Sanders father and son duo’s journey to leaving a huge impact on Valley baseball

Published 11:07 am Saturday, May 18, 2024

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The Valley Rams put together one of the best baseball seasons in school history in 2024. The Rams advanced to the semifinals for just the fourth time in school history and at the heart of that run, and at the heart of Valley baseball as a whole, was a dynamic father-son duo. 

Jackson Sanders and his father, Jerome, have been on this journey together for as long as Jackson could pick up a baseball. 

Jerome began coaching Jackson when Jackson turned five and began playing in a coach-pitch league. Little did Jerome know that Jackson would eventually become one of the top prospects in the state and dominate the mound at the high school level. 

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Now, Jackson is set to head to Auburn in June to continue playing baseball. Jackson’s graduation brings an end to a journey in Valley that started long before he even touched a mound. 

Jerome grew up in Valley and was a star in his own right. Jerome started his baseball career as a catcher before playing several other positions for the Rams. He eventually switched back to catcher for the back half of his high school career he also helped Valley make one of the best runs in history as the Rams advanced to the quarterfinals in 1993. 

Jerome became a football assistant coach and baseball assistant coach for Valley after graduating college, but the long hours began to take a toll on him as Jackson got older. Jerome was living the dream as a coach, but he did not have the time to coach his own kid on the field. 

Jerome eventually decided to put his ambitions as a coach to the side and focus on coaching and being there for his kids. Coaching Jackson eventually led Jerome back to being an assistant coach for Valley as he began working under head coach Patrick Shivers once Jackson got to the seventh grade. 

“As a former player and coach, it was kind of hard for me at the time to think that I wasn’t going to be coaching him,” Jerome said. “I got out of football and stayed out of football…When he got to seventh grade, I went back and started helping Shivers.” 

Jerome set his own ambition to the side and started focusing on being Jackson’s coach. Jackson began blossoming into a dominant athlete at an early age, but both he and Jerome had to continually work through issues as the two butted heads because of the difficult dynamic of Jerome being a coach while also being Jackson’s father. 

“Jackson will tell you, it’s hard, you have to separate it,” Jerome said. “When we’re doing work, I’m not dad. It’s tough when somebody you love and care about and live in the same house with is riding you. He’s taken it better than anybody I’ve ever seen. He knows that I’ve got his best interest always at hand.” 

Several others helped Jackson and Jerome along the way. Shivers played a major role in Jackson’s development as a high school player. 

Shivers gave Jackson the opportunity to try out for the varsity team as a seventh-grader. A seventh-grader playing with 17 and 18-year-olds was an interesting dynamic, but it also forced Jackson to adjust his approach as a hitter and grow up as an athlete quickly. 

 “That was fun,” Jerome said. “His mom had reservations about it with the bus rides and all. When it first started, I’d make him sit up front with the coaches. As time went on, the kids were good role models for him.” 

“I had to grow up fast,” Jackson said. “I remember the first game in seventh grade, it was a doubleheader one game against Wetumpka and one against Benjamin Russell. I think I went a combined 0-for-7 with four K’s. It was a rude awakening. I knew from then I had to change some things.” 

Playing varsity at 13 was challenging at first, but both Jerome and Jackson believe it was a crucial part of the development process. Directly after seventh grade, Jackson got invited to a showcase at Auburn. 

Jackson dominated the showcase, and from that point forward Jerome knew baseball was his future. 

“Growing up, I was kind of clueless on how the whole college thing worked,” Jackson said. “I didn’t know how you got recruited or how any of that worked. I was just out there playing the game… It was probably around middle school when I started playing up on varsity. In seventh grade, I kind of realized that I was pretty good. I was always that bigger kid. Bigger, stronger and faster than everybody. It started in All-Stars in rec ball.” 

Jackson committed to Auburn as an eighth-grader and began navigating the scouting and recruiting process. Scouts for MLB and teams all across the country began showing up to Valley’s games. 

All of the noise and distractions could be hard to navigate for a high schooler, but Jackson constantly leaned on his dad for help throughout the process. 

“He was always that mentor,” Jackson said. “He’s been through everything that I’m going through right now with high school ball. He’s always been there… He can be the biggest critic and supporter at the same time. That’s what you want in your corner.” 

Jerome was not the only Sanders involved with Jackson’s development. Amy Sanders was there every step of the way. 

As a mom and a wife, she had to act as the peacekeeper between the two. Amy was an athlete in her own right as she played volleyball at Huntington and dominated volleyball and basketball at Daphne High School. 

“She was probably the happy medium,” Jackson said. “When me and Dad started getting into it about something, she was always there to break it up or do something to calm the situation. She was big in that aspect.” 

The whole Sanders family has become a staple of the Valley community over the years, and they have grown to love the community more with each passing year. The Sanders family had the opportunity to leave several times, but their love for Valley always kept them in place. 

“We’ve been come after with people wanting to give me jobs to get us to move,” Jerome said. “Jackson is a loyal kid, and we’re loyal people. These kids here and the people around Valley, it’s hard to leave.” 

Jerome and Jackson overcame obstacles along the way. The two saw their season end in 2020 due to the global pandemic, and they both believe that the 2020 team could’ve been special. 

2021 was a tough year for Valley’s baseball program after coming back from the shutdown, but the program recovered and won back-to-back area championships in Jackson’s junior and senior seasons. 

No year was quite as special as the team’s run in 2024. While it ended on a sour note, Jackson and Jerome both know that there will be more positive than negative things to look back on. 

“There’s one team at the end that’s going to be happy,” Jerome said. “Everybody wants a championship, but it’s more than that. It’s been 30 years since I graduated from Valley. 30 years from now, they’re not going to talk about wishing they had won it. They’re going to talk about the run they had.” 

Valley’s run came to an end as the Rams lost on a walk-off to Mobile Christian in the 5A semifinals. The loss brought an end to Jackson’s time at Valley. 

“I’ve been committed to Auburn since the eighth grade,” Sanders said. “It feels like forever ago that we were waiting to get to the next step. I’ve been here for six years playing. It was a long journey. When we got done, it was a hard feeling because I’ve been here for so long and done so much for the team… I think now moving on to the next step is going to be enjoyable.” 

Jerome and Jackson will no longer be sharing a field together, but Jerome will always be Jackson’s coach. Jerome letting go is a tough prospect, but he learned how to let others coach Jackson while Jackson played on other teams during the summer. Jerome and Jackson both know that their dynamic will not change all that much.  

“That was the last time officially coaching me, but he’s always going to be my coach through life and sports,” Jackson said. “If I’m at Auburn, that’s 10-15 minutes away. I’m sure he’ll be at every practice and every game. I really don’t think it’s going to change. I’ll still get on the phone with him and go over stuff just like we would in the dugout here.” 

Jerome’s time as Jackon’s coach is coming to an end, but he is not done coaching his kid. Jerome now gets to focus his attention on the next Sanders. Jackson’s brother, John Sanders, is a rising freshman and is the next member of the Sanders lineage of athletes. 

“He’s got a little brother, and I think he’s told his brother, ‘Dad don’t have me, it’s going to be all you,” Jerome said. “He’s had to lay back a little bit and not get everything because Jackon’s stuff has taken a lot of precedence… Now, he’ll get it and he’ll get the jist of it as much as he wants.” 

Both Jerome and Jackson were dominant forces at Valley, and neither are willing to submit to being the second-best baseball player in the family. 

“I tell him all the time, I would’ve struck him out in three pitches,” Jackson said with a laugh. 

“I’ve always told him that I would hit him. I’ve never done it because I don’t want to hurt him,” Jerome said while laughing.