A little less than two years ago, Gavin Sheets was in the enviable position of choosing between a college and professional baseball career.
Sheets, a former standout first baseman and pitcher at Gilman, had already announced his intention to play at Wake Forest when the Atlanta Braves selected him during the 37th round of the 2014 draft. But as tempted as Sheets was to forgo college and head straight to the pros, he realized a productive tenure with the Demon Deacons could lead to an even brighter future.
The last two seasons Sheets, son of former Orioles outfielder Larry Sheets, has spent at Wake Forest reaffirmed him that he made the correct choice to play in college.
"I couldn't have made a better decision than to come play baseball [at Wake Forest]," Sheets said. "Obviously, it was awesome getting drafted, because playing Major League Baseball is something I want to do going forward after Wake Forest. But in the back of my mind, I knew it was going to take a lot of money to make me not want to go to Wake Forest, so it wasn't too difficult of a decision."
At Gilman, Sheets garnered plenty of attention from pro scouts and college coaches, becoming the school's all-time leader in hits, doubles and RBIs while earning numerous all-state honors.
The promise the Lutherville, Md., native showed at the plate with the Greyhounds has started to take shape during his sophomore season as the Demon Deacons' starting first baseman.
Through 44 games, the left-handed swinging Sheets has been a force in the middle of the Wake Forest lineup, batting .325 with five home runs and 28 RBIs in 160 at bats. He ranks second on the team in all three categories to junior third baseman Will Craig, the reigning Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year. More importantly, Sheets' emergence has helped Wake Forest compile a 27-17 overall record and 10-11 mark in conference play as the team looks to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007.
"The maturation for him as a hitter from last year to this year is that he's just a more complete hitter," Wake Forest head coach Tom Walter said. "He has better strike zone discipline, handles more pitches, covers both sides of the plate and can hit the ball the other way really well. So it's just been kind of the natural development of him as a hitter.
"The one thing that separates Gavin is he's just a really good, hard worker. He's always working on his swing and pours over the video to make sure he's in a good position to hit."
Sheets said Walter's belief in his ability to produce as an everyday player despite limited experience has been a big confidence boost. As a freshman, Sheets missed about a month of time with an oblique injury after running into the wall during a game while playing in the outfield. But he still to hold his own at the plate in limited action, hitting .250 with two home runs and 20 RBIs in 128 at bats.
"He stuck with me after I struggled initially in the beginning of my freshman year," Sheets said. "… But he stuck with me the whole way, believed in me and gave me that confidence that I can play at this level. I think that has been huge for me, as he's been in my ear every day with tips to help make me a better baseball player.
Sheets added: "This year, I think the coaches have entrusted me with the confidence where I know that I'm going to be in the lineup every day. That's made a big difference, because I know I can just go out there and play freely and kind of just not worry about the results."
He also understands that he needs to remain focused on sustaining his success at Wake Forest, where he will spend at least one more season fine-tuning his skills.
Photo Credit: Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images
If he continues his rapid ascension, Sheets will be better equipped to handle the rigors of the pro game when he becomes eligible for the draft again after his junior campaign.
"My main goal is to play baseball at the pro level," Sheets said. "Everything I do is to help me reach that ultimate goal. So whether it's next year or whether it's after my senior year, I would just love the opportunity to go out and play baseball professionally."
This offseason, Sheets said he dedicated himself to the weight room, packing on about 10 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-5, 220-pound frame. He spent about three to four hours several days a week in the gym preparing himself for the demands of playing 50-plus games.
The results have been evident for Sheets, as he believes he is in the best shape he has ever been in at any point in his life.
"I really hit the weight room in the fall, so I think when you add that to what I've already been doing, it's just made my body much stronger," Sheets said. "[The Wake Forest coaching staff] has done a really good job of preparing my body day in and day out, which is really why I think I'm hitting my stride now."