Small town, big dreams come together at Kentucky for Schultz

Kentucky Wildcat Austin Schultz (2) throws the ball to first base during the UK vs. Western Kentucky University baseball game on Tuesday, March 9, 2021 at Kentucky Proud Park in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 6-5. 

Eric Decker

Adams, Nebraska sits in the southeastern corner of the state, roughly three hours away from Kansas City. With a miniscule population of just about 500 people, an athlete that wants to get noticed has to do it all. 

“When you come from the Midwest, you kinda have to do anything you can to get seen,” Austin Schultz said.

Schultz, a junior infielder for UK, had to battle for exposure in order to play college ball because attention from college teams can be hard to come by  in some of the Midwest states. Recruitment-wise, athletes can find getting their name in front of the right people as much as a challenge of actually performing well and proving to be worth the hype – especially in a community as small as Adams. 

Schultz joined Legion, an amatuer youth baseball league, around the age of 14 to access a higher level of competition. Legion took him across the nation to play baseball, giving him the exposure he desperately needed. Schultz was eventually scouted by Kentucky staff at Legion tournaments and seasons out in Colorado and Georgia.

Even though baseball had consumed his life at that point, Schultz explored his other talents in other sports, as other small town athletes often do. Hewas a first-team All-Nebraska running back after his junior season at Norris High School, recording 1,641 yards and 23 touchdowns in 11 games.

“After my junior year I did think about wanting to play both baseball and football in college, but obviously that changed,” Schultz said. By his junior year, he was already committed to play Division I baseball in college – just not for Kentucky

Schultz originally committed to play at Wichita State, but quickly realized he was selling himself short. Still, a deep sense of commitment to the coaching staff that recruited him left him questioning his choices. Schultz said he hopped on the opportunity to secure a Division I offer too fast without considering past that. He needed to play in a major conference if he wanted a better chance at reaching his dream of playing in the MLB.

“I just feel like I trapped myself in a corner,” Schultz said of committing as a junior to a mid-major school. “The coaching change [at Wichita St.] happened and I reopened my options that June.”

Schultz spent the summer before his senior year of high school travelling with his Legion team, looking to make final pitches for major programs. According to Schultz, a little bit of luck helped him grab the attention of the Wildcat staff.

“I think I hit like three home runs in three days, and they saw that,” Schultz recounted.

Luck aside, his performance both there and back in Nebraska gave Nick Mingione and the rest of the staff confidence in offering Schultz, who committed to UK on Aug. 9, 2017. At that time Schultz was  ranked the number one overall player coming out of Nebraska, according to Perfect Game. Mingione still allowed him to play football that season, but Schultz said Mingione would call him after almost every game asking if he got injured.

Once he graduated from Norris High School, Schultz moved to Lexington almost immediately, coming in for a six-week workout plan during the summer of 2018.

“Almost the whole freshman group got there early, and we just went through the summer working out, practicing at the facilities,” Schultz said. “It was really good for us to start.” 

The work paid off immediately for Schultz, who had a stellar year in his first campaign as a Wildcat. As a freshman, Schultz started 40 games – the bulk of them at the shortstop – and posted his best work during the SEC schedule. In conference play, Schultz recorded a .803 OPS and ended up garnering a 27 game on base streak, just the seventh Kentucky player in the last decade to do so.

Even with all his freshman success, Schultz’s true breakout season was his sophomore year in  the shortened 2020 campaign. In 16 games, Schultz led the team in runs and RBI (20 each) and had a 1.233 OPS while recording 5 home runs. Then COVID-19 struck.

“We were just sitting in the facility watching the TV and saw that the SEC conference was cancelled in Nashville, so we were like ‘Well, we’re definitely not going there,’” Schultz said. “And then we heard that Omaha was cancelled so it was like ‘What’s the point of this now?’”

Despite the ups and downs of his college career, the outcome has always remained the same in Schultz’s mind. He wants to play in the major leaves – and scouting systems took serious notice despite the limited 2020 sample size.

Schultz was named a Second Team Preseason All-American by Collegiate Baseball News coming into the 2021 campaign, and is starting to realize the potential and value he’ll possess.

“I asked some of the coaches before the season if they’ve ever coached three top-100 outfield prospects in the same outfield before,” Schultz said. “They said no.” Himself, Oraj Anu and John Rhodes who received that accolade.

Roughly a consensus top-100 prospect coming into the 2021 draft, Schultz is still laser focused on the potential that this team has. Omaha is only 80 miles from his hometown, and he wants to get back there.

“The top four of our lineups is really dangerous,” Schultz said of him, Anu, Rhodes and TJ Collett. “We’re just really excited to go out this year and show what we can do.”

Currently in the midst of an 11-game hit streak and another superb season at the plate, Schultz seems to have no intentions of letting the opportunity to represent the state of Kentucky go to waste.