Wednesday, July 04, 2012

SPORTS STORY >> A coach’s prime example

Leader sports editor

High school coaches in every sport see all kinds of athletes come and go. Every now and then a certain type of player comes along who coaches hate to see go. Players, average and even exceptional ones, can be and are replaced. But an attitude, an approach, a work ethic that certain players bring can’t be replaced. That’s what Jacksonville baseball coaches are going to miss about Jesse Harbin.

Harbin has been a full-time starter for the Jacksonville Red Devils since his sophomore year, and he was a part-time starter a year before that. He’s also been the pitching ace for the Red Devils and the Gwatney Chevrolet American Legion team for the past two years. His work ethic isn’t his only quality though. He does have talent, enough to garner a Division I scholarship to play for UALR. But it’s his work ethic and competitiveness that coaches glow about.

Gwatney head coach Bob Hickingbotham loves his work ethic. Red Devils coach Larry Burrows loves his competitiveness.

Hickingbotham said, “Jesse is the hardest working player I’ve had in a long time. He doesn’t ever say a word or complain about what you’re doing. If you need him on the mound he says ‘I’m ready to go coach.’ If I say I need you to do this or that, he says ‘I’m ready to go coach.’

Burrows says there were times in practice when he’d have to put the spurs to him, but he always responded.

“It was kind of a running joke,” Burrows said. “To go up to him and say OK Jesse, let’s turn it on now. When it was time to turn it on, he could turn it on. Most guys can’t do that, turn it on and off like that. He could. When the lights came on he was going to compete, and he was going to compete hard.”

Harbin hit cleanup for the Red Devils’ 2011 state championship team. He was one of two juniors, along with recently drafted D’Vone McClure, to start along with seven seniors. The team’s best hitter that season was Patrick Castleberry, who Burrows moved to the three hole because teams were pitching around him. Burrows explains putting the junior Harbin, who had a lower batting average than some teammates, behind the best hitter.

“All three of us coaches talked about who to put behind Castleberry,” Burrows said. “Maybe we shouldn’t have put him there because his average wasn’t as high as some of the others, but it was unanimous we felt like Jesse was going to compete harder than anybody.”

It paid huge dividends in the state championship game, when Harbin’s two-RBI double sent the game against heavily favored Searcy into extra innings.

Harbin says his work ethic comes naturally from different sources. He loves to play baseball, and his family has instilled a habit of setting goals and working to reach them.

“That’s the way we’ve always been,” Harbin said of his family.

Jesse Lind Harbin is the son of Robert Harbin Sr. and Mary Jo Harbin. He has two older siblings, Robert Jr. and Amber, who are more than a decade older than him..

“I was a surprise,” Jesse said, explaining the large age difference between himself and his siblings.

His approach to the game that his coaches love is something that came easy for him.

“I’ve always done that.” Harbin said. “I just want to get better than I am right now.”

After winning the high-school state title, that same group tore through the American Legion regular season before going out with a whimper in the first round of the zone tournament. Harbin watched as his teammates wore out towards the end of the summer, but says he’s never experienced that personally.

“I love it too much,” Harbin said. “If you don’t love it, it gets hard and it’s really easy for a player to get burned out. But I’ve never had that problem. There’s not a time when I get tired of it, not ever.”

Harbin initially signed with Arkansas Baptist Junior College when none of the larger schools that had been recruiting him came through with a scholarship offer. Shortly after signing with Baptist, UALR coach Scott Norwood decided to get Harbin aboard. There was no ceremony. The school sent the NCAA Letter of Intent to Harbin in the mail, and he signed it at home three weeks ago.

Despite the lack of fanfare in becoming Jacksonville’s second DI baseball signee this season, Harbin is glad to get the opportunity to play for the Trojans.

“It’s DI so I’m very excited,” Harbin said.

The Trojans were a good hitting team last season but struggled on the mound. That’s where Harbin hopes to fit in.

“I’m a good pitcher and a good fielder,” Harbin said. “I think I can contribute in those two areas. I’m not a real strong hitter but I’m pretty good and that’s going to come around. I’m definitely going to work hard at it.”

Harbin, along with McClure, saw a drastic role change on the Red Devils from their junior to senior seasons. After the seven starting seniors left, those two were the only returning starters. Things were tough on Harbin early. He lost several games on the mound despite giving very few earned runs.

“The difference between runs and earned runs were pretty bad early on,” Burrows said. “Jesse handled that really well. Him and Plucky (McClure) both did. Whenever he felt like he needed to say something to one of the younger ones, whether it was positive or negative, he went and said it. He helped keep us together when we went through a few losing streaks. Both of those guys did that really well. It could’ve gone south from there and could’ve got really bad. But those two really helped keep us together and we ended up being a little bit better I think than we were probably expecting.”

Burrows saw Harbin grow into that leader in four years of coaching him.

“Coach (Jeremiah) Clennon works hard with them on that,” Burrows said. “That’s self discipline, and he’s going to need that just in life. He wasn’t always real great at it, but most of them aren’t when they come in. Some of them learn it and some of them don’t, but Jesse learned and became a great leader for a real inexperienced team.”

Hickingbotham notices it, too.

“He works so hard, and there are times when we’re not hustling and it hurts him,” Hickingbotham said. “He don’t say anything except Come guys lets get it together, let’s get it going.”

Part of that patience comes from another rare ability that Burrows explains well.

“He can move to the next pitch,” Burrows said. “He can give up a big hit in a big game, then come back and strike out the next two. Those things don’t bother him because he’s a competitor, and he believes he can get the next guy out.”

Harbin doesn’t know yet what field of study he wants to pursue in college, but he does want to play professional baseball.

“Of course I do,” Harbin said. “Everybody kid wants to play pro ball. You just got to work hard at it.”

Just how much Harbin has meant to Burrow’s and Hickingbotham’s programs came through when they were asked to summarize No. 14.

“I don’t know anything about him except that he’s outstanding in my book,” said Hickingbotham.

“He gets it,” Burrows said. “He understands. I don’t know how to explain it but you need that type of guy just as much in practice as in a game. He makes things fun and can explain to younger guys. He did a lot for our program. I’m definitely going to miss 14.”