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February 17, 2007

SCS.comIt's been a pretty decent year for Ohio State sports. The Buckeye football team won the Big Ten and played for the national title. The Buckeye men's hoops team is ranked #2, and the women's hoopsters are ranked #4.

The baseball team, though, doesn't get nearly as much pub as the football or basketball squads, but OSU isn't too shabby on the diamond in the least. The Buckeyes have won seven Big Ten regular season titles, seven tournament titles, and made 11 regional appearances under 20th-year coach Bob Todd. In 1999 and 2003, OSU advanced to the Super Regionals, both times coming up a game short of Omaha.

This year's edition of Buckeye baseball has the potential to reach those heights, with seven returning lineup starters, all four starting pitchers, and a star closer returning. They are the consensus favorite in the Big Ten, and one of the leaders of their charge to the top is sophomore pitcher/outfielder J.B. Shuck, who didn't take long to establish himself as one of the premier two-way talents in the country as a freshman in 2006. He made 31 starts in the lineup (15 at 1st base, 15 in the outfield, 1 as DH), and hit .325 with 19 RBI. But he excelled even more on the mound, racking up eight wins (2nd in the Big Ten) and posting a 2.51 ERA (4th in the Big Ten).

Shuck and his teammates begin their season next Friday against James Madison in Tampa and play their first 17 games in Florida, while the winter weather finishes making its rounds through Ohio. But Shuck feels that time on the road will only benefit the club, especially as the season wears on and they move deep into conference play and into the postseason, where hostile environments might shake lesser teams.

The Buckeyes are looking to pull the Big Ten title away from rival Michigan, who swept both the regular season and tournament titles last year. The Wolverines swept OSU in their four-game regular season series, and then knocked them out of the Big Ten tourney. The OSU-Michigan rivalry is one of the biggest in football, but it's just as intense on the diamond. And with the Wolverines not only being their chief challenger for the conference title, but also because of last season's results, their series in Columbus on April 13th-15th will carry even more weight than usual. But Shuck and his teammates seem to be prepared for any and all comers. "The last three weeks of practice, we've done really well, and we feel pretty confident," he says.

Shuck grew up in Ohio, but the choice to play at OSU wasn't always a given. "Growing up, I didn't know a lot about college baseball, so I didn't really have a preference. But when I got to know more about the school and the tradition, then I knew that's where I wanted to go." With that aforementioned tradition, playing for such a big-time school carries a great deal of pride, especially for a homegrown guy.

Being in a big pond like OSU can swallow some freshmen up, but it seems as if Shuck made a seamless transition last season, at least on the field. It was much the same off of it, with the help of the close-knit team around him. The Buckeyes' togetherness both on and off of the field is a valuable asset for any aspiring winner, and it helped the freshmen become a winner quickly as well. He was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and was a second-team All-Big Ten honoree, along with being named a Louisville Slugger All-American.

After that successful spring campaign, he carried over his success into the summer, and was named the top prospect in the Great Lakes League by Baseball America. The summer ball experience benefited him greatly. "It was good just getting to know different people, and it was a different atmosphere." The wood-bat, pro-style play is also a change from the aluminum bat, college play.

"With wood bats, you get pitched more inside." That didn't seem to bother J.B. too much, as he hit .364 in 32 games. He shined on the mound as well, going 2-0 with a stellar 0.95 ERA in seven starts for the Columbus All-Americans.

Despite those nice individual accolades, Shuck, who was named's preseason pick for Big Ten player of the year, is all about the team. When asked if he would rather have a .400 average or 10 wins, the choice was easy. "I'd much rather have 10 wins, because if I have 10 wins, then I know I've gotten 10 wins for the team, and that's the most important thing."

His love for team and baseball are easily evident, but Shuck has a love for making catches off of the field as well, in the water. What's the biggest fish he's caught? "In my junior year of high school, we went up to Lake Erie, and I caught a 22-inch bass," he notes.

As for whether or not he'll get a chance to make a few catches while he's down in Florida, Shuck hopes to get the opportunity. "We didn't get to bring our poles last year, but hopefully we'll get to this year."

If the talented sophomore continues his ascension as one of the premier talents not only the Big Ten but the entire country and the rest of the Buckeyes fulfill their unlimited potential, OSU could be making a pretty big catch come June - a plane ticket to Omaha.

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