By Robert Wilson
Hartfield Academy has found a replacement for highly successful Chuck Box, who left Hartfield to become the director of player personnel for Texas A&M. And the Rankin County private school found Box’s successor within its own program.
Justin Smith, the associate head coach under Box for the past three seasons, has been promoted to head coach.
“Coach Smith is the the best fit for our baseball program and furthering the mission of our school,” Hartfield head of school David Horner said. “He has the knowledge, competency, and current relationships with our school community to continue building on a very proud tradition in our baseball program. Coach Smith is a competitor with a proven track record of winning as a player in high school and the NCAA Division I level, as well as a coach within our program. Our leadership team is confident in his ability to continue developing our team and players and building on the already outstanding community of support within our program.
“There are many things I could share about Coach Smith, but the first characteristic that comes to mind for anyone that knows or has observed him is his outstanding work ethic. As a member of our school’s faculty for the past five years, rarely is there a moment that Coach Smith is not found giving a 100% effort in the classroom, in his role maintaining our athletic grounds, or when teaching the game of baseball. He is a coach that is competent, approachable, a ‘team player’, and has an established relationship with the players in our program that is extremely positive. Coach Smith has his own ideas about how to develop a culture and program that can have his own personal mark and impact. Coach Smith has a passion to lead Hartfield’s program. He has a plan to move our team forward and is ready to step into the new classification and the challenges that come with it. He is committed to Hartfield, its mission, and our baseball program.”
“The Hartfield baseball program has developed into one of the top programs in the state,” said Smith, who was also the athletic facilities director for the past three years. “I am excited that the administration promoted me to the head coach position to allow me to continue to build on and expand the program. My goals are to mentor our student-athletes to find their God-given purpose, whether that is a future in baseball or leader in another profession, while also running a premier program with a team that is competing for championships annually.”
Smith, 28, had a successful playing career. He played infield and catcher, was the conference player of the year and was a part of three consecutive MAIS state championships at Hillcrest Christian School. Smith played catcher and helped Hinds Community College to the junior college state championship and made the all-state and played outfield for Nicholls State. He was an assistant for one season at St. Aloysius before coming to Hartfield.
“Coach Smith has helped me tremendously with my hitting,” said Hartfield rising senior third baseman Bran Boyd, a Hinds CC commitment who led the team with a .469 batting average, 19 doubles and 30 walks. “He has taught me how to really be a hitter and not just a batter. Coach Smith has helped me understand how to approach an at bat in certain situations and counts like no one else has. I am super pumped he got the job. I know he will be the coach to get us over the hump. The last three years we have had really good seasons but have come up short and I know he is the guy that will get us a ring. Coach Smith is the definition of a players’ coach, he relates to all the players. He works harder than anyone I know and is dedicated to winning. No one else deserves this opportunity more than he does.”
Smith has some experienced shoes to fill. Box had two state championship runner-up finishes in his four seasons at Hartfield and guided the Hawks to a school record 35 victories and only four losses and their second appearance in the MAIS Class 4A state championship series this season. Hartfield lost its first two games of the season to Starkville Academy and MAIS Class 5A state champion Jackson Prep before going on their school record 34-game winning streak. Hartfield fell three wins short of tying the MAIS record of most consecutive wins in a season, 37 set by Magnolia Heights in 2013. Before coming to Hartfield, Box won 283 games and six state championships in 10 seasons at Jackson Prep.
Box has more than a decade of college experience. He was the head coach at Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.) University and Itawamba Community College for a combined 11 seasons where he won 363 games. Box, a 1991 Freed-Hardeman graduate and a 2010 Freed-Hardeman Athletic Hall of Fame inductee, guided his alma mater to a 44-10 record and a TranSouth Conference regular season championship and was ranked as high as No. 7 the national NAIA coaches poll in 1997. He also led Itawamba to a No. 1 national ranking in 2000 and a state junior college championship.
Smith will return a great nucleus from this year’s team. Three Mississippi State verbal commitments return in rising senior outfielder Colton Bradley, rising senior pitcher-first baseman Lincoln Sheffield and rising junior pitcher-outfielder Brodey Walker. Bradley and Sheffield along with rising senior relief pitcher Alex McGarrh made the Priority One Bank/Mississippi Scoreboard Metro Jackson Baseball Team this season. Sheffield recently made the All-Tournament Team at the 17-and-under USA National Team Championships in North Carolina. Sheffield and Bradley were the only juniors from Mississippi to be named to the Collegiate Baseball All-American teams. Eighty-three percent of the pitching victories and 80 percent of the at-bats from this season return next year. Hartfield is moving up to Class 6A and will be in the same classification with four-time defending state champion Jackson Prep and state runner-up Madison-Ridgeland Academy next season. Prep finished ranked No. 4 in the nation by Baseball America.