The two southpaws from the Deep South share a lot more in common than a burning desire to one day pitch in the major leagues. The left-hander from the small town in southeastern Mississippi not far from the Gulf Coast and the lefty from the little bit larger Alabama town that sits fairly close to the Tennessee state line, also share pride in their southern up-bringing.
“I’m a boy from Lucedale, Mississippi,” George County (Miss.) High School senior Justin Steele told Perfect Game during a telephone conversation this week. “I’m not really the biggest country boy here but as far as everybody else sees me, I’m pretty country. I love fishing, especially bass fishing, and I’m actually about to go fishing right now.”
Lucedale boasts a population of about 3,000 and is the county seat of George County. It’s about 70 miles north of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast and about 350 miles southeast of the town of Athens, Ala. With a population of about 22,000, Athens, the county seat of Limestone County in far north-central Alabama, sits about 25 miles south of the Tennessee border.
Ardmore High School senior Cody Reed was pretty much born and raised in Athens, and he and Steele have both developed an affinity for throwing fastballs nearly 95 miles-per-hour right along with a love of getting a line wet when the mood strikes them.
“We fish a lot, me and my daddy and my brother. We fish all the time when we can find time to, with baseball and all,” Reed said in a separate telephone conversation with PG this week, noting that lately they’ve been filling their stringers with crappies. “It’s been real good growing up here; it’s been a lot of fun. There’s always something to do when you’re bored. We have a little creek right out here outside of the house where we can just go out and cast a line or something.”
There is just something about the combination of baseball and fishing that has a southern-fried feel to it, almost down to the most basic genetic level. And while Perfect Game scouts have never seen Steele or Reed cast a line or snag a largemouth, they have seen them throw a variety of pitches from 60-feet, 6-inches and have come away duly impressed.
With the 2014 MLB June Amateur First-Year Player Draft set to commence in about three weeks, Perfect Game director of crosschecker Allan Simpson has Steele at No. 68 overall in his latest 2014 MLB draft prospect rankings, and Reed is close behind at No. 81. Both are projected to be selected in the first three rounds of the draft.
THE GEORGE COUNTY HIGH SCHOOL REBELS had their 2014 season come to an end in the second round of the Mississippi Class 5A playoffs the first week of May after dropping two of three games to upstart West Jones High School. The Rebels won the 5A Region 8 championship with a 9-0 mark and finished 19-7 overall after the series loss to West Jones.
“I had a really good season. It went better than I could have ever imagined,” Steele said. “I had a great senior year; I even had a good year at the plate, as well. We had a really good season (as a team) but once we got into the playoffs we ran into a really hot team.”
According to statistics posted on MaxPreps.com, Steele finished his senior season 5-1 with a 0.98 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 43 innings pitched. He also hit .418 (33-for-79), with six doubles, three triples, two home runs, 20 RBI and 24 runs.
During his three seasons pitching with the Rebels’ varsity, he was 14-4 with a 1.62 ERA, and 210 strikeouts and 40 walks in 125 1/3 innings.
“Justin is extremely competitive, and he has a God-given ability to throw the fastball,” George County head coach Brandon Davis told Greg Stephenson from GulfLive.com last November when Steele signed his national letter of intent with Southern Mississippi University. “His mentality when he’s on the mound, he wants to get everybody out.”
On Wednesday, May 14, in Jackson, Miss., Steele received the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame PopStar Award as the state’s top high school baseball player. Three finalists vie for the award in each high school sport, both boys and girls. Steele, who is 6-foot-2 and 190-pounds, topped 2013 PG All-American Ti’Quan Forbes and Bobby Bradley – two other prospects projected to be drafted in the first three rounds – to grab the award.
ON THURSDAY NIGHT, MAY 15, THE NO. 5-RANKED ARDSMORE TIGERS (26-9) were scheduled to take the field in Troy, Miss., and play No. 1 Charles Henderson High School in the first game of a best-of-3 series that will determine the MHSAA Class 4A state champion. Ardmore head coach Andrew Smith planned to hand the ball to Reed to make Thursday’s start.
He would have been foolish not to.
According to published reports, Reed averaged 17 strikeouts and gave up just two hits in the first three rounds of the state playoffs, including a 20-strikeout no-hitter against North Jackson in the second round. He struck out the maximum 21 in a three-hitter against Elkmont earlier this season, and on two other occasions struck out 19, including during a no-hitter against Lauderdale County.
“It’s been a great spring and I’ve been throwing the ball very well. This is the best I’ve ever thrown, the best I’ve ever pitched my whole life,” Reed said. “With these guys, we’ve all played together since we were 4 or 5 years old and we’ve always been really close, and this year we’ve been good from the get-go.”
Reed, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound Vanderbilt signee, didn’t exactly come out of nowhere this season. He was named the Alabama Sports Writers Association’s Class 4A Pitcher of the Year as a junior when he averaged 16 strikeouts a game.
