Freshman Alabama Shortstop Justin Lebron Reflects Ahead of First NCAA Tournament

It's been a strong first year for Alabama shortstop Justin Lebron, and he's not done yet.
Alabama baseball shortstop Justin Lebron (1) in an SEC Tournament game against South Carolina.
Alabama baseball shortstop Justin Lebron (1) in an SEC Tournament game against South Carolina. / Alabama Athletics

Taking up the mantle of Jim Jarvis, a four-year shortstop and program mainstay for the Alabama baseball team from 2020-23, promised to be a difficult task. Add in the fact that the Crimson Tide had a largely new coaching staff, and one arrives at the job at hand for freshman Justin Lebron. 

 First-year head coach Rob Vaughn has stuck with Lebron since day one, believing in his talent on both sides of the ball. Jarvis has been there to help him along the way.

“The number one thing [he’s helped with] is just slow[ing] the game down,” Lebron said. “Coming from high school, going to college, the game speeds up on you. If you speed up with the game, you’re gonna make a lot of mistakes, make a lot of mental errors.” 

The team’s opening day starter at short, Lebron has neither looked back nor looked out of place, becoming one of the best freshman players in the entire SEC and helping the program’s middle infield continue to run smoothly. The Florida native now returns home with his teammates for the Crimson Tide’s second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, where the team takes on UCF Friday evening in its first game in the Tallahassee regional. 

“[We’re] super excited for it, looking forward to it, super grateful for it,” Lebron, who also looks forward to having family and friends in attendance at Dick Howser Stadium, said. “We all just want to take it one step at a time, play as a team and keep moving forward.”

He has played no small part in the team earning the berth, the first time Alabama has been selected to back-to-back tournaments in a decade. Stetson, UCF and No. 8 national seed Florida State comprise the regional field apart from the Crimson Tide. During the course of the season, Lebron has amassed a .332 batting average, 69 hits, 11 home runs (tied for third on the team) and 35 RBIs across 55 starts. He thinks his bat’s come along well throughout his first college season.

Offensive proficiency isn’t the only versatile part of Lebron’s game, though he does have that. His first home run was an inside-the-parker on opening weekend against Manhattan College. His glove is strong, and in addition to the fact that he’s grown during the season, he started off sharp too. At times, he even looks like a more experienced player than he is. He reeled in many conference honors, including first team All-SEC, freshman All-SEC and being named to the league’s All-Defensive team.

“It truly does mean a lot. I’m truly grateful to be named with those awards,” he said. “There’s a lot of things I could do to be better, a lot of mistakes I’ve made. [I’m] just taking it day by day, and hopefully next year, fix the mistakes and become better.”

The one day at a time mindset is something he has adopted, with help from the continued lessons learned from teammates and coaches. For example, the team encountered some adversity at the end of the season. Instances of it include an early-May series in Starkville, Miss., wherein the team was plagued by food poisoning, and a stretch entering the NCAA Tournament featuring losses in three of four contests. There was also an early exit from the SEC Tournament in Hoover following a fairly successful 13-win campaign in conference play. Lebron isn’t dwelling on any of that.

“We don’t have to worry about the past so much, just learn from our mistakes and just keep it going forward,” he said. “I’m glad our season wasn’t cut short, and I’m glad we were able to make the postseason… We were still given an opportunity to play the next day, so, just fix the little things, keep moving forward and everything will fall into place.” He’s willing to do what it takes to help his team on that front. At one point during that Mississippi State series, he was pressed into service as a center fielder, which he enjoyed doing.

The college baseball calendar is tough even in the best of circumstances, with Lebron emphasizing how important it is to take care of his body, but it’s all the more difficult when an SEC opponent awaits on the schedule week in and week out. Vaughn has described it as a meat grinder. Alabama was the only team in the conference to defeat No. 1 overall seed Tennessee in a series. “It meant a lot to us,” he said. “You can definitely feel [the rivalry atmosphere].” Matchups like that are a way of life in the conference, and Lebron has embraced that with help from his fellow Crimson Tide players.

“They’ve played a lot of games, so they have a lot of experience, and I’ve learned a lot from them,” Lebron said. “And the coaching staff, they’re great guys, great coaches. They’ve taught me a lot as well, with hitting, fielding and my mental aspect of the game.” He has continued to make efforts to slow the game down, as well as approaching practices like game reps rather than just going through the motions. 

Even though the season isn’t quite over yet, Lebron reflected on how he has come along this spring and summer. After all, playing one of the toughest positions on the field in the best conference in the game is no walk in the park for anyone. “I think it’s been a great year,” he said. He's trusted his training a lot and kept going back to that during the season, taking the preparation for SEC games in stride, making sure to have fun along the way. “When you forget to have fun, the game starts to kick your butt,” he added.

“There’s still some things to get better on, but overall, not just with myself but also the team, we’ve gone through a lot of things this season,” he said. “That’s just the biggest thing in life, keep going forward, keep going forward, learn from your mistakes. At the end of the day, you can’t go back.” 

Vaughn has made reference multiple times to this season’s Alabama team potentially being the one to make it to the College World Series in Omaha for the first time in the 21st century. The 2023 team was close, reaching a super regional, after which Vaughn was hired. The journey back there starts Friday. Lebron touched on staying even keeled and sticking together as being instrumental to early success in the postseason. From the bigger picture standpoint, he sees this team as capable of breaking down the gates and being one of the last eight squads standing, in turn helping create a new culture at Alabama.

“I believe we really can do it,” he said. “All it takes is one inning, one pitch for a team to get hot. I really do believe we can break down the gates to Omaha.”

Will Miller


Will Miller is a senior at the University of Alabama. He has experience covering a wide array of Crimson Tide sports, including football, baseball, basketball, gymnastics and soccer. He joined BamaCentral in the spring of 2023 and is also a freelance UFC interviewer.