Early last fall, A.J. James thought his baseball career might be over.
After tearing the labrum in his shoulder while playing for his showcase team, the Carolinas Baseball Center's Diamond Rats, James ability to play and practice were limited, and the interest from college coaches and scouts seemed to evaporate with his injury.
But the Mount Pleasant senior refused to give up on himself or his team and was dedicated to playing out his final high school season to the best of his ability.
"I had almost given up on the idea of playing college baseball last fall into the winter," said James, who's been playing baseball year-round since he was 4. "But my coach (Mount Pleasant's Bryan Tyson) and teammates really pushed me to get ready for the season. We worked really hard to get ready in all aspects of the game. I feel like I rediscovered my love for the game."
While James prepared for his final season as a Tiger, he also got ready for his future off the field, applying to colleges like the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy.
James received the congressional nominations necessary to apply at both Army and Navy while maintaining his 4.2 grade point average in the classroom.
"A.J. really didn't know what he was going to do or where he was going to go at the beginning of this year," said A.J.'s mother, Michelle. "He had offers from smaller schools, but that wasn't what he wanted. He applied to the military academies and that seemed like where he would end up."
But when the high school baseball season started, everything began to change.
James, who had been a solid player on a good Tiger team, got off to a strong start, hitting above .600 for most of the first two months of the season. While James stayed hot, his team got off to a slower start for Mount Pleasant standards at 8-6 overall.
"We knew we had the talent to be one of the best teams in the (South Piedmont Conference)," said James. "Eventually, we knew we would get hot."
The Tigers did just that, becoming the hottest team in the league the last month of the season while winning nine straight games.
Mount Pleasant won all three games in the Intimidator Classic in Kannapolis against highly-touted East Rowan, South Rowan and West Rowan teams on consecutive days.
The Tigers, which finished 17-7 on the year, also won the SPC tournament, beating Central Cabarrus, Hickory Ridge and Jay M. Robinson in the championship game to win the event.
For James, it was a bittersweet ending to his SPC career playing again the school where he played baseball his freshman and sophomore years.
Mount Pleasant went on to lose in a heartbreaking 1-0 game to Carson in the first round of the 3A playoffs to end their run and James' high school career.
But what was an end of one era for the center fielder is just the beginning for next phase of his life.
In the midst of the high school season - in which James hit .450 with four home runs, 33 RBIs and 13 stolen bases - Appalachian State offered him a baseball scholarship. The offer combined with the opportunity to attend either Army or Navy put James in a tough spot.
"It was a difficult decision for me because on the one hand you have two of the most prestigious schools in the country and on the other hand you have a great school with a chance to play the game I love," the 18-year-old said. "In the end, I had to go with my heart. My heart told me to follow my dream of playing college baseball."
James will be in good company in Boone as his Mount Pleasant teammate and cousin Brandon Burris will also be on the Mountaineer squad next fall. James' parents, Michelle and Allen, are both Appalachian State graduates.
"We would support A.J. no matter what he chose to do," Michelle said. "But we were very excited to see him go to Appalachian State. The way I see it is he's going to get a great education and still get a chance to play the game he loves."
James is looking forward to the challenge of excelling at Appalachian on the diamond and in the classroom.
"If you can find a way to balance both then you are doing pretty good," said James. "That's what I have done my whole life and I'm looking forward to doing it at the next level."