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STANHOPE — A.J. Jones, with the assistance of his college baseball-playing father, made a list. He checked it twice.
But the Southern Nash High senior won’t be mistaken for Santa Claus during the coming holiday season. This was an account of each and every baseball mind and mentor who arrived at the conclusion that Jones was not and would not be suited for NCAA Division I baseball.
“We had a game when I was 14 years old, and a coach told me I wouldn’t be able to play Division I, let alone Division II baseball,” Jones recalled. “It seemed crazy, but I just continued to work hard, keeping the ‘P.L.T.’ mindset, which was be positive, play loose and be tough.”
The tally reached double figures, and didn’t stop. Fifteen. Twenty. Every assessment, further fueling a fire.
Recently, Jones served his detractors with receipts — in the form of a National Letter of Intent — when he signed to continue his career at Division I Gardner-Webb University, coached by former Barton head man Jim Chester.
Jones becomes the first Firebird in 20 years to sign with a Division I program after considering additional offers from UNC Asheville, North Carolina A&T and North Carolina Central. The campus experience at Gardner-Webb provided the most home-like feel for the three-time all-conference pick in the 3-A Big East Conference.
“I used to be real short, real skinny, real small,” Jones recalled. “Ever since I was a little kid, I played an age higher, and I always felt like I was on the outside looking in to other players. I hit a home run when I was little and no one believed me. All my teammates, that weren’t on the team at the time that I played with previously, didn’t believe me.
‘There’s no way you did that.’
“Just from there, I had to prove people wrong to get my goals.”
Playing shortstop for head coach Todd Brewer’s Firebirds, Jones hit .411 as a junior with 14 RBIs and contributed to the Southern Nash pitching staff. Since joining the Firebirds as a freshman, Jones has missed just one game that the program has played. He opened his high school career at second base and admits his offense is ahead of his defense. Once a contact hitter that had a fear of the strikeout, Jones has matured into a hitter that readily sprays the ball to all fields.
The offense-first mentality coming out of high school is of little concern to his future coach and program.
“Honestly, he recruits hitters,” Jones said of Chester. “They see me as a middle infielder, but they love my hitting as well. I’m just happy to play wherever he wants me.”
Brewer referred to his shortstop as a “cornerstone” of the program as he enters his sixth year in charge of the Southern baseball fortunes.
“In talking with his parents, I know he said he had goals written on his wall,” Brewer said. “To be a D-I baseball player and stuff like that, and it’s been a goal he’s had for a long time. He’s an example of how much hard work definitely pays off. Set your goal, keep working toward it and good things can happen.”
The son of Andy Jones Sr. and Stacie Jones of Nashville plans to major in history and will endeavor to be part of the first NCAA regional appearance in school history. Andy Jones Sr. played collegiately at North Carolina Wesleyan, ensuring another generation will play at the next level.
“I would have been happy to go anywhere,” Jones said. “But Division I is special. A lot of work and blood, sweat and tears went into it, but I’m just so happy it’s all coming to fruition.”