Speedy Charles Town outfielder leading league along base paths
SHENANDOAH JUNCTION – Justin “Hooty” Harris is the first to admit he’s grown up quite a bit in recent years.
The self-professed one-time practical joker has shed the quirky batting practice wardrobes that so infuriated his high school varsity coaches and kept him on the JV team to start his junior year.
He has ceased with the pranks and taunts that would draw laughs from some during the days of youth league and early high school baseball, including the teasing of an opposing Little Leaguer that eventually led to himself being nicknamed “Hooty.”
However, through a strong second-half high school career, followed by two years at junior college and a berth this spring with Emporia State University in the NCAA Division II regional playoffs, Harris has continued along a personal maturation process that now sees him filling the role as a clutch leadoff hitter and speedy defensive center fielder for the Charles Town Cannons.
As of press time Tuesday, Harris, a rising senior business major, was batting .313 through 30 games starting in a Cannons’ uniform, leading the Valley Baseball League with 23 stolen bases.
On Tuesday, Harris was named as the league’s Player of the Week after garnering a .360 batting average for seven games, including two doubles, two triples, three RBI and five walks. He added three stolen bases and scored 12 of the 44 runs tallied by the Cannons last week.
And when he hasn’t been playing baseball this summer, Harris has been working for the Town of Charles Town, helping clean up the skate park and side streets as well as the sidewalks along some of the main thoroughfares.
“The kid is something else,” said Brett Fuller, Cannons president and field manager. “I give it to him, he’s disciplined.”
It hasn’t always been that way.
“I was kind of a goon,” Harris said. “I liked to have fun, but I did a lot of dumb stuff.”
Harris, a native of Tulsa, Okla., collected the nickname “Hooty” around age 10 after teasing an opposing player who had that name.
“He was little kid named Hooty,” Harris said. “They had a chant for him. I used to make fun of it. One of the moms on our team said, ‘what if we called you Hooty?’ I was being a little sarcastic kid and I said, ‘Yeah, I’d love it.’ Somehow it stuck.
“At first I didn’t like it,” he continued. “Now I’ve embraced it. It’s something that stands out.”
Harris enjoyed success early in high school, but his comical antics kept him, at least initially, from reaching his full potential. He led the junior varsity team in hitting as a sophomore, yet he was the only junior placed back on JV when the following season began.
“I always pulled pranks,” Harris said. “One time I hit batting practice in a man-thong. I wore a cape to practice at one point. The JV coaches loved it because I kept it light, but the varsity coaches hated it. They were sending me a message.”
Harris toned things down and was quickly promoted after batting over .500 on JV. He started in the outfield from then on through high school and signed with Hutchinson Community College in Kansas before his senior season began.
Harris, who batted .482 as a high school senior in 2011, played in 40 games for Hutchinson in 2013, leading the Blue Dragons in runs scored. He also discovered the art of stealing bases, swiping 26 bases as a college freshman in 2012.
Following two years at Hutchinson, Harris, now a declared business major, settled on transferring to Emporia State in Emporia, Kan., in 2013. Harris will return to campus this fall as a senior. He said he would need one additional semester after next spring to graduate.
This spring, he started 60 of 61 games for the Hornets, batting .329 with a team-high 44 stolen bases and 77 hits.
“I was a little concerned because the program had had a couple of bad years,” Harris said about transferring to Emporia State. “When I went on my visit I wanted to make sure I had guys around me I knew we could compete with. And we did.”
The Hornets struggled early, but a 15-game winning streak in April helped pave the way to success in the Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletics Association tournament and a berth in the NCAA Division II regional playoffs.
Emporia State dropped its first regional game before battling through the loser’s bracket to the championship round. The Hornets were defeated by Minnesota State and were ousted from the postseason tournament.
Harris arrived in time for the Cannons’ season opener May 30 and made an immediate impact.
He has filled the role as leadoff hitter and has established himself as a reliable mainstay in the outfield.
Harris has played especially well of late. His impressive output during the past week earned him Player of the Week recognition.
“I just told myself to go out there and have fun,” Harris said. “That’s all that matters. I put a lot of pressure on myself to try to make the All-Star Game (he did not). After the All-Star Game, now it was time to just have fun. This could potentially be my last summer of ball, so just go out there and have fun.”
The strategy seems to be paying off.
His timely hitting and speed on base path has him leading the league in stolen bases. He also has eight extra base hits, including a league-best four triples.
“The thing I like about Hooty as our table-setter … is that in over half our games that he’s led off, he’s gotten on base his first at bat,” Fuller said. “In addition to that, he’s so even-keeled emotionally that he can have a game where he goes 0-4 or 4-4 and he’s able to control his emotions to where he doesn’t get too high or too low.
“As a coach, you love a guy like that because he knows that if you don’t win that at bat there’s another chance,” Fuller continued. “I just think he’s a great asset to the team in so many ways.”
Harris has been staying with host family Joe and Shannon Reaves.
He said he has enjoyed his time in West Virginia, a state he had never previously visited.
Harris went to Harpers Ferry earlier this summer, and just last week he and teammates Matt Gandy, Andrew Mulato and Zach Zyburt went rafting on the Shenandoah River.
“We went out on some inner tubes, just the four of us not thinking,” Harris said. “We realized when we got out there that we were river rafting in tubes. It was choppy and one of the tubes broke. So we had to walk all the way back on the railroad tracks.”
Harris also has spent considerable time this summer cleaning up around Charles Town, working a few hours each morning depending on the team’s travel schedule.
Fellow outfielder Bryant Munoz, from Bethune-Cookman University in Florida, has also been working clean-up detail. Catcher/first baseman Greg Brodzinski also had been working for the town prior to his departure earlier this month.
“It’s been nothing but awesome as an experience,” Harris said. “All the people around have been really supportive.”
The Cannons had a 21-16 record as of press time Tuesday, with seven games remaining. Charles Town is currently tied for fourth place. The top eight teams in the 11-team Valley League reach the playoffs.
“I think we’re starting to become a family,” Harris said. “That’s huge, especially around this time in the season. I think if we can keep coming together this is the right time to get hot.”