Fear the Beard

Forsyth's Jay Kaufman, a likely four-time All-State honoree, has been a standout for the Class 3 #3-ranked Panthers since arriving as a freshman four years ago. (Photo courtesy of the Kaufman Family)

As Forsyth senior baseball standout Jay Kaufman enters the building, a couple of things immediately come to mind. First, this guy obviously knows where the weight room is located. Secondly, he looks like he may have stepped out of filming an episode of “Duck Dynasty.” His red beard is impressive, and is that a mullet he’s rocking in the back?

“Hello, sir, I’m Jay Kaufman,” said the three-time All-State selection, who is a shoo-in to make it a quartet of All-State selections next month. Kaufman is the heart and soul of the Panthers, who enter district competition sporting a 22-5 record and a #3 state ranking in Class 3. The talented and humble Kaufman will close out an impressive prep career with what he and the Panthers hope is a deep state tournament run that ends at T.R. Hughes Ballpark in O’Fallon, the site of the MSHSAA State Baseball Championships.

Forsyth has enjoyed unprecedented success the past few years, and enter district play with a combined spring season record of 80-23 since Kaufman’s freshman season. That’s a gaudy 77.6% winning percentage for anyone scoring at home. The record also includes a 25-3 march through Southwest Central League competition, including three-straight conference championships. The top-seeded Panthers are scheduled to open district play on Monday at Strafford against the Fair Grove-Springfield Catholic winner.

Forsyth has gotten a step further in state tournament play the past couple years, and hope to take the next step this season. After a district semifinal loss to Springfield Catholic ended an 18-7 campaign in 2012, the Panthers responded with a district title in 2013. However, the Panthers were upset by Fair Grove in the Sectional round to prematurely end a 20-4 season. Last year, the Panthers won another district crown, and then beat Ash Grove to advance to the state quarterfinals. Catholic defeated Forsyth 11-0, though, en route to the Class 3 state championship.

“Honestly, we’ve talked about how Springfield Catholic handled it last year, and we’re trying to take a page out of their book,” said Forsyth head coach Jim Julian. “We scheduled up this year. We played in the Red & Blue (Tournament). We’ve played some bigger schools. I think that’s only gonna help us in the postseason."

Kaufman and his teammates are committed to taking the next step this season. “We want to get as far as we can,” he said. “We want to win state, but we have to take everything one week and one game at a time. You have districts, then Sectionals. You can’t take anything for granted. We’re just going to try and work hard and push our way through.”

Having Kaufman in the lineup will be a big help. The senior is the Panthers’ ace on the mound, and one of the team’s top hitters from his spot batting second in the lineup. Kaufman’s work ethic is second-to-none, and has allowed him to develop his God-given talent into an elite level.

“I feel like I’ve worked for what I’ve gotten,” said Kaufman. “I feel like working hard will always get you somewhere. God can give you talent, but it’s your job to make the most of what He gave you. I feel like He’s blessed me in many ways in my life and baseball is just one of them.”

Jay Kaufman (Photo courtesy of the Kaufman Family)

“He’s a tremendous player obviously,” said Julian. “He’s probably the hardest working kid I’ve ever been around, even looking back into my playing days, and as an assistant early in my career. Everything about him is baseball. His work ethic is so tremendous, and he brings up the other guys on our team. I think he’s had a huge impact on our team and on our program since he’s come into it. That just speaks to his work ethic.

“As a seventh grader, and really even before that, we knew he was going to be a pretty good player,” added Julian. “You started seeing his work ethic in junior high and just kind of building on that. And then coming into our program as a freshman, he’d run on his own and lift weights and do all of those things on his own outside of practice. These are the types of things we try to get our kids to understand are important and Jay was already doing them on his own. He’s brought the level of our team up just based on his work ethic. A great player who makes everybody else great is a pretty unique player to have and we’re fortunate to have Jay on our team and in our program. His work ethic is second to none as far as I’m concerned. I’ve never seen someone who works as hard and who is as detail-oriented as he is.”

Kaufman announced his presence in a hurry as a freshman, posting a 5-1 record as a 14-year-old pitcher during the 2011 fall season. He followed that up by earning honorable mention All-State honors in the spring after pitching his way to an unblemished 9-0 record on the mound, which included a 1.52 ERA, and a .349 batting average at the plate. Kaufman’s debut season became even more impressive when it was revealed in June 2012 that he had actually played nearly the entire year with a broken bone near the arch of his left foot.

Kaufman enjoyed another stellar campaign as a sophomore by posting an 8-1 record with a 2.33 ERA in the spring. He also became lethal at the plate, batting .543 with 27 RBI and three home runs. Those numbers earned Kaufman a 1st-Team All-State selection by both the coaches and media as a designated hitter and utility player.

