A welcome surprise: Jackson Gray’s stellar first season with WKU Baseball

WKU+outfielder+Jackson+Gray+%2851%29+is+congratulated+by+catcher+Hunter+Evans+%284%29+after+Gray+hit+his+first+home+run+as+a+Hilltopper+that+also+helped+Evans+score+during+the+game+against+Valparaiso+at+Nick+Denes+Field+on+Mar.+19%2C+2021.+WKU+won+8-4.

Credit: WKU Athletics

WKU outfielder Jackson Gray (51) is congratulated by catcher Hunter Evans (4) after Gray hit his first home run as a Hilltopper that also helped Evans score during the game against Valparaiso at Nick Denes Field on Mar. 19, 2021. WKU won 8-4.

Wyatt Sparkman, Baseball reporter

The WKU Baseball program enjoyed a welcome surprise during the 2021 season. Sophomore outfielder Jackson Gray, a transfer student-athlete, lit up the Hilltoppers’ competition in his first season on the Hill, earning a spot on both the All-Conference USA and ABCA/Rawlings Midwest All-Region second teams.

Gray slashed 363/.460/.592 during his first campaign in the red and white, swatting eight home runs and contributing 32 RBIs. He ranked third in the conference in batting average, fifth in on base percentage, and eighth in slugging. Gray contributed on defense as well, finishing the year with a perfect fielding percentage in the outfield. 

“The leadership quality he has, he wants to win,” WKU head coach John Pawlowski said when talking about the Hilltoppers’ impactful newcomer. “He’s tough. He’s hard nosed and he fit in last year with all of our returning players. He’s going to take even more of a leadership role. Not the ‘rah rah’ [kind of] deal, it’s more leadership by  how he plays, how he goes about his business. No nonsense, and I think the younger players gravitate to that.”        

Gray was an active kid growing up in Wheaton, Illinois. He would spend his summer days with friends and neighbors playing sports and enjoying the outdoors. Jackson’s biggest role model from an early age was his father, Mike Gray.

“He was extremely supportive. All the way from the early days through today still, he’s always watching, going to games, and just supporting me in general,” Jackson said. “So, he was a great role model for me.”

Mike was a Division III two-sport athlete at Augustana College, where he was named to both Augustana’s football and baseball Hall of Fame. 

“Sports has always been a great bonding experience,” Mike contributed via email. “As a family, we would often have whiffle ball or football games in the backyard and I was happy that all my children were interested in playing team sports.”

The elder Gray’s athletic career combined with the Gray family’s close proximity to a professional ball club helped to kickstart Jackson’s love of baseball. 

“My dad played baseball through college and I was always a big White Sox fan growing up, so I remember just dying at the chance to start baseball… I think like [in] kindergarten or something I was able to start t-ball and just from there I pretty much loved it… little league and all that and all the way through high school. Kind of had my ups and downs, but here I am still playing.” 

Mike said his son started off with toddler soccer before jumping into tee-ball and flag football. He shared that his son was always competitive in everything, from academics to sports. Mike mentioned Jackson only had two speeds, “zero to sixty”, a familial running joke. 

“I suppose I saw at a young age that he was extremely coachable and highly motivated,” Mike said when asked about his son’s potential as a youngster. “He was the kid in youth baseball that would catch a line drive, then immediately throw it to first to double up the runner who hadn’t tagged. Most kids were happy to make the catch, but he really understood how the game worked.” 

“One time, when Jackson was young, maybe 7th grade, he was in a bit of a hitting drought.  Instead of going out to play with his friends, he set up a camera in the garage to videotape his swing and figure out what he was doing wrong,” Mike continued. “The next game, he hit a homer which most certainly convinced him that the extra work paid off – something he carries with him still today.”

“His skill set continued to evolve into high school, he had great speed and then he grew several inches in a couple of years. At that point, I believed he could have the option to continue in either baseball or football.”

In high school, Jackson attended Wheaton North and played both football and baseball. Jackson made the sophomore team as a freshman, then played on the varsity squad as a sophomore.

“I struggled as the youngest guy on the team,” Jackson said. “I wasn’t playing well. I didn’t feel like I fit into the team. There was a tough year there where I was almost considering stopping playing baseball. Then, eventually, I got a little better the next year, a little bit better the year after that and then by my senior year I loved baseball.” 

Before his senior year, Jackson thought he would go on to play football in college. He was still participating in football camps going into his final year of high school, but switched his focus to baseball after a sudden change of mind.

“I just kind of decided, I don’t know if I want to play football in college,” Jackson said. “I think I’d rather play baseball, so I kind of switched my mind up right before my senior year and just kind of ran with it.” 

