BASEBALL: Shelnut shining for the Indians
FORT WHITE – There's a kid out in the country who's turning heads. Not just a strong batter, but a fierce pitcher that will make you pay. The way his fastball rips through the catcher's mitt – the sound of the pop could be heard from a mile away.
Tyler Shelnut has arrived.
After a standout freshman campaign, Shelnut has put together an explosive start to his sophomore season. He's piled up over 20 strikeouts in just four games while getting it done at the plate, too, sporting a .300 batting average. His dominance – at shortstop and on the mound – has pushed the Indians to a solid 3-1 record so far.
And he continues to remain humble through it all. Shelnut, who recently committed to Florida, says he's just thrilled to be playing the sport that he loves, regardless of position.
"If I'm in the game, I'm happy,” he said. “If I'm not pitching, then I'm playing shortstop and I'm hitting. I just want to be in the game. I love pitching, [but] I'm not ready to say that I am a pitcher only and sit on the bench unless I pitch. So at Florida, that's what I am going to do, be a dual-position player."
There's been some great ones that've graced the halls at Fort White – Robby Howell, Justin Kortessis, Willie Carter to name a few. All of them have possessed qualities that aren't found in most players. The kind of guys that don't come around often – baseball junkies, like Shelnut, who love the game with unyielding passion.
With a high celling and oodles of potential, there's little doubt Shelnut could go down as one of the program's greats when it's over. Especially if he keeps fanning opposing batters with mid-80 fastballs.
"He goes right at people," Fort White head coach Rick Julius said. "He's got a great baseball smartness, exposes weaknesses and goes right at them. He's a bulldog on the mound, that's what you got to like. He don't ever give in. That's what I love about him."
Julius says it didn't take long to notice Shelnut's rare ability. The longtime coach says it became obvious to him during the first couple outings of fall ball last season.
"I started to make some calls right away," he said.
But Shelnut's baseball story goes back much further.
The young phenom has had a bat in his hands since he and his parents moved to Lake City from Miami when he was about six years old.
"I loved it ever since then," Shelnut said. "It's all I've done."
It wasn't long after arriving to town when Shelnut started playing youth baseball. He soon befriended teammate Kameron Couey, who he shares a dugout with still at Fort White. His strong bond with Couey has proved significant 10 years later as Shelnut opted to attend Fort White last year. And he's enjoyed every minute of it, staying with his childhood buddy, Kameron, and his dad, Keith, who serves as school principal.
"If you and Kameron want to come to Fort White, he offered to take us every morning, so I ride with him,” Shelnut said of Keith Couey. "He takes care of me. I can't thank him enough for what he does for me. He's another father figure."
It wasn't a parent or a coach that stirred him to baseball years ago.
He gravitated to the sport.
Shelnut carries that go-getter mentality today, continuing to work on his craft, with no further motivation needed from anyone.
"He's a great kid," Keith Couey said. "What's nice about him he stays leveled no matter what. What you see on the mound is what you get in the classroom. He's a kid that's a student of it all. He'll go home and study. He's a little different than any kid I've been around. He deserves everything that's coming his way."
Shelnut's development only accelerated when he joined the Gatorball Baseball Academy, out of Gainesville, last summer. The travel ball squad not only has provided him more formidable competition, but also an abundance of exposure to colleges and scouts.
"It's good to play with those guys because all of us have the same goal in mind," Shelnut said. "We all want to play in college or the big leagues. Being around people like that, it pushes you to do better too."
Shelnut credits part of his rise to Gatorball founder and head instructor Stephen Barton, who played at Florida (2002-2006). He says that the coach has been instrumental in his early success, including helping him secure a baseball scholarship with the Gators.
It was a dream come true for Shelnut, being offered by his favorite college team. He keeps taking the necessary steps, too, to be prepared when his time comes to step on a Division I field. Whether its extra hacks in batting practice or working on his agility in a speed camp,
Shelnut doesn't a waste moment to polish his game.
In the summer he plays for the Gatorball club, and in a couple years will be a Gator in college – but for now – he's an Indian. And he's focused on bringing another district title back to Fort White before he hangs up his high school cleats.
Coach Julius believes Shelnut has all the tools to lead the tribe to success.
"The thing about him he works at it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. That's hard for kids these days to put that much effort in wanting to do something. With his willpower, sky's the limit. I'd imagine scouts will be starting to knock at the door soon because he is a phenom."