Kaufman, who is the team’s starting shortstop when he is not on the mound, picked up where he left off last year by earning a 9-2 record on the mound, including a 1.17 ERA and 82 strikeouts in 71.2 innings of work. At the plate, Kaufman bashed his way to a .447 average, scored 34 runs, knocked in 21 runs, and hit three homers. Perhaps most impressively, the Co-SWCL Player of the Year struck out just four times all season in 100 plate appearances.

Kaufman was at his best when it counted, pitching 16.2-straight scoreless innings to lead Forsyth to district victories over Blue Eye and Clever (jn the district title game), and then to a win over Ash Grove in the Sectional to advance Forsyth to the state quarterfinals. Kaufman earned 1st-Team All-State accolades once again for his efforts.

Kaufman is just as integral to the Forsyth defense when he is not pitching. He combines with second baseman Austin Jasper to provide the Panthers with suffocating defense up the middle. Since Kaufman is so great at two different positions, where exactly would Julian prefer to have his star in the field?

“That’s a tough one,” said Julian, a former standout himself who played collegiately at Evangel. “I’d probably say on the mound, because he always gives us a chance to win. We know he’s going to be around the zone. He’s going to attack hitters. He’s going to put hitters away. He’s going to pitch to contact, and he’s always going to compete no matter what the count or the score is, or what the situation is. At shortstop, he makes our defense that much stronger. He gives our pitchers on the mound that much more confidence.

“That’s a good question,” added Julian, still contemplating where he would prefer to have Kaufman in the lineup. “On the mound, we always have the confidence that he’s going to win us a game or at least keep us in a game. At shortstop, we know he’s probably going to make a great play or two to take a hit away from someone.”

As for Kaufman, he wants the ball in his hands at crunch time. “It’s kind of hard for me to say which is my favorite…probably pitcher,” said Kaufman. “I just really like pitching. I feel like I can control the game more, kind of control the tempo more. I have a little bit more to do with the outcome of the game.”

Kaufman has been playing baseball since before he could even walk. His father, Myron, was a former college player and a former youth summer coach. Therefore, Jay has been around the game, in effect, all of his life.

Jay Kaufman (Photo courtesy of the Kaufman Family)

“From a very early age, Jay was extremely competitive,” said Myron Kaufman. “It didn’t matter what we were doing, he turned it into a competition and would throw caution to the wind to make sure he won. I coached youth summer league baseball from the time that Jay was born, so he grew up watching baseball before he even knew what he was watching. Starting at about age two, he would gather helmets, bats, and balls out of the equipment bags and proceed to have baseball games in the house. We have some great home video of (Jay’s mother) Kim pitching whiffle golf balls to him in the living room and him hitting them with a small St. Louis Cardinals souvenir bat…wearing nothing but a diaper.”

Undoubtedly, there is now a search on by Jay’s friends and teammates to find that video. There is also no truth to the rumor that Jay may be sporting a red beard in the video.

“I want to thank my parents for always supporting me and for always being there for me,” said Jay. “They’ve driven a lot of miles over the years and always been there for me. Same thing for my sister. I don’t think she’s ever missed one of my baseball games. She’s probably my biggest fan.” Jay’s younger sister, Hannah, is completing her freshman year at Forsyth.

Although Jay’s talent on the diamond is obvious, most people do not see all of the extra swings, extra ground balls, extra long toss, etc., that the senior standout puts in to be the player he is today. Although he played for the Forsyth basketball team for a season, he gave that up to concentrate on baseball year round. It is no secret that baseball is his first and only love when it comes to sports.

“I played basketball for one season, but that was just to stay in shape in between baseball seasons,” said Jay, who plays baseball at Forsyth in both the fall and spring seasons. “I didn’t really like basketball. Baseball has always been my favorite sport. I like that pitcher-hitter match-up. Also, there’s no clock on it. There’s that anticipation of something happening. You have to give the other guy his chance. There’s no running out the clock or anything like that. Just being outside is nice. I’ve just always grown up loving the game.”

“Jay’s love for the game kept us constantly playing catch, either in the front yard or anywhere else that we could find to throw a ball around,” recalled Myron.” We never go on vacation without taking our gloves and a couple baseballs. As Jay got older, his competitive nature drove him to work extremely hard. His commitment included everything from cutting all sugar and soda out of his diet, to running several miles every night so he could be in the best shape possible to compete. I can’t even begin to count how many hours we have spent together working on his swing in our basement, garage, or front yard…and the hours spent working on his pitching mechanics off a homemade mound in the driveway. The father-son bond that we have developed through this process is priceless. ‘Dad, can we play catch?’ or ‘Dad, can you hit ground balls to me?’ are a couple questions that never get old to me. I have never challenged Jay to see how good he can be…only to see how hard he can work. And he has exceeded any expectation that I could have ever imagined for the amount of work a kid can put in.”

