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Scholar Athlete: Bulldogs’ young gun

JAY SOWERS | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT Natchez High School pitcher Joseph Russell throws a pitch during the game against Cathedral High School on Wednesday evening.
Natchez High School pitcher Joseph Russell throws a pitch during the game against Cathedral High School on Wednesday evening.

NATCHEZ — Joseph Russell may be an A-B honor roll student in middle school, but his spring looks to be dominated by a high school lesson plan.

No, the Morgantown Middle School eighth-grader isn’t taking classes at Natchez High School. But as the No. 4 pitcher on the NHS baseball team, Russell stands to receive a baptism by fire this season as he learns to pitch at the high school level.

Russell said he found out last week he was going to be in the Bulldogs’ rotation.

“I was pretty surprised, and I was proud of myself,” Russell said.

NHS head coach Brian Kossum said Russell’s ability to throw strikes is why he trusts Russell to pitch against players much older than him.

“He’s pitched before, and not many people on my team have pitched before,” Kossum said. “He was one of the guys who emerged that could be consistent around the plate and mix in offspeed pitches.”

Russell’s arsenal includes a two-seam and four-seam fastball, as well as a curveball that has a sharp break, he said.

“The way it breaks, it looks like a 12-6 (curve), but I don’t think it is,” Russell said. “My fastball needs more speed, but it is accurate.”

Kossum said Russell’s ability to locate pitches will go a long way as he matures on the high school level.

“He has some work to do with his movement, but he’s so young and raw,” Kossum said. “It’s really just a matter of him getting two to three pitches across the plate.”

One big adjustment from middle school to high school will be throwing off a mound with home plate 60 feet, 6 inches away, as opposed to 53 feet in middle school.

“It makes a big difference,” Russell said. “It makes you kind of throw it in the dirt a little bit more, like you’re throwing it lower than you’re normally doing. You have to get used to throwing it higher and putting more strength into it.”

And Kossum said the difference in distances was almost a deal-breaker for his young hurler.

“He didn’t want to pitch at first,” Kossum said. “I didn’t even know he was a pitcher until his mom told him to pitch. I asked him why he didn’t want to, and he said he was nervous throwing (from a longer distance). But once we got him up there and throwing, he did fine.”

Russell said his mindset will be to keep the ball low and outside when he finally faces high school batters in a regular-season game.

“I just have to make sure they don’t get ahold of it,” he said.

But hitters are going to hit him, Kossum said, and the test will be whether or not he gets too down on himself.

“He’s going to have to be able to stay mentally focused and act like it doesn’t matter,” Kossum said. “He has to go hard, and if something goes wrong, you just have to be able to let it go. He has to rely on his defense and let them play behind him.”

Another adjustment is getting used to having teammates that are in high school, but Russell said he hasn’t had any issues with anyone.

“I get along with all of them,” Russell said. “They treat me like I’m already in high school, and they treat me with respect. I was nervous (being around them) at first, but probably my second week practicing with them I started to get comfortable.”

So far, Kossum said he thinks the other players have taken a liking to Russell.

“The one thing is that he just keeps his mouth shut,” Kossum said. “When you’re around older guys who have been playing since they were in diapers, that’s important. He just comes out and works hard. He’s only an eighth-grader, but he has everyone’s respect.”

While the varsity experience may be a lot to take in right now, Russell said he’ll still have the same mindset when it comes to keeping his grades up.

“I try to get as much done at school first, then I get home as quickly as I can to get all my homework done,” Russell said. “The latest I’ve ever stayed up is 11:30, and I was pretty tired (the next day).”

Russell is the son of Nikki Shaifer and Benjamin Russell.