Lee Essner (’04) to be Inducted into ND Athletic Hall of Fame

Anyone who knew Lee Essner (‘04) well during his time at Notre Dame, knew him as a driven, hard-working person who usually had a big smile. His work ethic was evident in many facets of high school life: hard-working student, yearbook editor and varsity athlete.

On August 10, Essner will be inducted into Notre Dame Regional High School’s Athletic Hall of Fame for his baseball accomplishments, during the school’s Queen of Victory Evening of Excellence event.

During his junior year, he was 7-1 on the mound with a 1.58 ERA. He had 53 strikeouts in 53 innings pitched. He also hit .307 in 74 at bats that year. During his senior campaign, Essner went 10-1 on the mound with a 2.11 ERA. He had 83 strikeouts in 63 innings pitched, while hitting .430 in 77 at bats. A varsity player for four seasons, Essner ended his high school career with a 19-3 record, seven saves, 11 complete games, and 159 strikeouts over 148 innings pitched.

When asked how he felt about receiving the honor of being inducted into Notre Dame’s Athletic Hall of Fame, Essner said it was a bit surreal.

“Throughout my childhood and time at Notre Dame, a huge part of my identity was being an athlete,” he said. “Like a lot of kids, I grew up pretending to be Cardinals’ players while playing wiffle ball in the backyard or NBA stars while playing basketball in the driveway. But for me, that extended to pretending to be an ND athlete playing for a district or state title as well. I was a frequent attendee of ND sports as early as I can remember, dating back to old Notre Dame on Ritter Drive. With a brother (Nathan ’99) and sister (Bonnie ’00) who each played varsity sports five and four years ahead of me, respectively, I attended nearly every baseball, basketball, volleyball and soccer game for years before I ever stepped through the doors as a student myself.”

Clearly, sports were a family tradition in the Essner household, and Lee was certainly no exception. His parents, Karla and Robert Essner (’73), as well as his siblings, acted as role models for Lee’s sports interests.

Essner said, “My parents like to tell the story that I learned to throw a ball before I could walk. It was just something that came naturally to me and I couldn’t get enough of it. I was the kid who played wiffle ball in the morning, video game baseball in the afternoon, and then had a real baseball game that night…and then did it all over the next day. My siblings were especially influential (in my sports career). My brother and I spent a lot of time in the batting cages and just being around the game. He often let me tag along when he didn’t have to. He wore #3 while at Notre Dame and I did, too. I was always very proud of that. My family has always participated in sports, back to my Grandpa Herbert Hahn, who was a great baseball player in his own right and an inductee into the SEMO Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame.

“The dedication of my parents is something that can’t be overstated. My mom never missed a game. From bringing snacks to cleaning muddy uniforms to all the countless, thankless tasks that parents put in: she did them all and then some. My dad is the hardest working person I’ve ever known. Yet when it was summer and there was still some daylight left when he came home from working late, he still found the energy to catch me while I practiced pitching or take me to the city park to hit. Looking back, my parents’ sacrifice was truly special and their support was always, and continues to be, immeasurable.”

Essner’s sports influences were not limited to family members, but also extended to the Notre Dame coaching staff.

“Coach (Jeff) Graviett and Coach (Tim) Garner were big influences,” Essner said. “I’ve known Coach Graviett since he was an assistant coach at old Notre Dame. His dedication rubbed off on us. I can’t thank him enough for all the times he opened up the batting cages, or let us take just a few more ground balls, when I’m sure he was ready to go home. Coach Garner was early in his coaching career when he started helping out with baseball. A college pitcher himself, he has a gift for making personal connections and taught me a lot about what it means to be a pitcher and how to carry yourself as a leader on a team.”

Looking back on his time at Notre Dame, Essner said he felt incredible pride every time he put on a Notre Dame uniform. That feeling of pride in his alma mater has certainly not gone away.

Essner said, “Praying before games, we’d say a Hail Mary and end with ‘Mary, queen of Victory, pray for us.’ I still think about that to this day. It’s not a feeling that goes away.”

Essner believes sports have taught him lasting life lessons that are still applicable today.

“My sophomore year, I broke my right wrist playing basketball for ND during a JV game. It was a pretty bad break and required surgery. For a baseball player, especially a pitcher, that was devastating. It was my first real lesson that you are defined by your perspective and actions not in easy times, but in difficult times. My parents taught me to overcome adversity, but sports were a time to put that learning into practice, and it’s stuck with me my entire life,” he said.

Essner fondly remembers defining moments during his high school sports career, like the district championship game his junior year against Sikeston High School. He said the Sikeston team “was stacked” as it featured a future Major League Baseball first round draft pick and multiple division one athletes.

“Classmates Matt Wulfers, Blake Urhahn and I had played against them since we were kids and each had our moments in this game,” Essner said. “Matt set the tone with a first-inning home run. Blake threw an incredible game, pitching six innings. And I had the biggest hit of my life, a bases-clearing double that knocked in three. After starting on the mound the day before, I came in as a relief pitcher to get the last two outs of the game. To be on the mound for the final out is something I’ll never forget.”

Essner was also named the Southeast Missourian Player of the Year his senior season.

He said, “That is an honor I still cherish. My godfather, Randall Friend, framed the article for me and it’s hanging in my house today.”

After graduating in 2004 from ND, Essner attended Maryville University. He won first team all-conference honors as a shortstop his freshman year at Maryville, and led the conference in ERA as a pitcher his junior year.

He graduated from Maryville in 2008 with a bachelor’s of fine arts in graphic design. He currently works as a creative director at a technology company, using his design background to make apps and solve business problems with technology.

Essner and his wife, Mary Beth Dolan, have four children, two boys and two girls. They are active in their local parish (Immacolata) and school. They coach, participate in faith groups, and volunteer at various community events.

Ironically, Essner’s Notre Dame roots have followed him to his present-day life living in St. Louis.

“My son is classmates with a girl whose parents went to Notre Dame with me, and my daughter is classmates with a girl whose parents also attended ND when I was there. We now coach their softball team together. When I see the quality of people Notre Dame produces, it is hard to not be proud of that.”