In Jackson’s senior season he split time between first base and pitcher. Jackson had three main pitches; a fastball, a slider, and curveball, mixing in a “horrible” changeup from time to time to keep batters guessing. He was named the baseball team captain, posting a 1.61 ERA and notching 54 strikeouts to go along with an 8-1 record as a pitcher. 

At the plate, Jackson averaged .353 with three home runs, setting a school record in stolen bases both in a single season (38) and career (53). This performance earned Jackson 2018 My Surburban Life Player of the Year, co-conference player of the year and all-conference honors.   

“It was great, I felt a lot of pride just kind of looking back at where I was and how far I’d come,” Jackson said. “It felt great to be able to get the awards and the recognition. Just kind of affirming my hard work through the past few years before that.”   

Jackson jumped into the recruiting process late because of his switch from football to baseball deep into his high school days. Mike explained that his son’s recruiting process was limited due to this, which is why it took a couple of years for Jackson to find a home at WKU. Jackson’s first taste of college action came at Washington University in St. Louis.  

“I remember I did this one showcase event, and I think they might have been one of two or three schools to reach out afterwards and it ended up just working out there,” Jackson said. “So, it was like my best opportunity, so I just went with it.” 

Jackson began his collegiate baseball career strictly as a pitcher but had injured his arm shortly after his final high school game. This prevented him from throwing in the summer or fall at WUSTL. Jackson was able to showcase his hitting ability during Washington’s intrasquad scrimmages while his arm healed. 

When his arm had healed up, Jackson started made three appearances and started one game as a pitcher for WUSTL, completing 4.1 innings with a 2.08 ERA and three strikeouts. He slashed .323/.417/446 with 27 RBIs and a home run at the plate. Jackson was able to showcase his speed, stealing eight bases and completing four triples. 

 But Jackson felt that WUSTL wasn’t quite the right fit so he transferred to College of DuPage, a junior college in his home state of Illinois.

“My first reaction to Jackson Gray was he was [an athletic] freak,” College of DuPage head coach Bobby Wilson said when asked about his first impressions of Jackson.

Jackson said his plan going to DuPage was to play one year at the junior college level in hopes to earn a shot to play for a Division I school. His time at DuPage was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic; he only played nine games as a Chaparral.

Wilson experimented with putting Jackson on the mound in the fall but concluded that he was more suited for the outfield. As a permanent position player he slashed .577/.667/1.077 in the shortened 2020 season. He hit two home runs along with 11 RBIs and five doubles. 

Wilson said that Jackson’s biggest improvement over that short season was hitting for power to the opposite field. He shared that Jackson was able to better handle off-speed pitches as the season progressed. Wilson was also able to learn a thing or two from Jackson during his time as his coach.

“I would say treat every athlete a little differently,” Wilson said. “Obviously every athlete is their own person in their own body, but when you have athletes like that you have to sometimes physically change what you do with them. You have to coach them a little differently. You have to train them a little differently. Jackson was a special player, so I look forward to having more special players.”

Jackson then parted ways with Wilson and his teammates at DuPage and headed for the Hill. Jackson said that the university first heard about him “through the grapevine” of a professional scout. He visited WKU and loved it.

However, the jump from JUCO to Division I competition did not start out smoothly for Jackson. There was a period during the fall where he was struggling. WKU head coach John Pawlowski explained that whether it’s freshman or JUCO players, the fall is really challenging for new athletes due to the struggles of learning both a new system and new training methods. This can lead them to doubt their abilities.

“When they struggle a little bit they tend to doubt themselves and you have to trust your ability,” Pawlowski said. “Some guys come in and try to do too much.”

Jackson said that the hardest adjustment of his transfer was facing better pitching. WKU hitting coach Ben Wolgamot said he saw that Jackson’s talent was there and knew at some point that it would come along. 

“He probably left for Christmas break thinking, ‘I didn’t have a great fall’, but as a coaching staff, when we looked at the numbers we like to dive into, we knew he had the ability to have a productive spring for us just based off of how he did in the fall,” Wolgamot said.  

Wolgamot explained that when WKU’s coaching staff reviewed the roster in the offseason, three things stood out about Jackson’s play. He was hitting the ball hard, he was walking more than he was striking out, and he wasn’t striking out a lot. Jackson said he felt some improvement during the winter. 

“I’d say first of all my family was great being supportive and I could talk to them whenever, throughout the whole process,” Jackson said. “It’s tough starting fresh at a new school three years in a row with a new team and new teammates and all that. Also, Coach Ben Wolgamot was great just from a hitting standpoint. He was able to help me improve a ton.”

