Staff Photo: John Bohn Duluth third baseman Junior Fernandez warms up between innings during a game against Lanier.
DULUTH -- From many people, moving to Georgia from out of state can be a major life change.
That includes Duluth High School senior Junior Fernandez, who was faced with plenty to adapt to when his family moved in from New Jersey last summer.
But as tough as adjusting to a new school, new friends and new classmates has been, it's nothing compared to what he's experienced in his first season of high school baseball in Gwinnett County.
"The baseball's different down here -- the (level of) talent, how often you guys play, it's different," Fernandez said. "The (quality and depth of) pitching and the fact that it gets hotter sooner. That's a big difference. And the season starts a month earlier.
"The biggest adjustment was the pitching," Fernandez said. "It's a lot different. There's a more game planning. There's a lot better, tougher pitching. Everyone's out there trying to strike you out. In New Jersey, it's not as hard to hit the ball. ... There's really only one or two pitchers that can really shut you down."
Despite the culture shock of adjusting to baseball in Gwinnett and Georgia in general, the Duluth senior third baseman is doing just fine, thank you.
Through the Wildcats' (9-9, 2-4) first 18 games, Fernandez is among the team hitting leaders with a .345 average (20-for-58), two home runs and 18 RBIs.
And his steady play in the field has also been a factor in helping Duluth stay in the hunt for one of the four state playoff bids from Region 7-AAAAAA.
"I'm more comfortable, definitely, now than I was as the start (of the season)," Fernandez said. "I started really slow, but I picked up as quickly as I could."
As tough as it's been for Fernandez, the one advantage as he's had is that so far, he's been as much of an unknown commodity to Duluth's opponents as they've been to him.
Even Wildcats coach Matt Champitto admits he wasn't exactly sure what he had in Fernandez when the two first met last summer.
"We had no idea who he was," Champitto said. "We were actually up here for a summer tournament, and he and his family stopped by on the way out after meeting with the counselors at the school. You get that a lot when a new kid comes in. They say, 'Hey, we're moving in,' and all that, but we had no idea. I did a little bit of research, just to check up on him. So, I knew he'd done some big things in New Jersey, but I had no idea how he was going to fit in or where he was going to fit in or how he was going to fare against Georgia pitching."
Indeed, Fernandez had a built up a solid resume during his junior season at Edison High School last year, hitting .405 with eight doubles, three stolen bases and a team-high 22 RBIs in 89 at bats to earn All-Middlesex Conference honors and help the Eagles (14-13) to a berth in the New Jersey state tournament.
Champitto said it didn't take long to figure out that Fernandez would become a key member of the Wildcats this spring.
"During conditioning, he came out and really worked hard, ... but you still don't really have a good inkling of his skill on the baseball field," Champitto said. "I'd say the first couple of practices during (batting practice), he was hitting some balls really, really hard and had a good idea of what he's doing at the plate. And he was a plus-guy defensively. So we knew for sure right off the bat, I'd say, before his hitting, we were sure he was going to help us in a big way."
It also didn't take opposing coaches and players long to figure out Fernandez could be a force, which has forced a whole new round of adjustments for him to make.
But he says the support he's gotten from his new teammates has helped him with the chess match that comes with staring down Gwinnett County pitchers.
"The whole team is really nice and awesome when it comes to baseball," Fernandez said. "Everyone takes the game as seriously as I do when it's game time. It was kind of hard to become close friends with them at the start because I wasn't sure who was going to be on the team. So, it was tough.
"Definitely one of the things I wanted to do was make an impact. In New Jersey, I was trying to be an impact player for my team, which I did fairly well last year. This year, I hope to do even better."
The one downside from Duluth's standpoint is that Fernandez will only be around for the remainder of this season before he graduates.
But Champitto says the Wildcats will gladly accept whatever he can contribute for as long as he's there.
"We'll take it," Champitto said. "He's transitioned very well. It's hard for a kid to move in and fit in and know what my expectations are. ... But he's done everything. He's a really coachable kid, and he's done a really good job."