TAMPA Jesuit High’s Lance McCullers is a very poised baseball player. Off the field he may be even more measured.
His trophy shelf is most likely bowing under his accomplishments from last season’s Jackie Robinson Award as the country’s top rising senior, to All-American nods from Baseball America, ESPNHS, Louisville Slugger, MaxPreps and Perfect Game and invitations to national showcases.
On Thursday, McCullers was dressed in a black suit in the school’s baseball locker room going through what turned out to be a mock interview with former Major League Baseball all-star and current MLB Network analyst Sean Casey, when he was taken to another part of the Jesuit campus and surprised with the Gatorade National Baseball Player of the Year award.
"Every award that I win is special to me, special to my family," McCullers said. "But to win two huge awards like the Jackie Robinson Award last year and the Gatorade National Player of the Year Award ... amazing.
"It is something that just one person wins and that is something I could’ve never imagine accomplishing. It’s humbling and I cherish it already."
Through it all McCullers, although honored, appears unfazed by the accolades, the attention and the anticipation for next week’s MLB first-year player draft where he is projected as a first-round selection. Simply stating matter-of-factly he just wants the opportunity to play another inning.
"I’m just like any other high school kid who loves playing baseball," McCullers said. "And I’d do anything to play another day, and to win this award, I’m just taken aback by it."
His humility was something that stood out to Casey in his meeting and "interview" with McCullers.
"I think you see a lot great people being around baseball at a high level," Casey said. "I think the one thing that impressed me the most about Lance is presence. He’s just a down-to-earth guy and even though he’s Gatorade National Player of the Year, it just feels like there is a humility about him."
Already committed to the University of Florida, McCullers was 13-0 on the season leading the Tigers to the Class 5A state semifinals. The senior righty had 0.18 ERA with 140 strikeouts and only 30 walks and 28 hits in 77.1 innings of work. He also had a .280 batting average, 27 runs scored, 21 RBIs and 10 stolen bases on offense.
McCullers had nine double-digit strikeout games this season and though the award acknowledges stats and on-field success, it also takes into account character and community involvement.
"They don’t come like Lance very often combining athletic ability with academic success, as well as getting out there in our community," Jesuit baseball coach Richie Warren said. "He’s one-of-a-kind using his on the field ability so well and takes that a step further to involve himself and our team in the community."
McCullers maintained a B average and was involved in volunteer work with Challenger Baseball, the Special Olympics, Metropolitan Ministries the Head Start Program and Bakas Equestrian Center.
"We sat down at the end of last season and talked about what we can do to become closer," Warren said. "And Lance really pushed for us to take on those community service projects to make us a stronger team."
The awards program annually recognizes one winner from each state, plus the District of Columbia, from football, girls volleyball, boys and girls cross country, boys and girls basketball, boys and girls soccer, baseball, softball, and boys and girls track and field. From there, Gatorade recognizes one National Player of the Year in each sport. McCullers was named Gatorade’s Florida Player of the Year on Wednesday.
Earlier this year, Berkeley Prep's Jordan Burgess was named Gatorade's National Player of the Year for volleyball.
The baseball award, given annually since 1985-86, was first given to nine-time MLB all-star and Hillsborough High alum Gary Sheffield. McCullers is the seventh winner from the state of Florida and is the first since Zack Greinke (2002, Apopka High) and Casey Kotchman (2001, Seminole High) won the award in back-to-back seasons. The list of past winners also includes Alex Rodriguez and defending National League Cy Young award winner Clayton Kershaw.