Jackson’s first regular season game as a Hilltopper came against the North Dakota State Bison. He cracked the starting lineup, playing in right field and batting seventh in the order. Jackson went 3-for-5 and batted in WKU’s first run of the season. The Hilltoppers won that first game 10-4 and for the series as a whole he went 4-for-12 with one RBI.

“That was my goal, to just be able to play in the first game,” Jackson said. “I wanted to be in the lineup and  it just meant a lot how much the coaches trusted me.”  

The first ranked competition Jackson faced would be the then-no. 3 Vanderbilt Commodores, the eventual 2021 NCAA College World Series runner-ups. His opponent’s skill level didn’t scare him, however; Gray went 2-for-2 with two doubles, scoring WKU’s only run in a 12-1 defeat.

Over the next two series, however, he hit just .211. Jackson moved up the order to the four spot in a weekday game against Kentucky in an attempt to wake up his bat.

“Every hitter goes through their peaks and valleys, he had a couple valleys, but his peaks were much higher,” Wolgamot said. “And that just shows why he was such a good hitter for us throughout the spring.”   

In Jackson’s first full series batting fourth, he averaged .333 at the plate, driving in two runs against Bowling Green State. He began a six-game hitting streak in game three of the Bowling Green State series. He averaged .500 at the plate during that streak and launched his first home run as a Hilltopper against Valparaiso on March 19. 

“It felt good, it took a little longer than I would’ve hoped to get that first one,” Jackson said after finally notching his first Division I long ball.

Jackson’s bat was on fire when conference play began. In WKU’s first three C-USA series, he averaged .529, driving in 11 runners and swatting four home runs. He was even named C-USA hitter of the week after his performance during a four-game series against Marshall on April 9-11. Jackson scorched the Herd, going 7-for-10 at the plate, batting in 5 runs and hitting a walk-off home run in the series opener.

“I think he left a change-up up a little bit in the zone, and he had done that earlier in the game a couple of times to me, and I didn’t quite pull the trigger, so I was kind of ready for that pitch and got the barrel around,” Jackson had said following his walk-off shot.

Jackson’s strong performance throughout C-USA play helped WKU reach its second conference tournament since joining Conference USA in 2014.

After going hitless in his first postseason game as a Hilltopper, Jackson bounced back with an incredible performance against UTSA on May 27. Jackson hit a three-run home run in the first inning to give WKU a 3-0 lead. The Hilltoppers held an 8-4 lead going into the seventh but the Roadrunners rallied back to take a 9-8 lead heading into the eighth inning. 

Jackson led off the bottom of the eighth and hit a chop ball to the first baseman on a 1-2 count. Jackson utilized his speed and dove head-first into first base to beat out the tag for an infield single. The play was reviewed for several minutes before he was officially called safe. Jackson’s dive allowed WKU to use back-to-back sacrifice bunts to tie the game at nine runs apiece. 

“On the diving play, you have to do everything you can to get that first guy on in late inning situations like that, so I was glad I got called safe,” Jackson shared. “That was nice.”

WKU would go on to win the game 10-9 on a walk-off sacrifice fly in extra innings. Jackson finished the game 3-for-4 with three RBIs. 

The Hilltoppers’ season came to end the following night, but Jackson would finish the season strong, going 2-for-4 with a double and a triple in WKU’s season finale against then-no.18 La Tech. 

“It’s always refreshing to see team development, and team development goes way beyond the wins and losses,” Pawlowski said when asked about his team’s 2021 season. “Sure, we all want to put the W’s on the board, but it’s the small things. It’s the strides that players make not only on the field, but off the field. And to watch players mature and develop and become not only better baseball players, but better men, and understand the life skills that we’re trying to teach them, it’s very refreshing.”

“Then, when you have an individual player, when you break it down even farther [sic] then where they came in and how they’ve taken the next step to that development, it’s awesome,” Pawlowski continued. “He’s very coachable. He wants to learn, is a great person and I’m just excited for him and what the future holds for him.”

At the time of writing, Jackson is keeping himself in shape by playing in the Northwoods League. He’s played 35 games for the Lakeshore Chinooks and is currently batting .264 with four home runs and 19 RBIs. He is already looking forward to the spring.

“It’s kind of tough setting number goals,” Jackson shared when asked about his feelings towards the 2022 season. “Obviously, I have them. I want to achieve certain numbers, but it’s harder to control that type of stuff… I just want to keep getting better and just improve on what I did this past year.”

Baseball reporter Wyatt Sparkman can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @wyattsparkman3.