By STEVE KRAH
Justin Huff has a new role in his second year on the Purdue Fort Wayne baseball coaching staff.
His family came to Fort Wayne when wife Jenna Huff — who hails from Tecumseh, Mich. — was hired as news director at WANE-TV (Ch. 15) and he reached out to Mastodons coach Doug Schreiber.
A director of player development position was created for Huff for 2020-21 with the idea that something else might open up in the future. In that job, he was restricted from actual coaching so he kept charts, gave analytics insights and helped in the dugout during games.
In 2021-22, Huff is in the volunteer coach post with all its responsibilities.
“Coach Schreiber has empowered me to do a lot of the practice scheduling,” says Huff. “I would make sure transitions were efficient.”
On a staff that also features Brent McNeil and Ken Jones, Huff also helps with hitters and infielders, leads outfielders and is expected to coach first base when PFW — a member of the NCAA Division I Horizon League — opens its 2022 season Feb. 18 at Georgia State.
“The challenge is we’re not on the field,” says Huff, noting that the Mastodons last practiced outdoors in November.
At the beginning of the fall, the team took advantage of warmer temperatures and put in 20 hours per week of team practice.
“(Hitters) got 50 to 60 (at-bats) and (pitchers) 20 to 22 innings,” says Huff. “You got to figure out exactly what you have. This year we’ve got 19 new guys so we saw how they fit with the returnees.
“There were intrasquad games in the weekends and got the players accustomed to our system and our routines.”
Then came a four hours-a-week phase where coaches could break down player’s mechanics and make adjustments if necessary.
“It’s not like going 0-of-4 in scrimmage,” says Huff. “There’s no failure.
“They’re getting their bodies ready to go and getting their timing down.”
Hitters were going to face live pitching for the first time Thursday (Jan. 20) with 20 hours-a-week workouts starting back up Jan. 28.
Huff came to Indiana from Gordon State College in Barnesville, Ga., where he was interim head coach during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic-shortened season. With just one assistant, he was charged with all positions except infielders.
A shortstop as a player, Huff is a 2003 graduate of Westover High School in Albany, Ga.
Huff also played five years of American Legion ball for Albany Post 30 and manager Larry Cook. Albany went to the Legion World Series in 2001 — the year Brooklawn (N.J.) Post 72 beat Lewiston (Idaho) Post 13 for the title in Yakima, Wash.
“He was a very strategic guy and super-competitive,” says Huff of Cook. “He never stopped coaching me. He challenged me and made me better.”
Huff made collegiate stops of two years at Darton College in Albany (now merged with Albany State University) and one each at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C., and Valdosta (Ga.) State University. His head coaches were Glenn Eames (with assistant Jamie Corr) at Darton, American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Gary Gilmore (with assistant Kevin Schnall) at Coastal Carolina and National College Baseball Hall of Famer Tommy Thomas at Valdosta State.
Huff credits Eames for showing him how to care for fields and Corr for his organization, practice plan and how to run a program.
At Darton, Huff played against Young Harris (Ga.) College featuring his cousin Charlie Blackmon. After playing for the Mountain Lions in 2005 and 2006, lefty-swinging outfielder Blackmon was selected in the 2008 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft out of Georgia Tech and made his MLB debut for the Colorado Rockies in 2011.
Gilmore led the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers to the 2016 College World Series title.
“(Gilmore and Schnall) are two of the best coaches in the country,” says Huff. “I sat and watched how they were planning out the game and their style of offense that really helped me down the road.”
An offensive-minded coach, Huff prefers aggressiveness and small ball tactics.
When Huff was on the team at Coastal Carolina, he was a teammate of Andy DeLaGarza, a product of Norwell High School in Ossian, Ind. His father — Mark DeLaGarza — runs the Summit City Sluggers travel organization in Fort Wayne.
From Thomas, Huff says he learned how to care about players and build relationships.
Former big leaguer Phil Plantier was Huff’s manager with the independent South Coast League’s Macon (Ga.) Music in 2007 and witnessed the differences between the pro and college style.
“I worked with him on hitting stuff,” says Huff. “I wanted to pick his brain as much as I could.”
When he was done as a player, Huff went into the banking industry while completing his undergraduate and Masters of Business Administration degrees.
He helped coach at Deerfield-Windsor Academy in Albany and with Leesburg American Legion Post 182 before spending five years at Darton with head coach Scot Hemmings. The Cavaliers won their first Georgia Collegiate Athletic Association title in 2015.
“He had ways to motivate players and was very organized,” says Huff of Hemmings. “The development of players was incredible there.”
When Jenna took a job at station in Macon, Justin helped coach the varsity and was middle school head coach at Tattnall Square Academy. The Trojans won the 2016 Georgia High School Athletic Association Class A state championship.
Travis McClanahan was head coach when Huff joined the staff at Gordon State. The Highlanders went 50-9 and lost to Walters State in the National Junior College Athletic Association East-Central District in 2019.
Justin and Jenna Huff have been married for 10 years and have four daughters — Devon (8), Canon (6), Fallon (4) and Lennon (2).