Justin Jackson was eyeing a starting spot on Hickman’s varsity baseball team when he was in Lange Middle School.
“He was basically like a team manager in seventh grade,” said Hickman coach Dave Wilson, who introduced Jackson to the team six years ago.
Then an assistant coach at Hickman, Wilson taught physical education at Lange, where he worked with Jackson’s mother.
“I had Justin in class and I knew Justin liked baseball a lot. He started riding over (to practice) and kind of helping out,” Wilson said.
Primarily a catcher at the time, Jackson says the time he spent with the team helped him develop.
“I just started catching (pitchers in the) bullpens,” Jackson said. “It was a lot of fun. I hope I helped them out a little bit, it definitely helped me out.”
Although the extent to which Jackson the seventh grader lifted those Hickman teams is indeterminable, Jackson the high school senior is helping to propel Hickman (10-1) into Missouri’s high school elite.
Now the team’s starting third baseman and cleanup hitter, Jackson is feasting on opposing pitchers who elect to pitch around Hickman’s No. 3 hitter Blake Tekotte, who has signed to play at Miami in college.
Early this season, in the fifth inning of a scoreless game, Helias pitcher Jason Lansford issued Tekotte a walk on a wild pitch that allowed the go-ahead run to score. Two pitches later, Jackson drove a low fastball over the center field fence to break the game open.
“I’ve seen a lot of strikes,” Jackson said. “I don’t take (pitching around Tekotte) as an insult or anything, as long as they keep throwing to me.”
And the opposition has. The next day against Hannibal, Jackson followed Tekotte’s plate appearances with three RBIs on three doubles.
“(Those two hitters are) hard to pitch around, kind of like pick your poison,” Wilson said.
Offensive prowess aside, what Jackson’s coaches dwell on is his versatility.
Although he starts at third base now, Jackson has been a catcher since he was 9.
“(I like) just being able to control a game, working with the pitcher, everything kind of depends on you two,” he said. “You’re just involved in every play.”
Jackson expects to play behind the plate at Southwestern Illinois College, where he has signed to play providing an NCAA Division I program does not make him an offer.
Kent Fewell, who retired last year after 27 seasons as Hickman’s head coach, said he remembers asking Jackson to help fill last season’s void at third.
“He never questioned it. He just jumped in there and did the best he could,” Fewell said. “I think he always thought of himself as a catcher and very unselfishly, he moved to third.”
Wilson said the transition has solidified the Kewpies’ defense and allowed senior Nick Steponovich to catch.
“It’s very hard to find guys that have the ability to play multiple positions,” Wilson said. “With his intelligence and his talent, there aren’t a lot of positions he couldn’t play.”
Jackson hasn’t become estranged from the shin pads and facemask. Wilson still rotates him in at catcher, keeping him available in a pinch and allowing Steponovich the occasional day off.
Southwestern Illinois coach Neil Fiala says he plans on using him mainly behind the plate.
“We need someone who can step right in and catch,” Fiala said. “Because of the amount of doubleheaders we play, it is good that a player can play two positions, because it really wears down a catcher if he has to catch three doubleheaders in a week.”
As he continues to improve at third, Division I becomes a bigger possibility for Jackson, either after this season or after two years at junior college.
“It depends what type of numbers he puts up this year,” Fewell said. “I haven’t given up on him ending up at a Division I school.”
Whatever happens, Jackson said he wants to be playing right away, rather than trying to walk on for a larger program.
“I don’t want to go somewhere for free, so it’s going to take a decent deal,” he said. “Really what I like about junior college is a chance to get to play right off the bat. I’ll be playing for two years. Whereas, if I went somewhere big, I might get redshirted, not be able to contribute.”
Wilson said he can see how a seventh grader with a passion for baseball turned into a force at Hickman.
“I remember he had really soft, good hands (in middle school),” he said. “When you have a guy that already has talent, and Justin has such a great work ethic, you know he’s got a chance to be a great high school player.”
Time will tell if those characteristics, along with six years of high school practices, lead Jackson to an elite program.