June 15, 2014
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Connor Justus didn’t need long to get back on the horse.
Less than a week after Georgia Tech was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament, the freshman shortstop was already chomping at the bit to get back on the field.
“I have to get back on the field,” said Justus, with a laugh. “I love the game too much to stay away from it long. Just about four or five days to get my legs back under me then I was back at it.”
He’ll be back at it as one of four Yellow Jackets participating in the Coastal Plain League in the Carolinas and Virginia and one of three playing for the Asheboro Copperheads — pitchers Matthew Gorst, and Matt Phillips also are on the roster (Ben Schniederjans is on the staff of the Columbia Blowfish).
Not only getting to continue playing baseball but doing so with three of his classmates is a big deal.
“It’s big because it’s the first time away from home for all of us,” he said. “We’re six hours away from home and they’re kind of like family when we need it the most. We all help each other out and help each other throughout the season.”
Justus, who played in seven games heading into Sunday, has found himself at home in Asheboro, N.C.
“I like the fans because they love the game and you can tell they just live for stuff like this,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. A lot of fun.”
The faithful in Asheboro have grown accustomed to the high standard set by the Copperheads, who won a franchise-best 35 games in 2013 in winning the West Division, and qualifying for the playoffs for the fourth straight season.
Their high expectations are fine with Justus.
“It’s always like that, just the competitiveness,” he said. “You always want to win. We’ve struggled a little bit lately but I think that if we keep working hard and keep having that competitive drive then we’ll be fine.”
(The Copperheads started 8-8, and while Justus was hitting .118, he is perfect in the field).
He feels the same lesson, working hard and competing as well as remembering what it takes to win and how they’ve won will serve the Yellow Jackets in 2015 and the years beyond.
“We just have to look back and remember what we did, what got us there, and what our style of play is and just how to compete,” he said. “I think if we do that then down the road we can see some more titles, go further in the postseason, everything like that. We just have to look back and remember what we did to get into that spot.”
Remembering what they did and improving on what they did not do is the major reason Justus and so many of his Georgia Tech teammates are participating in the various summer leagues nationwide (The Good Word will have its weekly recap on them all on Tuesday).
Justus will have no trouble remembering the 2014 season, his first collegiate season. He played an integral part in the Yellow Jackets shaking off a 14-16 ACC season to win Georgia Tech’s ninth Conference Tournament, becoming the first No. 9 seed to do so in the process, and qualifying for an NCAA Tournament Regional for the seventh straight year and the 28th time in 30 years.
“It was just a blast,” he said. “I think we grew so much as a team from the start of the year. At the start of the year we weren’t very good. Everyone counted us out. We just grew as a family and then everything just kind of clicked. Then the ACC Tournament happened. It was just a great year all-around.”
Now comes the hard part, building on it and continuing to grow.
That’s part of what made the opportunity to play in the Coastal Plain League so attractive to Justus. The league has not disappointed.
“I like it a lot so far,” he said. “My host family is great, the competition is good and I’m just trying to get better each and every day.”
Justus said he’s primarily concerned with improving his hitting. He realizes there’s room to improve as he batted .254 with two homers, six doubles and a triple, with 30 RBIs, and an on-base percentage of .342, but saw his batting average and on-base percentage dip in ACC play (.233, .308) before coming up huge in the ACC Tournament, driving in a pair of insurance runs in the Tournament Championship clincher.
But he is as determined to upgrade his immaculate defense despite fielding.985 in ACC play, with only two errors, and not committing an error over the season’s final 28 games.
“There’s always something you can work on each and every day,” said Justus, who was named to the watch list for the inaugural Brooks Wallace Award, given to the nation’s top shortstop. “It doesn’t matter if you’re hitting .400 or you’re fielding great. There’s always something, whether it’s a backhand or a forehand, there’s always something you can improve on. I try to do that every day that I’m at the park and just try to get better. That’s one thing I always try to do, continue to grow and learn, be a student of the game.”