Ashdown is a small city of about 4,400 people located in Southwest Arkansas near the Texas border. It’s about 20 miles north of Texarkana near the southwest shores of Millwood Lake.
A small caravan departed from Ashdown on Saturday afternoon. The traveling party will be headed south down I-49 for most of the roughly five-hour drive to in Baton Rouge.
Their final destination: Alex Box Stadium for the collegiate debut of Jaden Hill.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri announced on Thursday that the highly-touted freshman will get the start on Sunday against Air Force. The news came as a surprised to some, including Hill himself, who Mainieri told otherwise one day prior.
“I was surprised,” Hill said. “I wasn’t expecting it. It was great news.”
Moving Hill up to Sunday had a lot to do with veteran Eric Walker, the presumed third starter when LSU opened practice three weeks ago. Walker was behind on building up arm strength, so LSU opted to pitch him in relief on Friday night and push his start back to Wednesday at Northwestern State.
It had a lot to do with Hill, too. Aside from Landon Marceaux, who pitched Saturday, Hill was arguably the most impressive of LSU’s rookie arms this spring.
Marceaux and Hill are just the seventh and eighth true freshmen pitchers to start for LSU on opening weekend since 2009. The previous six were Walker (2017), Alex Lange (2015), Jake Godfrey (2015), Jared Poche’ (2014), Kevin Gausman (2011) and Kurt McCune (2011).
Hill’s combination of a mid-90s fastball and a plus changeup will certainly play at the Southeastern Conference level. Hill got roughed up at times during fall scrimmages, but he’s a strike-thrower who has displayed far great command within the strike zone this spring.
“I think Jaden Hill deserves it,” Mainieri said. “I think he’s pitched great. I think our team will have a lot of confidence in him and I think he’s a very poised young man. I think he’ll be ready for the challenge of pitching at home on Sunday in front of a lot of people.”
Emphasis on the part about doing it in front of a lot of people.
Even a lightly-attended Sunday matinée at Alex Box Stadium figures to draw enough people to dwarf the population of Hill’s hometown. Prior to Sunday, Hill had never pitched in front of a crowd larger than the exhibition LSU played against UNO back in October.
“Very small. Maybe smaller than this campus,” Hill said of Ashdown. “It’s a great town where everybody knows everybody.”
He continued: “The thought of this entire stadium being filled is almost impossible for me. We prepare for it day in and day out, but I don’t think you can really prepare for it. It is what it is, so you just have to go along with it.”
There will be plenty of friendly faces amongst the masses cheering Hill on. His immediate family is all making the trip, including his older brother, Kentrell, who was at one point a 10th-round selection in the MLB Draft.
The family already has some strong LSU ties. Hill’s cousin is Cedrick Harris, who was a four-year player under Skip Bertman. Harris was the starting centerfielder on LSU’s 2000 National Championship club, and like Hill, Harris was the Gatorade Arkansas Player of the Year coming out of high school.
Ashdown High coach Chuck Cross, his family and members of his staff will also be in attendance. They’ll be making the trek south as soon as Ashdown High finishes up practice on Saturday.
“It’ll be a family affair,” Cross said.
While the name Jaden Hill may be new for LSU fans, the teenager is already a superstar back in his hometown.
Hill was a three-sport star for Ashdown. He was the quarterback and ace pitcher throughout his prep career, but he was also an All-State point guard as a sophomore before giving up basketball to focus on his two main sports.
Cross recalls a raw athlete who hit 91 mph on the radar gun by his sophomore year. His recruitment exploded when video of him pitching went viral that year, but LSU beat Miami and a number of other prominent programs to the punch.
The coach particularly credits LSU pitching guru Alan Dunn for Hill winding up at his dream school. Dunn was always accessible whenever Hill or Cross had a question during his recruitment, Cross said.
Dunn, a big believer in putting athletes on the mound, is as thrilled as anybody that Hill turned down a seven-figure signing bonus to pitch at LSU.
“Probably one of the most athletic pitchers that we’ve ever had here,” Dunn said. “You see this guy and you’re going ‘Man, that’s what they look like.’ His body is just so strong and athletic. He’s done a very good job of repeating his delivery, which allows him to throw strikes.”
Hill matured as a junior before putting together a senior season for the ages: 7-0, 0.51 ERA with 85 strikeouts against 12 walks. He also hit .531 with 11 home runs in half a season before focusing on his pitching.
“He’s always been a dynamic athlete,” Cross said. “He’s good at every sport. He probably could’ve played in the SEC for football and Division I for basketball. His senior year was unbelievable. Probably the best athlete I’ve ever seen or will ever see.”
Not everybody could make the trip to Baton Rouge, but there will be plenty of people glued to their computer screens back in Ashdown. Cross said he began his team meeting Friday making sure everybody knew how to turn in online for Hill’s debut.
“It’s a baseball town,” Cross said. “They love him here, and it’s because he’s such a good kid. They freaking love him here in Ashdown. It’s pretty awesome. It’s because he’s such a good kid. If he was a turkey or something, they wouldn’t treat him with such respect.”
Hill will undoubtedly have some butterflies in his stomach when he takes the mound in front of the largest crowd of his life, but he’ll do so with the full support of his hometown behind him.
And if all goes well, Sunday will only be the beginning of a career full of even bigger stages ahead.