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Southern Nash's Jones commits to Gardner Webb

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Southern Nash’s AJ Jones, left, throws to first over the head of Nash Central's Colby Carter during a game in 2018. Jones on Wednesday signed with Division I Gardner-Webb to play baseball.

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By PATRICK MASON
Sports Writer

Thursday, July 11, 2019

As if taking a page out of Michael Jordan’s Basketball Hall of Fame speech, Southern Nash rising senior AJ Jones made a point to recognize the “haters” on Wednesday when he announced his college commitment on twitter.

After all, Jones had dealt with criticism and doubt throughout his baseball career. Some coaches told him he wasn’t big enough, and others questioned his strength or speed. Now, Jones, the Firebirds shortstop and leadoff hitter, has a Division I roster spot at Gardner-Webb waiting for him.

“My dad has always had a lot of a confidence in me and we made a list of who told me I wasn’t good enough to play in college,” Jones said. “I remember when I was 14 and a coach took me aside and told me I didn’t have what it takes to play Division I. But my dad always believed in me and he said, ‘AJ, we’re going to remember these names when you make D I’. And I just thought about it every day when I worked out, and every day at practice.”

Jones’ father, Andy, played on the 1999 N.C. Wesleyan baseball team which won the Division III national title. And Jones had wanted to follow his father’s path with his own collegiate baseball career.

Jones has played on Southern Nash’s varsity squad ever since his freshman year, and he’s been one of the better hitters and fielders each season. This past year Jones had a team-high 20 walks and batted .411 on the year with three home runs. His batting average was the highest in his three years as a varsity player.

As a sophomore, Jones led Southern Nash in batting average (.386), and as a freshman he batted .307 while starting right out of the gate.

“Every time I go out to the field I expect that I’m going to do good,” Jones said. “I know that I’m one of the best ones, and if I have that mindset I always have an edge. It’s not cockiness, it’s humble confidence. You have to be humble, you don’t want to show up anybody, but you have to have that edge in your mind that you’re going to get the job done.”

That mindset is what helped Jones stand out this summer during a series of showcases. He tried out for and made the Powerade State Games tournament team in June in Charlotte, and also played in a Perfect Game tournament in Atlanta.

At the state games, playing in the Triple-A Charlotte Knights stadium, Jones performed well. He went 4-for-7 with a pair of RBIs and a game-winning double. Soon after he began receiving phone calls from colleges.

Later, he went on another tear in Atlanta and that’s when Gardner-Webb made its move. The Bulldogs coaching staff invited Jones on a visit and offered him during the same trip.

“It’s really awesome to do it when I needed to,” Jones said of his performance with plenty of onlookers. “I feel like I have had the clutch gene in my playing career. I’ve come up in the right spot when I needed a big hit, and I've played well at the right times. It was awesome how it all worked out, especially because I put so much work to get to where I am today.”

Jones said that after a lifetime of having to prove himself, making a college decision ahead of his senior year is a relief. The journey brought him back to little league where he remembered hitting his first home run, and all of the older players didn’t believe him.

That's when he started his dedicated run of trying to prove his doubters wrong.

“I always played an age higher, and not that I was left out but I felt I was always on the outside looking in,” Jones said. “And one game I hit a home run, my first ever, I went to everybody that I knew that I couldn’t believe that they all denied it happened. I remember that to this day. So to be able to play D-I baseball is really special for me.”