Ryan Scharf thought the guy in the Los Angeles Dodgers shirt was out of place.
But it was a clue that he was a baseball player. So, being the ace of the school's pitching staff, he approached him, though only to offer instruction during their P.E. weight lifting class.
For a little while, he was like the new kid's tutor – “in charge of making sure he was doing the lifts,” Scharf said. They didn't talk much at first, until Scharf went on and on about the baseball team.
“We're good ... We're gonna be good this year,” he boasted.
They shared a mutual interest, so Scharf and the new kid, junior Cameron Leff, became fast friends. Scharf introduced him to all of his buddies, and Leff could see the baseball team taking shape.
“I saw how athletic (Mason) Bruce was in P.E.,” said Leff, whose intramural basketball team with Scharf lost to Bruce's bunch. “I saw Payton (Grinestaff). He's big.”
In January, Leff started at Mount Zion, his third high school in as many years with his younger brother, a freshman. His family has moved from Wichita, Kan. (where he grew up), to Le Mars, Iowa (a six-month pit stop), to Mount Zion because his dad got a job with Prairie Farms.
He has played baseball at every stop and was used to the low expectations that came with being new at school.
“Me being a transfer student, probably no one thought I was good,” Leff said. “That's how it goes.”
But the perception always underestimated Leff's talent, and he proved that during the first week of practice when the team was playing catch on the football field to stretch out their arms.
“He's probably throwing 180 feet (away), and shoo,” Mount Zion head coach Matt Smith said with a smile. “He throws the ball on a line, and it's got something on it.”
The arm strength made a first impression before his ability with the bat made a second.
“I was telling my two assistants it's about time we got a good move-in transfer who can change the game for us,” Smith said after a game in late March.
Leff has a short, but powerful swing that lends itself to more strikeouts (a team-high 15) but does a lot of good when his timing is right (.327 average, 10 RBIs, five doubles).
“He's one of those kids to make you turn around and say, 'OK, that's a different sound,' ” Smith said. “You know when there are kids at a higher level. You don't have to see it, you can hear it.
“He has the tools. He came in, I saw him taking swings right off the bat, I saw his arm stength and I said, 'I know this kid's going to be in our lineup.' I knew he was going to be a player.”
Smith inserted him right into the heart of the Braves' batting order, hitting third or fourth every game.
He has bolstered the Braves' offense and, even more importantly, their pitching staff. Leff joined an established group including Scharf, Grinestaff and Christian Von Qualen and became the “stopper.”
Leff has pitched in eight games (14 2/3 innings) and is 0-1 with one save and one hold. He's second on the team with 27 strikeouts (12.89 strikeouts per seven innings) to seven walks, with a 0.95 ERA.
“This kid wants to pitch every day … He wants to be the stopper,” Smith said. “He's got good enough stuff to come in and stop the bleeding.”
Scharf leads Mount Zion's staff with 23 innings pitched and a 2-1 record in six starts. He's enjoying having a safety blanket as good as Leff.
“If there's a bases loaded situation when we need a strikeout, he's going to get that strikeout,” Scharf said. “It's real comforting knowing he's there.”
Smith said he expects Leff to be the team's No. 1 starter next year. Still, he's making a difference now.
“He's been a big catch for us, there's no doubt about it,” Smith said.