“The guy is a special talent,” Smith told AL.com Reports this week. “For a coach, he’s a once-in-a-lifetime player. … During the offseason, he really worked on his off-speed (pitches), and it shows. Plus, he knows how to pitch. That’s how he gets so many strikeouts.”
BY HIS OWN RECOLLECTION, STEELE HAS BEEN PLAYING BASEBALL since he was 3 or 4 years old. He also played some basketball until he got into high school, and that’s when he decided to concentrate all his efforts on the diamond.
Steele explained that his fastball velocity has topped out at 93-94 mph for about a year, but the range at which it sits increased this spring. In past years his fastball might have sat 85-87 mph on a regular basis but this year he was able to keep it between 89 to 93 mph throughout an entire seven inning game.
“I always set goals for myself each year, and each year I’ve over-excelled. I always went above and beyond,” he said. “This year I was just wanting to have a solid year – keep a good ERA and rack up some strikeouts – and I blew my (goals) away. It’s just been a blessing.”
Steele played in two PG WWBA National Championships and one PG BCS Finals in 2012 with the Mississippi Prospects Scout Team; he was named to the all-tournament team at the 17u PG BCS Finals. He was also at the 2013 East Coast Professional Showcase in Syracuse, N.Y., and he relishes the opportunities he gets to perform in front of scouts.
“I love the attention,” Steele said. “In a way I feed off of it because knowing that they’re there to watch me, it fires me up and gets a little more adrenaline pumping. I think I it makes me perform better.”
Southern Miss offered Steele a scholarship after watching him throw during his sophomore high school season. He sat down and met with the Eagles’ coaching staff but the best sales job was put forth by Southern Miss junior outfielder Mason Robbins, a George County High School graduate from Leaksville, Miss.
“(Robbins) is currently playing (at Southern Miss) and he had nothing but good things to say about the coaches and everybody else there,” Steele said. “I pretty much committed right away.”
REED IS ANOTHER YOUNG GUY WHO FIRST STARTED PLAYING BASEBALL when he was around 4-years-old, and has stuck with it. He also played some basketball and football while in middle school but soon decided he felt most at home at a ballpark.
His progression on the mound has been steady and smooth throughout his high school years. As a 14-year-old at the 2011 14u/15u Perfect Game-East Cobb Invitational right after his freshman year, Reed had his fastball sitting consistently between 81 and 85 mph.
He sat 85-88 at the 2012 PG Junior National Showcase a year later and was at 88-91 at the 2013 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., while pitching for the Midland Redskins. During Ardmore’s semifinal series win over Haleyville, scouts clocked his fastball at 94 mph.
“Jupiter was a lot of fun,” Reed said. “I had a good time in Jupiter; there were a lot of scouts there and I feel like I was throwing very well down there, as well. I’ve been comfortable throwing in front of a large group of scouts for awhile now. It started when I was a freshman with the college teams, and I know that first year it took me a little bit to get use to it, but then I finally settled in.”
It was a Redskins team that included fellow 2014 Vanderbilt commits Justus Sheffield (Tullahoma, Tenn.), Keenan Eaton (Parker, Colo.), Kyle Wright (Huntsville, Ala.) and Matthew Ruppenthal (Broomfield Hills, Mich.).
“I felt like that was the best coaching staff that I could possibly commit myself to and work with me on everything,” Reed said of his decision to commit to national power Vanderbilt and head coach Tim Corbin. “I feel like I fit in with all those guys. I can go in there right now and get along with everybody. When you’ve got the same goals and the same potential it’s easy to get along with them.”
STEELE SAID HE AND HIS MOTHER, NICKI STEELE-CLARK, have sat down at least once a week over the last couple of months to talk about what opportunities the upcoming MLB June amateur draft might provide. Reed, too, said the draft is something he has discussed with family and friends.
“We talk about the draft; I just want to see how that goes,” he said before mentioning his Vanderbilt commitment once again. “It’s a win-win situation either way.”
For his part, Steele said he has no expectations.
“I’m one of those people that never wants to expect stuff – I don’t expect to (get drafted) early because if I don’t go early I don’t want to be let down,” he said. “I’m just excited about it and I’m ready to see what happens. I’m excited for everyone, and my mother’s really excited to see what happens. I’m just ready to see what all my hard work has paid off for.”
In the end, the two southern southpaws can both look eagerly to the future without forgetting for one minute where they came from – especially if the fish are biting.
“This is definitely my home and I’ll never forget it. This is where my roots are and I’ll never forget this place,” Steele said of his hometown Lucedale. “Even if I end up making it (to the big leagues) or even if I don’t make it, I’ll always end up back here. This is my home, this is where my family is, this is where my friends are; I’ll never forget this place.”