Hard working Eric Lewis earns NAFA’s top honors

Written by Bob on August 10th, 2012

“He (Eric Lewis) often had big hits in key spots. I remember one timely home run that he bounced off the scoreboard in Fargo. He’s definitely in the clutch category.” – Teammate Mike Wells

LE SUEUR, MN – The most gifted athlete to ever step onto a ball diamond? No, Eric Lewis won’t be known for owning extraordinary fastpitch talent.

But his work ethic, his fastpitch instincts, and his willingness to watch, listen and learn from those who came before him, that indeed, Lewis excelled at. And Exceptionally so.

And those fine traits have carried him far in the sport. Now comes the payoff.

At the 2012 NAFA World Series in Topeka, Kansas, Lewis will be inducted into the NAFA Hall of Fame. But that’s not all. He also was selected as just one of 36 players on NAFA’s 20th Year Anniversary Team (1993-2012).

“These are such great honors,” Lewis said. “To be considered one of the best is very exciting and humbling.”

For several years, Mike Wells was a teammate with Lewis on Junker’s Bar & Grill of North Mankato, MN, and the Kegel Black Knights of Fargo, ND. Wells played shortstop and second base, while the versatile Lewis played first and third base, the outfield and catcher.

But the two men go back even further. As boys, both Wells and Lewis grew up in and around Vernon Center, once a hotbed of Minnesota fastpitch.

So Wells knows the 37-year-old Lewis quite well.

“He’s one of the hardest working players I’ve ever known,” said Wells, 45. “Eric is smart; always thinking ahead as to where the ball might be hit, and what to do.”

    NAFA EXPLOITS

In NAFA World Series play, Lewis certainly squeezed the most out of his work ethic, smarts and talent. He’s a four-time All-World player – once each on AAA and Open teams; and twice a AA-Major pick. And in 2008 he was selected as the AA-Major division Most Valuable Player.

The years from 2000 to 2008 were very good to Lewis. In 2000 and ’01, he helped Junkers take second and third in the NAFA AAA division. And in 2003, ’05, and ’07 Lewis was a key contributor in helping Kegel finish runner-up three times in the AAA and AA-Major divisions.

Then finally in 2008, Kegel won that elusive World Series championship in the AA-Major division.

“Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to play with and against some really good teams, and really good players,” he said.

    IT ALL BEGINS IN VERNON CENTER

But none of these honors, says Lewis, would have been possible without plenty of help along the way. Starting in his hometown of Vernon Center. Several local fastpitch veterans – including Tom Loft – started coaching young boys how to play the sport in the 1980s.

“Tom was the one who first asked me to play when I was 12,” Lewis said. “He was my youth coach for the next four years. I owe a lot to him for all the opportunities he gave me during those years.”

And there were mentors and role models as well.

“While growing up, I admired Jeff Hohenstein, Brent Jaegar, Mike Wells, Doug Ziegler and my brother Jon,” Eric Lewis said. “These were the guys that I really tried to pattern my game around. Each one of them did something a little bit differently and I tried to incorporate those things that they did into my own game.”

But one man stands out. The one who started the boys’ fastpitch program in Vernon Center.

    HOHENSTEIN THE CATALYST

Both Wells and Lewis speak reverently of Wayne Hohenstein, one of Minnesota’s best ASA Class A pitchers from the 1960s to 90s, who took it upon himself to try and revitalize a dying sport in his little corner of the fastpitch world.

“There are many young boys in the Vernon Center area that owe a lot to Wayne Hohenstein,” Lewis said. “He started the youth program with his son Jeff playing and it took off from there.

“For many years there were men playing in and around the Mankato area that had gotten their start in Vernon Center,” Lewis added.

“A lot of players owe Wayne and that (boys’) program,” Wells said.

After getting a solid fastpitch education in the Vernon Center youth program, both Lewis and Wells eventually moved up to a much higher level, playing for Junker’s and Kegel.

    YOUNG LEWIS MOVES UP TO JUNKER’S

Lewis turned 19 when Junker’s recruited him. But the ball club was filled with veteran talent including Wells, so Lewis had to bide his time and fill in where needed.

“He never complained,” Wells said. “If we were short (such as) catching, he would say he would do it. In the winter, he worked hard on his game by hitting off the batting tee and off a whiffle ball machine in his garage. He’s somebody that worked hard and got the most out of the talent he had.”

Wells retired from fastpitch in 2005, and Lewis likewise after the 2011 season. He looks back fondly on 25 years of memories. But one memory stands out: The 2001 NAFA AAA World Series.

Junker’s got dropped into the losers’ bracket and had to battle back for a shot at the title. First, Junker’s knocked off Team Lyons (Calif.) and then Circle Tap (Wisc.) to reach the finals against Fineline from British Columbia, Canada. Junker’s Pushed the Canadians to the “if necessary” game, before losing and settling for runner-up.

    CLUTCH HOME RUN HITTER

During that march through the losers bracket, Lewis played a big part. He hit a home run against Circle Tap that gave Junker’s the lead. And in the “if necessary” game he slugged two homers; one that tied the game and the second that gave Junker’s the lead before Fineline mounted a comeback and nailed down the title.

“That was one of the best days I’ve ever had,” Lewis said.

Wells, however, says Lewis’ exploits were of the kind that he had come to expect.

“He often had big hits in key spots,” Wells said. “I remember one timely home run that he bounced off the scoreboard in Fargo. He’s definitely in the clutch category.”

    ON TO THE HALL OF FAME

Wells and Lewis will travel together to Topeka, Kansas for the 2012 NAFA World Series (Aug. 9-19) where Wells will present and talk about his good friend during Hall of Fame ceremonies.

“It’s an honor to present him,” Wells said. “We’re like a big family (Junker’s and Kegel), and whenever someone in your family gets a big honor, you’re so happy for them. Eric has come a long way from Vernon Center. He’s very deserving of these honors.”

To keep up with the 2012 NAFA World Series visit Play NAFA and NAFA Fastpitch

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