Jay Kaufman is a big school talent that plays for a mid-sized Class 3 school. There is no doubt that Jay could compete for any of the big schools sprinkled across the region and the state.

Jay Kaufman (Photo courtesy of the Kaufman Family)

“We’re fortunate to have him in our school district,” said Julian. “I think he could go play at any school in Springfield or in the state. I think he’s one of the best players in the state. I may be a little biased, but I’ve talked to a lot of people who say the same thing after seeing him play or being around him. My brother (Dan Julian) is an assistant coach at Glendale. We played them this year and he’s seen Jay before in some showcases and other times earlier in his career. He says the same thing, that Jay would be a top starter on anybody’s staff in Springfield as far as he’s concerned.”

As for Jay, he is happy right where he is, playing baseball with the same group of guys he grew up with. “I’ve liked playing here,” said Jay of his time at Forsyth. “I like the environment. I grew up here and I just kind of like the country life, I guess. It also seems like everybody is a lot closer together. There’s not very many kids in our class, and we all know each other really well. The team is just really close together, because we grew up together. I feel like our team chemistry is really good. We’re just really close as a team. That plays a big part in it, just being able to pick each other up and having each other’s backs.”

One major benefit to playing at a school that features both fall and spring baseball is the amount of games played each year. While other athletes in the area are putting the bats and gloves away until after Christmas, Kaufman and his Panther teammates are playing virtually year round.

“I think playing baseball year round has helped me a ton,” said Kaufman of the benefits of playing for Forsyth. “I’ve been working out a lot, trying to get a lot of long toss in. That’s a big thing, just keeping my arm in shape. And doing baseball stuff all year round. Playing almost double the amount of games and then in the summer, we’ve started a program here. That’s why I haven’t played with the (Midwest) Nationals the last couple years because we have a summer program here now.”

Jay’s exploits on the diamond will earn him a college education. Although it was possible that some Division I programs might have made inquiries this spring, Jay made it official last fall by committing to head coach Chris Martin at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar. The up-and-coming Bearcats had everything that Kaufman was looking for in a college program.

“For one, they’re a Christian-based campus, which I really liked,” said Jay. “It’s kind of smaller, not as big as a D-I. The town seems like a good town. I’ve heard a lot a great things about it. I got a pretty good offer, so that was another big thing. I really like the coach. It seems like their program is on their way up. They just got a new coach in, and ever since he’s gotten there, I think they’ve actually set a couple of records as far as wins go. I’ve also played on the Midwest Nationals my sophomore year and three of the guys that played with me on that team are going with me (to SBU) as well, so I’ve got a bunch of friends going there. That was another big thing.”

Another important aspect of playing at SBU is that Coach Martin has told Jay that he will allow him to both pitch and play in the field, which was important to a kid who wants to play baseball 24-7-365. The likely outcome of the arrangement will see Kaufman DH’ing on days that he’s not hurling for the Bearcats.

Jay Kaufman (Photo courtesy of the Kaufman Family)

Jay is so accomplished as a baseball player that it is hard to pick out any weaknesses, unless of course, you ask the man himself. Jay is too humble and too competitive not to see room for improvement.

“I get mad at myself quite a bit,” said Jay. “I try to keep that down. If I stay mad at myself for too long, that dictates my next at-bat and I may try to over-compensate or something like that. Baseball is a bunch of repetition…always practicing, always taking cuts, always throwing. If I get to thinking about stuff, then I overthink it and I end up messing up. If I’m hitting then, I just try to see the ball and hit it. I’m not looking for a pitch, I’m just in the box looking to hit basically. I try not to think too much. On the mound, I will think a little bit, though, obviously about pitches. What did the guy do previously? What did I just throw? Stuff like that. Maybe I’m trying to set him up for an off-speed, or working my fastball in or out. It just kind of depends on where I’m at, who’s up, a lot of stuff I guess.”

“He works on everything so hard that it’s hard to name any weaknesses,” said Julian. “Maybe going the other way with outside pitches, which he does a good job on to begin with. It seems like every day or every week he’s coming up with a new pitch. He’s got five pitches now, and he controls them all and has command of them all pretty well. His 0-2 pitch (and this has happened throughout his career), but he gets a little too much of the plate sometimes with his 0-2 pitch, but that’s just his mentality. He’s going to come and get you, and if he’s got you down 0-2, then he’s thinking, ‘I’m gonna come and put you away. I’m not gonna mess around.’ If he pitches at SBU, then that’s one thing that he probably needs to do a better job of, and he’s got good enough command that he can.”

