By Thomas Sellers Jr.
The eyes of the baseball world were on the grass and dirt of TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., watching the Elite Eight of the NCAA this past June.
With the field composed of Arkansas, Cal State Fullerton, Florida, LSU, TCU, Miami, Virginia and then defending champions Vanderbilt, one Tennessee teenager was glued to the television screen verbally dreaming.
Fast forward to National Signing Day, Virginia is now the reigning National champions beating Vandy in the final series. And that teenager from Munford High School signed his name, Joe Fulcher, to a national letter of intent to play for the Vanderbilt Commodores.
“It feels like a major accomplishment,” Fulcher said. “I remember last year watching Vandy play in the World Series thinking to myself, ‘There’s no chance I could ever go there.’ Here I am today.”
Fulcher gave himself a chance learning from his support system of father Micah and grandparents Dianne and Allen Smith. Several coaches helped guide Fulcher to his signing ceremony held in the MHS Library.
“They’re getting not only a great athlete but a great student,” Munford Cougars Head Coach Jake Garbuzinski said. “He’s an extremely hard-working kid and a pleasure to be around. He makes our program better. Fortunately we have about 30 other kids like him so we’re doing some good things right now. He’s definitely our leader at this point.”
Fulcher’s path toward becoming a Cougar leader and Vandy signee started at the age of 4 in the Munford Park and Recreation league. The older brother of Colby Fulcher had the ball and glove given to him by their father Micah.
“I remember everyday my Dad would take me outside,” Joe recalled. “We’ll take ground balls and throw every single day. He told me he can’t wait for the day I could field a ground ball and throw it back to him. This is just crazy how far I’ve come and how far the game has taken me.”
Fulcher joined the Batter’s Box out of Collierville to develop his pitching. Garbuzinski inherited Fulcher last season and named him the No. 1 starter. His junior season was one for the record books. Fulcher recorded a 16-strikeout game against Millington and tossed a no hitter in the opening game of the District 13-3A Tournament. The Cougars went on to earn a spot in Regionals.
This past summer Fulcher traveled to Oklahoma with Team Tennessee to play in the Sunbelt Jr. Classic. The Sunbelt Jr. Classic is a tournament held in McAlester Okla., every year and picks some of the top junior high school players across the country, from eight states and Canada.
“A lot of hard work since he’s been playing ball at the age of four,” Micah said. “The hours that he’s put in and the tireless work ethic along with not getting distracted. He’s continued to work hard and it’s been amazing just to watch him grow.
“He’s just a fighter and a go-getter,” he added. “He just wants to win and he’s very competitive. It comes out in all he does out there. It’s from the work ethic he’s put in over the years. You won’t find a kid who has worked as hard as he has, as talented as he is and just as blessed.”
Garbuzinski said Fulcher’s hard work has helped him develop a clutch attribute to his game.
“Obviously he’s an extremely good pitcher,” he said. “But his leadership qualities, there was a time last year we made three errors in a row. He struck out the side. He was able to pick us up. And he doesn’t hold himself higher than anyone else. He knows he’s just another one of the guys trying to help us complete our ultimate goal.”
Like the Commodores reached their ultimate goal in 2014 and came close in 2015, Fulcher said he wants his 2016 season at Munford to conclude in a dog pile.
“We have no less expectations than the State Tournament and the State championship,” he said. “Nothing less than what we’re going for. State is the word. If we don’t, we’ve failed as a team.”
That won’t be possible until May. But for one day in November, the Fulcher family celebrated a dream coming true.
“It’s bigger than any dream,” Micah said. “It has always been my dream for him to attend a school like Vanderbilt — National Champions a couple of years ago. They were runner-ups this past year. It’s just absolutely a dream come true and just an awesome deal.”