Usually, he is one of the first players to take the field. The throws to first base from the practice ground balls while the pitcher warms up are almost indistinguishable from the tosses he will make once the contest begins.
Despite the fact that the game has not started yet, there are dirt splotches along the side of his pants -- almost as if he has been playing ball all day.
He is the shortest player on the field, but he stands tall and easily sticks out. When he is at the ballpark, it is immediately clear that he is exactly where he belongs.
Justin Thomas Jarrett was born to play baseball.
GROWING UP WITH THE GAME
“I don't know. It's hard for me to say. People ask me and baseball has just been a part of my family since I was born. My mom would always take me to the ballpark, or I'd go to work with my dad. It has been as long as I can remember, honestly.” - J.T. Jarrett
Like many young boys, J.T. would tag along with his father when he was at work. It was an opportunity for the pair to spend time together, along with his mother and sibling. The younger Jarrett enjoyed the chance to spend time with his dad. The bonding time was special for both.
“Obviously my dad is my father figure outside of baseball, and then to share baseball with him,” Jarrett said. “We spent time together when I was younger going to the park and hitting. It was just what we did, so it made us closer.”
The love for a child makes it hard to detach from being a parent, but through the prism of a coach’s eyes, Link Jarrett noticed something about his son early on.
“His hand-eye coordination and skill at age six and seven, you could tell it was exceptional,” Link Jarrett recalls. "He could take ground balls and bounce around out there. He had just phenomenal dexterity and hand-eye skill in a lot of things. You could see that he had the feel and the skill to handle the bat, really catch it and throw it, and kind of be in the right spot. Even at age six through 10, you could see it.”
Now the head coach at Notre Dame, Link Jarrett’s career saw the family traverse throughout the southeastern portion of the United States, including stops at his alma mater Florida State, Mercer (Macon, Georgia), East Carolina, and Auburn.
During those travels, baseball was the common thread.
“We moved J.T. seven times and he didn't have the normal settle in a community upbringing because of my profession, quite frankly, and that's tough,” Link Jarrett said. "There is some upside to that, but wherever we went, he kind of found his niche and had a string of great young coaches. When he was young, the coaches at youth league level were great.”
The younger Jarrett also became adept at utilizing his time and the resources that were provided in order to enhance his game.
After seven successful seasons at UNCG, Link Jarrett was named head coach at Notre Dame in July of 2019. His son had just completed his sophomore season at NC State.
“I was around in the winter and I kind of trained with him,” Link Jarrett said. "It was fun, and I didn't badger him about his training. He liked it. I was able to separate. As a parent, you don't want baseball to come home with the child in your family, that's playing baseball or another sport where it's just a constant Q and A on everything you're doing, so I did my best to give him his space. When he wanted to talk about it or wanted some help or training, I would try to drop what I was doing to give him the best I had at that point.
“When you move from Greensboro to South Bend in the middle of somebody's college career, there were some long breaks. The last few years, with the way the school calendars were structured, he had to find places where we could gain access to what he needed at Notre Dame to train a little bit. He was able to train with the South Bend Cubs…so he found his way to continue to train, and that's 100 percent on him. He didn't back off of that. He kept finding days all December, January. I think some guys may tap out and not stay as dedicated. J.T. stayed on it, and I'm so proud of the accomplishments that he's had.”
THE LEGEND OF NIGHTHAWK NATION
I just remember his time at Northern as being a leader and one of smallest kids on the team, but everybody looked up to him. He'd keep the guys loose on our bus rides, in the dugout, and on the field. We just always felt good with him as a leader. - Landon Kimrey, former head varsity baseball coach at Northern Guilford High School
Link Jarrett got his first head coaching job at UNCG in Greensboro, North Carolina prior to the 2013 season. J.T. was in middle school at the time.
When the Jarrett family settled into the Greensboro area, it was in the district of Northern Guilford High School.
Northern Guilford was led by Landon Kimrey, who coached the Nighthawks for 12 seasons before stepping down in 2022 to help with his daughter’s middle school softball program. Kimrey instantly noticed Jarrett could be a cut above the rest.
“He was a small kid, but he just had those instincts and a high baseball IQ early on,” Kimrey remembers. “You could tell that he was a coach's kid. I knew that he had the potential of being a special player.”
Things did not start off exactly well for Jarrett when he entered high school. There were players ahead of him on the pecking order, which would be expected of any young high schooler when beginning the ninth grade -- especially at a solid program like Northern Guilford.
Jarrett also missed some time as a freshman. Suffering an injury in ninth grade could have stunted his baseball development
"He came in as a JV player," Kimrey said. "As a freshman, he played JV for us. He had a tough injury, so he had a tough start with us. Then I quickly learned that he was going to be our leadoff guy in just his sophomore year. He played second base for us, and he just kept getting better."
Whatever concerns, if any, regarding Jarrett's size were usually quickly assuaged when coaches watched him play. Eventually, he took away any doubt as to what decision they would make as far as writing his name in the lineup.
"J.T. came into Northern and we had a lot of good players." Kimrey said. "J.T. knew that he was going to have to work to get on the field. It just goes to show you that he's going to outwork you. He's going to outwork you and outsmart you until you have no choice but to go with him.”
As Jarrett's time with the Nighthawks progressed, two things became clear. Northern Guilford had the potential to go deep in the postseason, but his size might be a deterrent for recruiters at the next level.
