SARASOTA — AJ Strong learned a valuable lesson early — the most dominant hitters in the game are those who spend their days perfecting their swing.
Over the years, The Out-of-Door Academy senior has taken that message to heart, and in the months leading up to the start of the season, the two-sport athlete spent his days in the batting cage focusing solely on his swing.
“My uncle (Dwayne Strong) always told me that most, if not all, (professional) baseball players end up hitting off the tee more than anything else,” Strong said.
Strong’s dedication has paid off — the senior is having by far his best season on the diamond. Through 19 games this season, Strong leads the Thunder in nearly every offensive category and is ranked in the top five in the state in home runs (second) and RBIs (fourth).
Strong has a .458 batting average, a 1.017 slugging percentage and a .529 on-base percentage with eight home runs, 30 RBIs and 25 runs scored so far this season.
“He’s having just a crazy year at the plate, and defensively he’s been just outstanding,” coach Mike Verrill said. “He’s a real good example for the younger guys. They watch him play and see him going all out all the time.”
Strong began playing T-ball for North River American Little League when he was 4 years old. At first, baseball was simply something to keep Strong entertained during the summer.
“It was just another activity to do to stay out of trouble,” Strong said. “I wasn’t a bad kid, but I could find things to do to get in trouble.”
But when Strong turned 8, he grew to love the sport and joined the Rough Riders 9U travel ball team.
“I knew (then) that I could be really good the harder I worked at it,” Strong said.
After sitting out his sophomore season with a shoulder injury, Strong returned to ODA’s starting lineup last spring and finished the season with a .390 batting average, six home runs and seven triples while leading the Thunder to the regional tournament.
Now in his senior season, Strong is hoping to the lead the Thunder back to the postseason.
“I’m just trying to help the team out,” Strong said. “I just like being out with my teammates. That’s where you win championships because if you have camaraderie and chemistry, then nobody can beat you.”
Following this season, Strong will turn his attention to college and the possibility of playing baseball or football at the collegiate level. Strong has already been accepted to the University of Akron and is also looking at Troy and Florida A&M for academics.
Strong, who plans to major in sports management, has aspirations of playing collegiate athletics.
But if it were up to him he wouldn’t have to make a decision and instead would be able to play both baseball and football.
“I love them both,” Strong said. “It’s just a hard choice. I’m really stuck between a rock and a hard place.
“I want to major in sports management though so I’ll be able to keep up something I love if I can’t make it (professionally),” he added. “I plan to give back to kids in need and help make them better players.”
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].