One area in which Kaufman has developed has been his repertoire of pitches. As a freshman, Kaufman was a knuckleballer, a pitch that his father taught him to throw in the back yard as a young kid. While a lot of other young players start throwing breaking balls at an early age—thereby increasing the risk of injury—the knuckleball limited the strain on Jay’s arm. In fact, he did not start throwing curve balls competitively until his freshman season. Nowadays, Kaufman has an arsenal of five pitches, all of which he can throw for a strike at any point in the count.

As good a player as Jay is on the diamond—a likely four-time All-Stater—he is that much more impressive off it. His humility is evident when speaking to him, and he is quick to deflect any praise to others.

“The team isn’t just me,” said Jay. “We got a whole bunch of guys behind my back. There’s eight other guys out there. My catcher is great, always calling the right signs. We communicate well with each other. We just kind of know what we’re looking for. The other seven players always have my back, too. I have to give them all the credit.”

“As parents, who he is off the field is much more important than what he accomplishes on the field,” said Myron. “Someday he will hang up the cleats, but he will always be a man. We have been blessed to have him as a son. His biggest fan is Hannah, his little sister, and he treats her like gold. Those are the things we are most thankful for. What he has accomplished on the field is just a bonus. (Assistant) Coach (B.J.) Curry said it best when he said there are a thousand kids who can do what he does on the field, but very few have the humility that Jay has as a leader with his peers in the classroom and in the dugout.”

Jay’s father also credits the coaching he has received with contributing to Jay’s character and his love for the game. “Jay went on to play USSSA summer ball and had a great coach (Branson’s Joe Poor), who taught Jay to love the game even more, and how to play it the right way. Coach Poor had a huge impact on him on and off the field. We are thankful for the success that Jay has had on the field, but even more thankful for the young man that Jay is off the field. We extend that thanks to guys like Joe Poor who have been a great influence on Jay. Coaches Julian, (Jeff) Walls, and Curry have been a great help to Jay through high school. The time that they have invested in our team will never be forgotten.”

“All the kids gravitate to him,” said Julian. “He’s a great kid and a great person. His mom teaches here at the school and his dad has always been around, too. They are always very friendly and polite, saying ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ and ‘thank you for working with Jay’ and Jay’s the same way. He’s just real humble. He’ll be the first one to credit his teammates or credit his defense after a pitching performance he has or something like that. He’s just a solid kid, and he’s really involved in school. All the kids gravitate to him, because he’s just a likeable kid. We have solid players even if Jay wasn’t here, but he raises everyone’s level of play and their level of character just being around him and around our program.

“I’ve got two kids that are nine and seven,” added Julian. “He’s a great role model for them. Actually, all of our players are great role models for them. Jay always takes time to say ‘hi’ to them and plays catch with them if they’re at practice. He’s just a quality kid.”

So what’s the deal with the beard? This thing is impressive, especially for an 18-year-old high school kid. It looks like a giant red Chia pet exploded on his chin.

“I started growing it right after the (2013-14) basketball season, because the basketball coach made everybody shave,” said Kaufman of the beard, which he has been growing for over a year now. “That’s the only reason I remember. I just like the look, I guess. It seems like baseball players are known for having character, and there’s a bunch of Major Leaguers that have beards. And I was able to grow one, which not many high schoolers can, so I figured I’d just keep it.”

“I like personalities,” said Julian. “You get some teams, like the Yankees, that are high and tight. I like to let them show their personality as long as it’s under control. They get a lot of that from Bryce Harper and some of those guys in the Major Leagues. I just let them run with it, and they enjoy it. If their moms don’t care, then I let them go with it. Jay’s had that growing for a couple of years now. It’s just kind of who he is now. People recognize it and recognize him for it.”

One thing that people might not know about the soft-spoken Kaufman is that he is a bit of a prankster. Sometimes, it’s the silent ones that are the deadliest!

“You always got to be on your toes, because he’s going to try and play a joke on you or someone else,” said Julian. “Sometimes it’s taking pictures on the bus. Just messing with people. A couple years ago, I fell asleep on the bus and woke up with my shoes tied together. Just little stuff like that that he does to people. It’s nothing mean, but he’s just a jokester. He’s a quiet kid with a good sense of humor.”

He’s also one heckuva bearded baseball player!

Jay Kaufman (Photo courtesy of the Kaufman Family)

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