Julian “Juju” Stevens has never shied away from center stage.
When he was 9, Stevens nearly made it to the end of auditions for a role in the Broadway hit “Motown: The Musical” when his voice cracked, mid-rehearsal.
“I was no longer able to sing notes as high as they needed,” he recalled.
Later, he earned the understudy role of Simba for Broadway’s “The Lion King.” But he started growing a bit too much for the role, which required a more diminutive actor.
Plus, there was a budding career in a different field that was taking precedence.
One place where Juju Stevens has found his voice, where he seemingly will never outgrow, is the baseball field. Now entering his senior year at Amity High, and recently committed to play college baseball at the University of Missouri, the sport defines him.
“He really does love the game of baseball, and I think he uses it to communicate to the world around him,” his father, Julian Sr., said. “That’s how he speaks. That’s his language.”
He’s pretty fluent. Three years ago, Stevens became one of the few freshmen in coach Sal Coppola’s 27-year reign as head coach to start for Amity. He patrolled center field for the Spartans and finished the season as the team’s leadoff hitter.
As a sophomore, Stevens truly blossomed, hitting .348 with six homers, 36 RBIs, 12 doubles, 27 runs scored and a .708 slugging percentage — leading the team in most categories. The coronavirus pandemic robbed him of his junior season, a key season in recruiting. Stevens had offers from schools like Stetson, New Orleans and St. John’s, but bigger programs started jumping in after he shined this summer at the WWBA 17U national championships (hitting .428 and earning all-tournament honors) and at East Coast Pro, a unique showcase for underclassmen in Hoover, Alabama, in which the attendees are selected by professional scouts.
“I did well at that tournament,” Stevens reported. “It was nice to be able to see how I stack up against the best high-schoolers in the country.”
Clemson, Wake Forest, Florida, Harvard and others showed serious interest. But COVID-19 has thrown spring sports out of whack, with coaches unsure how many players are returning to their program and how much scholarship money they have. Missouri, which competes in the competitive Southeastern Conference, offered the best package, and Stevens committed Tuesday.
“The coaching staff, and the opportunity to play at such a high level, it kind of just fell together seamlessly,” Juju said. “The coaching staff was awesome. The second I spoke to them, I knew this was the place.”
Of course, if Stevens dominates next spring as a senior at Amity (assuming, of course, that there is a season), he could have a bigger decision to make. The Major League Baseball draft could come calling, and Juju would surely listen.
“If someone looked at Juju, and takes the energy and time to send resources and say, ‘Hey, we like you, we think we could do this,’ that would be an honor,” Julian Sr. said. “And I think our history has prepared us to address that in an intelligent manner.”
Indeed, Julian Sr. and his wife, Keila, are well-versed in plotting a professional course for their extremely talented family.
First, the nickname. “Juju” has actually been handed down from Stevens’ grandfather, to his father (who ran track at Oral Roberts University, where he met Keila), and now to him. It’s more than a nickname at this point.
“I think I’m the only one who calls him ‘Julian,’” Keila quipped.
“When he’s on the baseball field, it’s Juju,” Julian Sr. added. “That’s his personality, that’s his character. If you watch him play, he’s always talking to the umpires. It’s like, ‘How did you meet that guy?’ ‘Well, we just started talking.’ That’s Juju.”
Juju was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, and started playing baseball when he was 8, after being taken under the wing of Ollie Dancy, who ran the Queen City Monarchs program. For two years, Stevens worked out with the Monarchs’ 10-year-old team. Didn’t play, just worked out.
“(Dancy) trained Juju religiously, 2-3 hours a day,” Julian Sr. recalled. “That’s where Juju really learned to play baseball.”
The family was still taking frequent trips to New York City for Broadway and other auditions. Too often, they’d drive back to North Carolina, only to have to drive back up to New York the next day for a call-back.
And it wasn’t only Juju who was auditioning. All four of his siblings have shown remarkable talent in different fields of entertainment. His younger brother, Zai, 8, has appeared in commercials and in smaller parts in movies. His sister Raelle, 13, is an accomplished ballet dancer who has landed a main part in a kids’ PBS show that will be out soon.
His oldest sister, Sheariah, is an artist/singer who is currently attending NC State. And then there’s Adaiah, his second-oldest sibling who just began her tenure at Wake Forest. She was featured on the Fox TV show “Master Chef Junior” when she was 12. She also writes and composes music, has won numerous awards for singing, has appeared on the Rachel Ray and Harry Connick Jr. shows and, with her older sister, designed a cupcake product line that is sold at Stew Leonard’s.
(Juju has also taught himself to play piano, sings, and has appeared in advertisements for a Canadian clothing brand called “Joe Fresh.”)
After a while, it made more sense for the Stevens family to move closer to the Big Apple. They first settled in Danbury — right around the corner from a baseball field at Rogers Park. That’s where Juju’s love affair with baseball really ignited, playing with a tight-knit group of like-minded teammates and families who have become lifelong friends.
The family has since moved to Woodbridge, where Juju’s baseball prowess has continued to progress.
“I’m really pleased how I was able to develop, with the coaching staff I’ve had at Amity, and the relationships I’ve made in Connecticut,” he said. “(There are) a lot of fathers who have kids working towards the same goal. It was really cool to be able to develop in such a nice and diverse area.”
Added Keila: “I feel like baseball helped him integrate into the community, make some great friends. It’s been a great experience for him.”
Stevens joined Jason Esposito and Vinny Siena (both of whom were MLB draft picks) and Pat Winkel (a junior at UConn who will likely hear his name called in June) as freshmen who’ve started at Amity. He may have the most potential of all.
“The raw ability and the power he has is probably second to nobody that I’ve ever seen in our program,” Coppola said. “He’s probably the strongest kid. When he hits the ball, it goes further than anyone we’ve ever had. Good outfielder, phenomenal kid.”
Indeed, as good as Juju is on the diamond, he’s even better off it. A conversation with him (or with his parents, for that matter) exudes nothing but positivity. Nearly every question to Juju receives a response of “Yes, sir” or a polite “No, sir.”
Stevens earned the rare honor of being voted captain as a junior this past spring. When COVID-19 ended the season before it even began, he still showed his leadership qualities.
“I would wake up in the morning; he was outside throwing the ball, running,” Julian Sr. said. “I think the most important thing is he kept his mind going.”
“It puts into perspective how you can’t take things for granted, whether it’s studying for this test or going to the field and working out this day, how quickly it can be taken away,” Juju added. “So it kind of fuels the fire, not only in the classroom but on the field as well.”
Juju has played for The Clubhouse travel team out of Fairfield this summer and will play for the Ohio Warhawks, a travel team that plays the majority of its Perfect Game tournaments in Florida on weekends.
It’s all about academics and baseball for Juju Stevens (“I tried to play basketball,” he noted, “but I lack one key [ingredient]: Getting it into the bucket”). Hopefully, he’ll have a senior season at Amity this spring.
“(I want) to show all the growth I’ve had and the hard work I’ve put in this summer, not only to help my team win but to be a leader as the captain,” he said. “Because they all deserve a state championship.”