JEFFERSON — Playing with the big kids is nothing new to Jefferson graduate Andrew Vance.
Growing up on the sandlots of Jefferson, Vance was always playing in the same league as his older brother.
By time he was 8, Vance was already playing travel ball. By time he reached high school, it was no surprise he earned a spot on the varsity roster as a freshman.
Competing at an elevated level has been key in Vance’s development as a player and the results were never more evident than this past season.
Vance, who is on his way to play for Lakeland Community College next year, is the Ashtabula County Player of the Year for the 2019 baseball season, as voted upon by the coaches.
The resume for his senior year is highlighted by his microscopic 1.99 ERA, to go along with a county-leading 90 strikeouts and just 17 walks in 56 innings of work. He was among the county leaders in ERA, innings and wins.
At the plate, he was also impressive, hitting .410 with 14 runs batted in and 16 runs scored.
He pitched the Falcons into a Division II sectional championship game this season by striking out 17 Conneaut batters in a 2-0 semifinal victory over the Spartans. Jefferson fell the next day to Gilmour Academy, the eventual Division II state runner-ups.
For Vance, being honored as best in the county is something he’s had his eye on for a while.
“It means quite a bit,” he said of the honor. “Ever since I was a freshman when I found out about the player of the year (award), I kind of wanted it. The last few years I’ve been in the running for it. This being my senior season, final time playing on Cotton Field or ever playing for Jefferson High School ... it kind of means a lot.”
That freshman season of 2016, though, Vance learned about more than just an award.
Playing with upperclassmen, along with a coach and program that has been a consistent winner, he remembers the lessons he learned.
Those lessons were not just being a good ball player, but also the importance of being a good leader and an even better teammate.
“A lot of them I still talk to today.” Vance said of his former teammates. “They kind of gave me a confidence boost. They told me I was obviously good enough to play.
“Being a freshman, you walk in there nervous and everything, but they were always there behind me, patting me on the back and telling me to keep my head up. After they left … they all still talked to me, especially Colton (Wilber), he kind of took me under his wings, told me it was time to step up, start running the show. After that, I knew I had to do that.”
Falcons coach Scott Barber knew what Vance had to do as well. The veteran coach said the influences he had at the high school level, and even before, molded him into the player he became.
“I think that’s a big reason he was so successful,” Barber said. “He had the opportunity to play with the older kids and he was able to compete with them. He fit right in, it wasn’t like he was just the young kid just playing. He was the young kid that fit in and contributed all those years he played.”
The year Vance reached high school, Jefferson was a year removed from reaching the district championship game.
The team had lost a lot of talent and senior leadership and the fact Vance was only 14 (his birthday is later this summer) did not matter.
The rookie was a factor on a team that still had enough to go 18-7, take second in the All-American Conference and capture another sectional crown.
“He was a leader more by ability than age obviously,” Barber said. “I stress to these kids from day one, it doesn’t matter what grade you’re in, your ability will determine if you’re in the lineup or not.
“He was a freshman, and a young freshman, but he believed in that. He always believed he was a varsity baseball player and he’s never been intimidated by the game of baseball.”
By his second year, Vance said the departed seniors said it was his time to run the show. He took on the leadership role for the next three seasons.
“I had to step up,” he said. “I had learned so much from watching other people do it. Not only that, I don’t like losing, especially in the game of baseball.”
But baseball is also a game where the best players fail more often than succeed. Picking a guy up after a called third strike or after he boots a routine grounder was something he made a priority.
“A lot of it is mental,” Vance explained. “When I see kids get down, when they strike out or something, they need somebody to look up to, somebody to say ‘Hey you’re good, keep your head up.”’
As a teammate, he may be one to provide encouragement, but standing 60 feet from him as a hitter is a another story.
The righty attacked hitters with three pitches — fastball, breaking ball and change-up. He saw scattered opportunities on the mound as a freshman, but was a regular in the rotation by the following season.
“He throws three pitches and he throws them all well,” Barber said.
His fastball averages 86-88 mph. The curve was something he didn’t start throwing until his junior year. His father taught him the change-up, which has all the arm action of the heater, just about 8 mph slower to keep hitters off balance when they sit on the fastball.
His offense this season was also something he took a lot of pride in. He hit .410, which ranked fifth in the country, and was the first Falcon to reach the .400 mark since Brandon Reinke in 2015.
“I finally got in the .400 club,” he said. “In the past years I’ve been really close. This year I was able to step up and do it.”
Next up he’ll be playing at the junior college level. He’ll barely be 18 when he hits campus. But being the younger guy out there has never gotten in his way and his coach does not expect that to change anytime soon.
“He’s taking it to the next level where he’s gonna be a good college pitcher,” Barber said. “He’s turning heads and the eyes of a lot of people at higher levels than he ever anticipated, even this summer.”
If the coach has any regrets, it’s that his parents would have waited one more year to start him in school.
“We’re gonna miss him,” he said. “I wish his parents hadn’t started him a year early, so I could have him for his senior year this year.”
Vance wouldn’t change a thing in his time at Jefferson.
“The last four years have been a blast,” he said. “I’d do it all over again if I had the chance.”