SMITHFIELD — There are several sides of Josh Stikeleather the baseball player.
There’s the kid that slept with the first “big barrel” bat he could call his own for a week after he got it. And there’s the gritty competitor who battled back to play the game he loves after breaking his leg in five places during a bull riding competition. Most recently, he’s played the role of veteran starter and leader for an unforgettable baseball team: South Johnston High’s eastern regional runner-up squad. And there’s the surname he was given from his parents, Lee and Vickie, that seems made for baseball.
Now, he can add Sam Narron Award winner to his resume. Stikeleather, a fresh graduate of South Johnston and a key member of the Trojans team that reeled off four straight playoff wins this spring, received the honor from Rooster Narron, the son of the award’s namesake, in a small ceremony in Smithfield Wednesday.
The award is named for the Johnston County native who spent 30 years in professional baseball and loved to regal young players across the county with a glance at his two World Series rings and an endless supply of stories. Its goal is to recognize one senior baseball player from the county each year that best typifies the Narron family credo of “determination, dedication and sacrifice.”
Stikeleather, a shortstop by trade, started his baseball career in the Trojans’ green and gold in a wheelchair. He was still recovering from his latest (and last) battle with a bull at the time. There had been many successful rides before (Stikeleather was a junior state champion in 2010), but as his dad, Lee says, “Josh has finally realized that bull riding wasn’t a great idea for a middle school student.”
South Johnston coach Keith Durham remembers cringing when he’d watch Stikeleather try to run during workouts after he’d left the wheelchair behind. But that slender build that’s typical of many rodeo competitors kept plugging along.
“It didn’t really hurt so bad, it was just so weak,” Stikeleather said. “I just had to reteach my ankle how to move. It was different than before.”
But he battled through and saw his role on the team grow every season. Even last season with a roster of 11 seniors, Stikeleather was a contributor for the Trojans. But it might be said that his biggest contribution was what he learned from the class of 2013 off of the field.
“When we lost at West Brunswick in the playoffs last year, I challenged the juniors after the game,” Durham said. “I told them our biggest obstacle for this season (2014) would be leadership.”
Stikeleather took that talk to heart. He led in the dugout, the gym and the weight room, making sure the 2014 Trojans had as much of the knowledge about how to play high school baseball as the previous team’s senior class had given him.
“That was a pretty great group of guys,” Stikeleather said of the Class of 2013. “I just took over what they had been giving to us younger guys on the team last year. I knew our biggest obstacle would be making guys understand how important it is to keep working hard.”
It took, as Durham said: “He made it his team.”
Success wasn’t consistent through the regular season but once the playoffs began, South found its way.
“We just started putting it all together,” Stikeleather said. “And we just kept playing. By the time we realized what we were doing we were in the fourth round.
“And some guys had really huge games. Joe Johnson, Joey Matthews and on.”
Stikeleather received a $500 scholarship from the Sam Narron family in conjunction with the award. He’ll put it to use playing for the College of Albemarle next spring.
“It’s really special to receive an award like this because it’s for the whole county,” Stikeleather said. “It makes me feel like I made an impact on our team and our season.”
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