New Castle News

Sports

May 9, 2012

Athlete of the Week: Rick Jones of Laurel

NEW CASTLE — It’s easy to notice what type of player Rick Jones is for the Laurel High baseball team.

His hat is worn out and faded. His favorite green baseball socks have giant holes in them and his jersey usually is covered in dirt after a game.

“It’s pretty old and it’s pretty worn,” said Jones of his Laurel baseball hat, which used to be solid green, but now has streaks of white throughout it. “I don’t really change it. It fits good.”

Old hat, old socks, old school. The approach has suited Jones quite well.

The leadoff hitter and shortstop for the Spartans has been nothing short of spectacular this season. Aside from leading Laurel in batting average (.549), runs (27), steals (13), doubles (7), triples (3) and four saves. He’s No. 1 in the WPIAL in hits with 39. He backs it all up with stellar defensive play at shortstop.

Last week was no different.

The senior went 6 for 10, scored seven runs in three games (all wins) and helped the Spartans reach the playoffs for the fourth straight year. In the game that clinched their playoff berth, Jones went 3 for 3 with three runs and three RBIs and finished a home run short of the cycle.

The performance earned him Lawrence County Athlete of the Week honors, an award sponsored by Washington Centre Physical Therapy and selected by the New Castle News sports staff.

It’s an award that probably could have come at any time over the past few seasons.

Laurel coach Eric Verdi said he inserted Jones into the starting lineup as a freshman and hasn’t taken him out since. He’s watched the 6-foot, 160-pounder grow into one of the premier players in Lawrence County. Verdi said his assessment doesn’t come from the fact that Jones ranks in the top three in the county in every major offensive category, or because his combination of speed, hitting and fielding is unmatched by most players. It’s Jones’ overall consistency that impresses Verdi.

“You talk about a guy you’re going to miss when he leaves,” said Verdi after mentioning all the statistical categories that Jones leads. “When a coach starts a team, you always want to build from the middle in, and having a shortstop like Rick for the past four years has had that calming effect on our team. I think that’s one of best compliments I can give him is that it’s calmed our team down having somebody that good playing shortstop for us for as long as he has.”

It’s all in a day’s work, Jones said. He’s been fielding ground balls at shortstop since his grandfather first got him to start playing baseball at age 4. He’s a little bigger now, but he still loves playing defense and has just as much fun playing ball as he did back then.

“I like sliding, I like getting dirty, I like making plays,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be a good hitter, but I enjoy defense. A lot of people say the best part of the game is batting, but I like defense.”

Jones, who will continue his baseball career at Indiana University of Pennsylvania next year, has been the first-team all-section shortstop for the past three seasons, Verdi said, and he’s certainly on pace to make it four. He and the Spartans enter the playoffs with a 12-4 section record and are 15-5 overall. Jones has been at the heart of their success, and Verdi said it’s not just because of his physical tools. Jones is one of Laurel’s team leaders, and he helps himself and others by displaying an overall understanding of the game.

“He brings a lot of good aspects to our team,” Verdi said. “As a leadoff batter, you have to let your team see what that opposing pitcher has that first time up, and he’s done well with that. When he sees a first pitch and he works deeper into counts, that’s when he has better success. He’s very aggressive and likes to swing at first-pitch fastballs ... but he’s been patient. He has a such a good eye and good hands, he can hit the ball to all fields.”

The roles as leadoff and shortstop have helped develop Jones’ leadership skills as well. Normally reserved and quiet, he’s forced to speak up and communicate to his teammates. The results are a stronger team chemistry and teammates with a broader knowledge of the situations.

“I’ve always tried to be a leader, even as a freshman,” Jones said. “I knew my spot — there were other leaders on the team — but I always tried to help out. I know my job as a shortstop, too. You’re supposed to be the leader of the infield and tell everyone what’s going on and everything. I’ve tried to keep everybody up, even after our losses. We’ll get over it. We’ll be all right.”

Luckily, he hasn’t had to do that very much.

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