In 2017, the Nighthawks soared into the North Carolina 3A State Championship Best-of-3 Series against Crest High School (Shelby, NC) at Five County Stadium in Zebulon, North Carolina.
Northern Guilford got off to a good start, winning the first game as Jarrett went 2-for-4 at the plate with a pair of runs batted in.
Crest responded with a victory in the second contest to send the series to a deciding third game. Jarrett went 1-for-3 and drove in both of Northern Guilford's runs in the loss.
The Nighthawks answered in the finale. Jarrett once again went 1-for-3 at the plate as North Guilford pulled out a, 2-1, win to claim the state title.
Jarrett was named MVP of the State Championship Series.
"He was All-State, and he was our state championship MVP his senior year," Kimrey said. "He really did have a storybook kind of high school career."
"I always thought I wanted to play D-1," Jarrett said. "Then it wasn't until high school, my last years, that's when I kind of felt like I was able to separate myself. I was always good, but sometimes I wasn't the best player on the field. I was always a small kid, but I just felt like I could do the little things right."
The next question is would that hard work and success manifest itself towards getting an offer to play at the highest level of college baseball?
"A lot of people were talking to him and recruited him," Link Jarrett said. "Mercer recruited him. We discussed the opportunity to play for me. Obviously, he could have played at Greensboro and could have helped our team, but we both felt that for his experience, it may be better to just go and be on your own and not necessarily come home to [his family] every night."
One school stuck out in the recruiting process. It was NC State.
What separated the Wolfpack, aside from playing in the ACC, was the constant presence of associate head coach Chris Hart.
Hart handles NC State's recruiting efforts, and he was at Northern Guilford's campus often.
"He wasn't as recruited a few of the other guys that I had at the time, honestly," Kimrey said. "I knew that whoever picked him up was not going to lose. You just can't lose with a guy like J.T. and Chris came early on when J.T. was being recruited. He came to quite a few of our practices. We had some good conversations about J.T. and he got to see him in a practice kind of atmosphere."
As a college coach and a dad, Link Jarrett was thrilled when NC State entered the mix.
Elliott [Avent] runs a tight ship and he gets those guys to play hard," Link Jarrett said. "Chris has brought good players in there for the better part of two decades now, and I think their combination of how they run the operation brings the best out in the guys. That's maybe deeper insight than the normal recruiting parent would see, but when you've coached with and against these guys, you know the quality of people that he would be around. If that's what he wanted to do, I completely agreed with his decision to go there. I couldn't be happier."
Northern Guilford High School has a state title and many memories.
"He left here as 'The Legend of Nighthawk Nation,'" Kimrey said.
JOINING THE PACK
Sometimes it feels like it's been a blink, but other times it feels like it's been a lifetime that I've been here. It has been a heck of a ride. I've met a lot of cool, cool guys on my team. [Avent] helped me grow up as a 18-to-23 year old. That's an important part of my life. he's taught me a lot about baseball and everything off the field too. - J.T. Jarrett
Five years. A redshirt. A pandemic. A College World Series. It has been a unique ride at NC State for Jarrett, and it is ending soon.
The redshirt-senior recently completed his senior festivities in the Wolfpack's final home series. During the last homestand of his college career, Jarrett homered against his dad's former team, UNCG. He now readies for the 2022 ACC Championship in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Notre Dame will also be in Charlotte, so Jarrett's dad could be there for potentially the last college-level baseball in his career.
Getting to watch his son sporadically in person and in game film scouting, Link Jarrett sees noticeable growth in his game over the five years at NC State.
"It is as obvious as the nose on my face," Link Jarrett said. "You can see it. The bat speed, the confidence, the strength, and just the continued progression into being one of the top defensive infielders in the country. There's no doubt about that."
NC State head coach Elliott Avent feels that saying Jarrett is just one of the better second basemen in the nation does not suffice. He thinks in grander terms.
"He's played every year," Avent said. "It's really funny when he came here, I don't knock size because look at me, I'm not going to knock size. It's the size of your heart, not the size of your body. He is a heady player. He plays with a lot of heart. He practices with a lot of heart. He gives everything he's got, and he's always found his way in the lineup, but it was probably his junior year that I realized this might be the best second basemen defensively that I've ever had."
Jarrett is going to play until he cannot play anymore. That may extend past his time at NC State.
His father, Kimrey, and Avent all agree that he has much to offer the game, both as a player and beyond. Jarrett is not there yet, but don't expect him to leave the game anytime soon.
"I'm not done in college but if I can get into coaching, I think I'm open to that." Jarrett said. "I think I can share what I've learned to other 18-to-23 year olds. If that's valuable for them, I think I can provide that somewhere."
The Wolfpack starts its postseason journey Tuesday against Wake Forest in Pod C play of the 2022 ACC Championship. Jarrett is focused on returning to the title game and trying to claim the conference crown, before making a return trip to Omaha.
Whenever and wherever it ends, he has one message for NC State faithful.
"We're definitely getting there," Jarrett said. "There's a bunch of new faces this year but we're meshing well and obviously, at this point, we're all real familiar with each other. The best team gets hot at the end. That's what we did last year, and there's no reason this team can't.
"I would just say thank you for the fans, accepting me, supporting me and all the rest of my teammates. We had five years. We've had our ups and downs, but I know the fan base actually cares about us as people too, not just baseball players, so thank you."
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