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Lee boosting Citrus at bat, behind plate

Jeff Lee has been a member of the Citrus High varsity baseball team for three years, but never has it been like this.

The senior is a first-time starter at catcher on the 14-8 Hurricanes team that will play Lake Weir (14-14) for the Class 4A, District 7 championship at 7 p.m. today at Dunnellon.

Lee is batting and catching better than he ever has. In fact, it's safe to say it has been a very good season for the 18-year-old.

"For me personally, on varsity, this is the best year I've had," Lee said. "Actually, I have been surprised to tell you the truth. My catching game came around this year. I've always been a real good batter, but I've gotten better. And I'm hitting the ball harder and striking out less."

Lee's ascension to the ranks of the team's best players may not be so surprising if you take a look at what he has done. He spent the summer playing Dixie League ball. And when fall rolled around, he continued to work on his game.

"I practiced hitting balls and I learned how to relax," Lee said about his improved hitting. "Me and (teammate) Keith Posta would go hit in the batting cage every day before the season.

"And I worked on some of my catching skills. I play for fun and I love the game. And I love to get better. I'm always out to get better."

And to his credit, he has done just that, Citrus coach Mike Taylor said.

"He never really had much catching experience before this year, so we worked hard with him on the fundamentals _ blocking, throwing, things like that," Taylor said. "He's worked hard at it and he's earned it."

Ask Lee how long he has been playing baseball and his response is "all my life." But as a freshman at Citrus, he didn't make the team so he didn't play that year. Last season, he played behind catcher Lloyd Hamilton, but Hamilton suffered an injury this season. Lee missed the first four games but he returned in the starting position.

"This year he ended up being best and won the job," Taylor said. "He's had solid throwing at the plate and he's been the best hitter _ he's batting over .500 right now. He's been steady, steady all year."

Under Taylor, who is in his first season as head coach, Citrus struggled early in the year. But the Hurricanes put together a strong midseason run, winning eight of nine games in one stretch, and have never looked back. They are the No. 1 seed in the District 7 tournament.

Lee said it was all a matter of each player getting tougher mentally.

"We all wanted it pretty bad and we worked hard to get it," Lee said. "We just finally got our minds right is what it was. It never came to my mind that it wouldn't happen. I just concentrated on the game. That's what most players did _ concentrated on the game and it finally came together."

But Lee and Taylor acknowledge the team still isn't as consistent as it would like to be. Lee said that midseason stretch in which the team put together the win streak was the best it has played all season, even though the Hurricanes aren't playing badly now.

"We get to the point where we're playing pretty good and then we'll have a bad defensive game," Taylor said. "We've had good hitting and pitching, but our defense is shaky at times."

But Citrus is playoff-bound anyway, regardless of what happens tonight. A win will give the Hurricanes the district championship trophy to hang in the halls at school and the home field advantage in next week's regional game. A loss would send Citrus on the road for regional competition.

"We want to win it outright," Lee said. "It was one of our goals coming into the season to win districts. I've had a lot of fun. I think it's great to be going to the playoffs."