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THS grad receives national honor, ready for 2014 MLB Draft
By ZACH BIRDSONG
Former Tullahoma High School baseball player Justus Sheffield added another prize to his long list of accomplishments on Tuesday when he was named the Gatorade Tennessee Baseball Player of the Year.
Sheffield was awarded for his performance on and off the field during his senior season with the Wildcats, making him the second THS baseball player to collect the award in the school’s history. In 2005, Bryan Morris was the first Wildcat to be named the state’s Gatorade Baseball Player of the Year. Morris is now a relief pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates. And Sheffield may not be far behind.
Although he signed a letter of intent to play baseball at Vanderbilt University, the big leagues are knocking and Sheffield said this week he may just be ready to open that door.
According to scouts, Sheffield is expected to be a top pick in the 2014 Major League Baseball Draft, which opens on Thursday, June 5. If he is a first-rounder, Sheffield said he may take the next step in his professional career sooner than many had expected.
“Right now, if things honestly work out in June, then I’m going to go ahead and get my career started,” he said on Tuesday, while waiting to catch a flight to Arizona, for a pre-draft workout with the Diamondbacks. “But, if things don’t work out, then I’ll have Vanderbilt to fall back on, which isn’t a bad second option at all. It’s actually a great second option. Either way, whatever happens, I’m just going to go with what my gut feeling is and where my heart is at, that way, any decision that I make will be the right decision.”
Sheffield led this year’s THS squad to a 24-15 overall record while maintaining an A average in the classroom. Tullahoma won its third-straight District 8-AAA Tournament and its third consecutive District 8-AAA regular-season title. Tullahoma fell short of the state tournament after losing a sectional round matchup at Cookeville 3-2 on May 16.
On the mound this season, Sheffield collected a 10-0 record. In 61.2 innings pitched, the left-hander struck out 131 batters and only allowed three earned runs all season for an ERA of 0.34.
Sheffield also played center field and enjoyed success at the plate. He batted .405 from the dish and collected three home runs, 13 doubles, 16 RBIs and 22 runs. He also recorded a .478 on-base percentage and slugged .620 this season.
“He’s just a competitor and he has three pitches,” said THS head coach Brad White after the 2014 season opener at Columbia on March 10. “He can pitch to both sides of the plate with his fastball and then he can pitch both sides with his curveball, it looks more like a slider. When you can do that with that type of velocity, you are tough to hit.”
Sheffield’s stats and on-the-field performance have drawn praise from coaches who had previously devoted their efforts to finding a way to win against the ace pitcher.
“He is a once-in-a-decade player who elevates the players around him to another level,” said Travis Tate, head coach of rival Lincoln County High School. “I truly believe what separates him — other than his ability — is his competitive nature. He competes as well as any kid I have ever coached against.”
Heading into the final year of his high school career, Sheffield had two goals: To get the ‘Cats back to the state tournament, and to be named Tennessee’s Gatorade Player of the Year.
“It’s awesome because coming into this year, one of my goals was to get the award,” Sheffield said. “Everything worked out. We had a great year and to follow it up with this award is a big step.”
The Gatorade Player of the Year award, established in 1985, has become one of the most prestigious accolades in high school sports. Past winners include Robert Griffin III, Dwight Howard, Derek Jeter, Lisa Leslie, Peyton Manning, Joe Mauer, Alonzo Mourning, Emmitt Smith, Abby Wambach and Kerri Walsh.
Away from the field, Sheffield also served as an office aide for the THS counseling center and was named homecoming king in January. He donates his time locally as a student-teacher at Bel-Aire Elementary School, in addition to volunteering as a youth baseball instructor.
Tullahoma Director of Schools Dan Lawson praised Sheffield for his performance this past season. Lawson not only spoke highly about Sheffield’s on-the-field efforts, but also his time away from the baseball diamond.
“The Gatorade Player of the Year award truly is designed to recognize the ‘best of the best’ in athletic endeavors,” Lawson said. “Justus Sheffield truly models the academic and athletic attributes that his parents and school hope for in each student, and represents our schools, community and state in a manner that makes us all proud.”
The newly minted THS alumnus has had a busy post-graduation schedule. He vacationed in Florida with his family for two days and then on Tuesday he hopped a flight for the workout with the Diamondbacks. Sheffield will the return to Tullahoma on Thursday and then on Saturday, he’ll be heading to Kansas City for another pre-draft workout, this time with the Royals.
While he gets set for the MLB Draft, Sheffield is making a point of enjoying what could be his final few days in Tullahoma.
“There are so many memories that I can’t even explain and that I won’t be able to get back,” Sheffield said. “Knowing that this might be my last week or so in Tullahoma, I just want to be able to have fun, hang out with my family and hang out with my friends as much as I can. None of us can get these memories back unless you redo high school again, but that wouldn’t be good. But, Tullahoma has been good to me.”
Sheffield credited White as a particularly positive influence on him, both as a player and a person.
“Coach White has been there since day one and I wouldn’t be the same baseball player if it wasn’t for him,” Sheffield said. “We’ve been through a lot since freshman year. I’ve learned a lot from Coach White and a whole lot about baseball, but also about life. I respect him, and good luck to him in the future seasons that he is there in Tullahoma.”