By Magen McCrarey
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
Athletic pros Jeff Sheppard and Jon Townsend are taking local and regional athletes to the next level, with specialized group training and travel teams. The two began Next Level Training Academy this January, and since then have gained more than 100 students.
The academy is located at 115 Commonwealth Drive in London, inside 15 Inc.
“This is a wonderful community and these kids deserve the chance to have every resource available to get to the next level — and stay at the next level,” Townsend said.
“We’d love to see some of these kids become professional athletes, and it’s very possible. Our first goal is to see them get college scholarships and benefit from the college athletic experience because it’s a life changer for those who get to live it.”
Townsend played baseball for South Laurel High School and went on to play for the University of Louisville. He was named to the Saddleback Community College Athletic Hall of Fame, played as a two-year starter for the University of Florida Gators Baseball and played five years of professional baseball for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and St. Paul Saints.
Sheppard’s dreams of professional athleticism began in the sixth grade, with a writing assignment asking, “If you could trade places with anybody in the world, who would it be?” Sheppard confidently replied he would trade places with Larry Bird, and play for the Boston Celtics in the NBA, but first, he wanted to play for the University of Kentucky in the Final Four. He never wore a Celtics jersey, but he did play in the Final Four at UK, went on to play for the Atlanta Hawks and played three seasons of professional basketball in Italy.
Both admitted, in the beginning of their careers, neither were at the top of their game. Fifteen minutes into Sheppard’s first workout at UK, he became ill.
“I didn’t really have a ton of individual instruction or a ton of speed and agility training. I could have really benefitted from a program like Next Level,” Sheppard said.
“In college, when I stepped onto the baseball field, I was not as good as an athlete as I thought I was. I had to play catch-up with those guys,” Townsend said. “If you’re the best player on your team in high school and you go to college, all of a sudden you’re playing against everybody else who was the best player on their team in high school. Everybody is pretty much on the same level. It’s the preparation they put in that separates them in the end.”
At Next Level, students work on their sport-specific speed, strength and agility. In addition they work as a team, practicing with athletes across southeastern Kentucky. Next Level students come from counties as far as Breathitt and Leslie to work on their athleticism. The Training Academy’s traveling teams have already had a rise in success when the third-grade Kentucky Playmakers team won the state championship this past March.
“These are athletes that need to develop levels of intensity. That’s something that we can help them do, so that they get the opportunities that we’ve had,” Sheppard said.
“We see so many kids in this area that have the talent, but won’t make the commitment to put in the extra work, and they’re not prepared. We want to stop that trend and start having athletes that are successful student athletes that finish their careers,” Townsend said.
Sheppard and Townsend also work on an athlete’s confidence.
“Confidence gives an athlete an advantage. If they don’t have it, it almost cripples an athlete,” Sheppard said.
Sheppard believes Laurel County has a great tradition of athletics that are in a great location. Many student athletes are being drawn into Laurel County for community athletic programs.
“With every step that you take, your level of intensity must increase. If I’d had a coach or instructor explain that to me and push me, I would have really been able to benefit a lot more from that,” Sheppard said. “By the time you get to professional athletics, from my standpoint, it’s pretty cut-throat. There are opportunities to develop but, at the same time, if you’re not where they (coaches) want you to be, they’ll find somebody else. You need to be sharp and be at your full potential.”
“I had to take every chance I could get,” Townsend said. “One thing a Los Angeles Angels instructor said to me I’ll never forget…he played in the Major Leagues for about six years and when he finally decided to retire, he told himself to never forget how difficult this game is. This was something that really struck a chord with me that I have to share with kids. I spend the vast majority of working with kids on their mentality, understanding how difficult what they’re doing really is. Sports are fun, it’s fun to compete and it’s fun to get better, but it’s also difficult.”
Other Next Level Training Academy team members are Samantha DeMartine, and Eddie Valentine. The team offers programs, such as spring training, The Hit Factory, softball, basketball and strength, speed and injury prevention.
For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 606-344-3182.