The last couple of seasons, Jason Ballard had to fight for at-bats. He usually found himself toward the bottom of the Homewood-Flossmoor lineup, so he was just trying to get on base, move runners along and set the table for the older run producers at the top.
Now a senior, he’s in a key role and has the trust of his coaches. That was on display in the first inning of the Vikings’ 9-7 win over Neuqua Valley on April 15.
Ballard was down 0-2 in the count with a runner on third base. He looked down to coach John McCarthy and got the sign to lay down a bunt.
“In the back of my head, I was like ‘Does he know there’s two strikes?’” Ballard said with a laugh. “I still felt comfortable getting it down. I know I can bunt, and we practice it a lot. It wasn’t any pressure, really.”
He did get the bunt down to the right side, and Dillon Head scored. That set the tone for the day. He added a solo home run in the third inning and wore the team’s MVP belt after the game. It was the first time he had the honor this season but not for a lack of production.
The round tripper was his fifth of the 2023 campaign. His batting average hovers just below .500, and he’s among the team leaders in RBIs.
“Jason is a kid that has worked extremely hard and taken in all the instruction we provided and applied it in a really, really good way. He’s an example of a kid that just continues to get better and listen and adjust,” McCarthy said. “His process has been tough. He had to compete for time last year. This year, we knew he was going to slot in and be one of the guys. He’s elevated himself in that three hole, which is one of the most import spots in the lineup.”
The outfielder had a home run in the two previous games, as well. Ballard said he’s more comfortable selling out on a fastball count and taking a big hack now, especially when the situation calls for it.
“Last season, I adapted. I had to fill my role. I wasn’t one of the power hitters on the team,” he said. “Now, my role is to hit the ball hard and get us going.”
Ballard is just one big bat in a potent H-F lineup that was scoring almost 10 runs per game as of mid April. The whole team is confident that if they can’t get the job done, the next batter will pick them up. If not, the one after that probably will.
“Just having a lineup full of guys that can really swing it, it makes it easy for everybody else,” Ballard said.
Homewood-Flossmoor was scratching out wins with that offense at midseason, winning usually by outscoring opponents. Some injuries to the pitching staff and a schedule built to prepare the team for the postseason ensured nothing would come easy.
“It’s just one of those times in the season that we have to grind for every little thing we get but I’m really proud of our fight,” McCarthy said.
That difficult slate included an early-season trip to Kentucky to take on some of the best high school teams in the country. The Vikings didn’t get a win in the bluegrass state but that doesn’t mean being down there wasn’t beneficial. Scheduling those kinds of games is partially about simply experiencing that level of competition.
“We had an opportunity to win two of the three games and we just didn’t finish,” McCarthy said. “We saw great programs. It wasn’t easy for us. Up and down, their lineup was really, really good and we saw really good arms on the mound.”
The win-loss record wasn’t really indicative of how good the Vikings are after that double header with Neuqua Valley. But all indications are that it should be by the end of the regular season.
The team will get healthy and some of the younger players in key roles will develop. The experienced ones, like Ballard, just need to stay consistent.
“It’s been continual growth (for Ballard during his high school career),” McCarthy said. “He’s a true example of a kid that is a great teammate, works extremely hard and is all about Homewood-Flossmoor High School. He deserves all the credit. His character is off the charts.”
Ballard’s individual goals this year include hitting .500 and breaking the school’s single-season home run record, which is 10. He’s halfway there.
After graduation, he’ll probably head to a junior college to improve his game and hope to catch the eyes of a major college coaching staff. McCarthy believes the talent and ability is there to do just that.
“I definitely want to leave (H-F) with my name in the record book,” Ballard said. “That and at least a regional championship but I’m really shooting for that sectional championship.”