athletic teams.
"It was much more like a brotherhood, it was a family," Lee said. "It was a group of guys who will always have a special place in my heart. They all wanted better. We fought every day for better."
Lee helped lead the Columbus baseball program through one of its most successful stretches in program history.
This past season, Lee played shortstop and pitched as Columbus finished 23-8. The Falcons won two Mississippi High School Activities Association playoff series for the first time in program history.
For this success, Lee and New Hope High School's Josh Stillman are sharing The Dispatch's Prep Baseball All-Area Player of Year honors. Columbus eighth-year coach Jeffrey Cook and New Hope fifth-year coach Lee Boyd are also sharing Coach of the Year honors.
"We made history at Columbus High," Lee said. "Although it was bittersweet, because we wanted to go all the way. We felt like we had a team capable of doing that. We succeeded in a lot of areas. Baseball is like the game of life. Sometimes, you can't control some of the things that happen."
In his final three seasons, Lee played on teams with winning records and playoff participants. While playing quarterback, the Columbus football team enjoyed a similar resurgence, as it returned to the postseason for the first time since 2005 during his junior campaign.
"Trace is a winner," said Cook, who resigned at season's end and is now coaching football at South Pontotoc. "He is the type of player you want the other players to follow. He has such a calm demeanor but it is influencing. He understands what it takes to help each and every player play at that maximum level."
While Columbus had garnered some postseason bids, it was not until this season a senior-dominated lineup finally broke through.
"We went through all of the battles," Lee said. "There were high points and low points. In the playoffs, that was a learning point for all of us, both young and old."
For the season, Lee hit .347 with 26 base hits, while playing shortstop and pitcher. After battling through some back stiffness in the regular season, Lee responded nicely with an excellent postseason run to finish the year 5-3 on the mound with a 1.62 earned run average.
Columbus achieved some of the highest levels in Class 6A despite limited resources and spotty fan support.
"From the top to the bottom, it was all about pride," Lee said. "We did this not for ourselves, but we did it for Columbus High. From the beginning, it was all about the name on the front of the uniform, instead of the one on the back. We each understood that God had blessed each of us with incredible talent.
"It was more important to see what we could do with that talent, instead of complaining about what we did or did not have. We really valued playing the game of baseball."
When Cook first arrived at Columbus, he already had his eyes on this group. As they blitzed through the competition in fifth and sixth grades, all signs were pointing toward promising high school careers.
"We knew this group of players were special if we could keep them together," Cook said. "They really worked hard. They really bonded. They really loved one another. There were nights when we weren't at our best but the players knew when that happened. There was a determination. There was also an enjoyment of the game. You have to want to succeed, but you have to also enjoy what you are doing to be successful."
Lee knew Cook had the right plan in place from an early age.
"He is a funny man," Lee said. "Through the thick and thin, he was there for us. He watched us grow up. He knew we had a chance to be good. He did a great job of knowing players' strengths and weaknesses. We practiced the things that we were not good at. We really practiced. When you have a group working hard and they are all in it together, that makes it easier. It also makes it sweeter when you see success."
Columbus football also had similar success. With Lee earning a handful of snaps in 2011, Columbus won seven games. In 2012, with Lee as a starter, the Falcons reached that mark again and broke the long playoff drought.
"We really wanted to make a return trip to the playoffs (in 2013), but it just didn't happen," Lee said. "We always played hard and we always competed. Even when we weren't the best team on the field, we always played the hardest. People realized quickly that Columbus was not to be taken lightly in football or baseball."
Following in the footsteps of older brother Tyson Lee, who played football at Columbus, Itawamba Community College and Mississippi State, Lee will also be looking to display his talents on the next level this upcoming school year.
He is already practicing with the Northeast Mississippi Community College football team. The Tigers will put on full pads for the first time Monday.
At Northeast, Lee will again play football and baseball.
"At Northeast, this is another great opportunity," Lee said. "A lot of guys don't have the chance to play two sports in college, so I know I need to feel fortunate. It will be taxing and long, but I know God has placed me here as another chance to be a witness. It is all about being a true leader. I look forward to displaying those leadership qualities another group of guys.
"The time at Columbus will always hold a special place in my heart. That is where I learned to become a leader."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter