Justin Jennings felt a connection to the Huntsville baseball program the first time he talked to athletics director Rodney Southern about the Hornets’ head coaching job.
“The first thing I said when I got in the truck was, 'That's the kind of guy I want to work for,’” Jennings recalled.
The feeling was mutual — and a few weeks later, they made it official. Southern confirmed the hiring of Jennings as head baseball coach to The Item on Wednesday.
“I interviewed him three weeks ago and really liked him,” Southern said. “We probably talked for 30 minutes, and I just kind of had a feeling.”
In Jennings, Huntsville brings in a baseball coach with six years of college coaching experience, and eight more at the high school level.
Jennings played collegiately at Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College, but Tommy John Surgery derailed his playing career. He transitioned into coaching, making stops at Clark University, Peru State College and East Texas Baptist University, before landing his first head coaching gig at Ashdown High School in Arkansas. He reached the state semifinals while at Ashdown, and also claimed a bi-district championship during his time at Sherman High School, where he most recently coached.
As a former college player and coach, Jennings shares a unique perspective in regards to training and preparation. An increased focus on the weight room and drill work is something that the coach has carried over from his time in the college ranks, as well an emphasis on efficiency during practice.
“Being able to plan a practice where you can get the most out of it in a short amount of time is one of the biggest things I've taken from the collegiate level,” Jennings said. “Just being more efficient. ... We coach them as if they're going to play at the collegiate level, and we try to run it as much like a college program as we can.”
One of the driving forces that helped draw Jennings to Huntsville was the desire to get closer to family that lives near the area.
“Family is most important now that I have two young children,” the coach said. “We saw an opportunity to get closer to family and get all the grandkids closer to each other.”
Another factor was the opportunity to work for a pair of bosses in Southern and superintendent Dr. Scott Sheppard who are determined to build a winner out of a struggling baseball program. The Hornets have won just two district games in the past two seasons combined, but Jennings is unfazed by recent program history.
“It was a big part of the decision,” Jennings said. “One of the things Coach Southern told me very early on in the interview process was that Dr. Sheppard is a baseball guy. There was a lot of dialogue between Coach Southern and him about things moving forward, and what we need to do to better the program.
“It's important to work for people that are in your corner and willing to do whatever it takes to be successful. ... The drive for Coach Southern and Dr. Sheppard to get this thing going in the right direction and make a winner for these kids is second to none.”
As he attempts to spark a turnaround, Jennings’ first order of business is getting kids in the weight room and assessing where they are at physically.
“Regardless of what sport you play, strength plays a factor,” he said. “The stronger you are, the more opportunities you will be afforded to be successful.”
Jennings doesn’t promise a specific number of wins during his first year, but notes that an aggressive and loose style of play is going to be a staple of his program. An Arkansas native, he’s a fan of the Razorbacks’ mantra during their current College World Series run.
“All gas, no brakes,” Jennings remarked. “That’s how we’re going to play.”