Baseball: JUCO transfers help one another make transition to Pitt

Whenever junior transfer Hobie Harris takes the mound this season for the Pitt baseball team, chances are a familiar person will stand crouched on the infield dirt over his left shoulder — Matt Johnson, a Pitt infielder and a fellow transfer.

But the two are more than teammates or even fellow “JuCo” players — they’re roommates.

The pair played and roomed together the past two years at Paris Junior College in Texas and are now continuing their college careers as Panthers. They remain roommates, albeit no longer in a dorm room the size of “a little box” but in a house at 422 Atwood St.

And now, that bond has taken on even greater importance with all of the adjustments they have had to make, especially the increased distance from home.

“It helps having a dude that you’ve spent two years with that’s kind of almost family,” Harris said.

His friend agrees.

“I don’t think the transition would’ve been easy without having somebody from home,” Johnson said.

Both have adjusted to the new surroundings and team well and are likely to feature in Pitt’s 3 p.m. home opener at Cost Field against Youngstown State. The two made their first official joint appearance as Panthers when Harris pitched in the team’s second game of the season against Coastal Carolina.

The Panthers clinched the series, and the players remained confident in the formula they had already established.

“Coming out of the bullpen, after my warmup pitches, getting the ball and just looking around and looking back and seeing the shortstop I’ve had behind me for two years was another thing to ease my mind,” Harris said. “This is what we came here for.”

While the players were initially brought together at Paris through coach-decided living arrangements, Harris and Johnson called their pairing logical. The two hail from the same area of Texas — the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex — with their hometowns just 15 minutes apart. They played against each other countless times during summers in their teenage years as well as once in high school their senior year.

But while they knew of each other, they didn’t meet until the summer prior to freshman year of college, a month before they began their time on campus together.

“It really worked out,” Harris said.

And to think when Paris head coach Deron Clark was matching up his new players for their living situations, these two ended up with one another for no good reason. 

“When I’m picking, I put freshmen with freshmen, and they didn’t have anybody that we had signed that they knew they wanted to room with. And so, I just took those two guys and put them together,” Clark said. “I wish I could give you a more juicier story, but it was totally random.” The stats show that they have settled in on the field, as well.

Johnson started at Pitt at shortstop but moved to play mostly second base, where head coach Joe Jordano said he is doing a “great job.”

Harris, who played center field occasionally his freshman year in addition to pitching, is at Pitt solely as a pitcher. He has served a relief role thus far, making the most appearances of any pitcher on staff (eight), all of them coming out of the bullpen.

He has a record of 2-3 with one save and an earned run average of 3.15.

The academic aspect of the move has gone well, according to both. Each finished the majority of their general education requirements while at Paris, allowing them to jump right into coursework for their respective majors — finance for Johnson and exercise science for Harris.

Paris head coach Deron Clark said the academic facet of making the jump from junior college to Division I is crucial.

“You gotta give yourself a chance to be eligible at the next level,” Clark said. “Both of these guys are off the chart. They just did a great job of giving themselves that opportunity.”

The talent and the ability necessary to compete at the highest level is not something junior college players lack, generally.

“For most of them, the baseball part is already there. They’re good players,” he said. “Granted, they have to improve and develop their skills.”

According to Clark, the whole thing was made possible by a recruiting service called Field Level, which Paris had begun using and Pitt also used. The service brought the players to Pittsburgh, more than 15 hours from home.

“As we started to put our roster and players up there and keeping it updated, Pitt began to communicate with us on a regular basis about our guys,” he said. “And of course we’re able to attach transcripts and stats and things that are immediately pertinent to the status of a kid.”

Pitt began trying to recruit Johnson in October 2012, and he signed his letter of intent in November. His first contact with Pitt resulted from a round-robin tournament where Pitt pitching coach Jerry Oakes saw Johnson play.

The process accelerated quickly, a surprise at first to Johnson, who said it often happens in a long, drawn out fashion for some players. The forward and direct nature of the approach was something he came to appreciate.

“If they’re showing that much interest in me, I want to show it back. You gotta go somewhere where you’re needed, not wanted,” he said.

Harris wasn’t contacted by the coaching staff until the beginning of spring. An assistant coach told him to expect to hear from the school because they needed a pitcher. Coach Oakes had seen him pitch back in the fall during the same game in which he saw Johnson.

Harris’ parents, Bob and Amy Harris, both attended Pitt-Johnstown and grew up in western Pennsylvania, but they didn’t expect their son to end up at the main campus some years later — and neither did he.

“I never saw myself going out of Texas,“ he said.

Right after Johnson made his decision, the emotion and attachment he displayed toward his future school made a positive impression on his roommate — a feeling that remained when Pitt began targeting him, as well.

“You could just tell [Johnson] was fired up. It wasn’t less than a week that we had a Pitt banner hanging on the wall of our dorm room,” Harris said. “This dude is not one to settle. So there must be something good going on up there.”

Sitting across from Harris at a table in the media work room inside the Petersen Events Center, Johnson begins to chuckle at the memory, interjecting between laughs that he made a point that fall to buy a “H2P” block letter T-shirt.

Jordano acknowledged that having someone familiar on the roster serves as a helpful recruiting pitch.

“It is obviously easier to get two players from the same team coming to a different part of the country to play,” Jordano said.

With both players decided on where they would head next, the journey would pick back up in the summer when they arrived in Oakland.

After settling in a few weeks before freshmen arrived for orientation, the pair had a month to get familiar with their new surroundings.

“We were able to get all our stuff up here and kinda get on our own schedule as far as going and throwing, working out and getting our bodies back in shape,” Harris said. “It was definitely a good transition period that helped us down the road to get used to what we were doing up here.”

They found housing with other baseball players and have more as neighbors.

“Some of the guys that were already here and the upperclassmen kind of took us in,” Johnson said. “Having them right next door, too, is really convenient as far as having people over, meeting new people or just having the team in one area to kind of bond and stuff. I think that’s one of the coolest things about where we live.”

One of the biggest adjustments of all, however, wouldn’t make itself apparent until later in the semester: snow.

Following a pleasant fall, the two were in for a shock upon returning after break.

“I came back in January and was like, ‘This polar vortex’s gotta go,’” Johnson said.

But in truth, the Texans embraced the snow while it lasted. An example: They made use of their house’s roof to keep their arms limber.

“We were so intrigued by the snow,” Johnson said. “On Atwood Street, we just made it known that it’s a danger zone. If you walk by our house, you might get a snowball thrown at you or your car.”

This child-like joy made the two easy targets for ribbing from teammates more accustomed to northern winters.

“Starting in January, any time we were walking back from the Cost Center [after practice] all the guys from around here were like ‘Do you guys have to make snow balls again? Grow up,’” Johnson said. “We’re like ‘I don’t care what you say, it’s snown 22 times here, that’s the 22 first snow days we’ve ever had.’”

Harris said that from the time they returned to campus after holiday break until the team’s opening day, the team’s field was covered in snow, leading him to anticipate the Feb. 15 season opener against Coastal Carolina. He was interested to see just how everything would go after practicing indoor for a month.

After the first few innings, he had seen enough.

“We’re fine,” Harris said.