Justin “Hoosta” Labrador is not a kid you’d miss on a Little League diamond, not with that long shockingly blonde hair.
Then if you stopped to watch him take a few swings for the Diamond Jacks Super 12U squad, chances are you’d be locked in for the full six innings and you’d be rewarded with witnessing something truly fun.
There really is nothing better than watching a youngster embrace the game of baseball and play it with a zest and passion that cannot result in anything but success in the sport. At the age of 12, ball players make plenty of mistakes, but also quickly make leaps in improvement that can be head-turning.
Labrador has been that pesky little guy for as long as anyone can remember, a good player you love having on your team. He was never really that dominant kid. But most were unaware that he was often playing above his age level.
Labrador, for example, was a starter and important utility player for Elizabeth’s Elmora Troopers squad that captured the state’s attention and emotions during their run to Williamsport and the 2019 Little League World Series. “Hoosta” was 10 years old!
Labrador played second base, right field and center field during that remarkable run by Elmora and delivered in a memorable big spot, driving in the go-ahead run in his team’s victory over Oregon in the Little League World Series.
As an 8 year-old in the Diamond Jacks program at Diamond Nation, Hoosta was making noise with the program’s 10U team that fall. He played up with that team, following it right through their 12U season, when Hoosta was still 11 years old.
Well now at 5-4, 115 pounds, 12 year-old Hoosta is no longer a playing-up peanut. He’s your garden variety-sized Little Leaguer with unusual talent and a penchant for sending fastballs, curveballs and changeups into the stratosphere.
“Hoosta is doing really well,” said Super 12U coach Mark Crawford. “He’s one of the smartest, quietest and most respectful players I’ve coached. He’s been a pleasure. We are trying to focus him on hitting gap-to-gap. That’s what will translate to the big field. He’s hit some great shots.”
Labrador has had a spring and summer that is hard to grasp in baseball terms. He’s been phenomenal playing at his own age level for the first time.
Hoosta is batting .535 with 46 hits, 20 home runs and 58 RBI in 38 games with the Diamond Jacks Super 12U since the start of spring. Those gaudy numbers translate into even gaudier numbers in the areas of on-base average (.631), slugging (1.360) and OPS (1.991). He’s also scored 58 runs and drawn 18 walks.
As Crawford says, “Hoosta is a quiet assassin.”
All of this success hasn’t seemed to have had a big effect on Labrador other than in his confidence and his urgency to get to the field.
“I would consider myself a confident player,” said Labrador. “I think it’s pretty important to be confident. If you go up to the plate with no confidence, you are giving your at bat away. You’re a free out for the other team.”
There have been no free outs when Hoosta steps to the plate this spring and summer. When he’s not doing lethal things to a baseball for the Diamond Jacks, Labrador is making other coaches happy for his rec league team in Elizabeth and his local summer team, Hanratty 12U.
In six summer league games, Labrador is 10-for-15 (.750) with 6 home runs and 11 RBI. Unleashing Hoosta’s bat on a rec league this spring was truly unfair. He went 18-for-21 (.857), hit 9 home runs and drove in 18 runs in nine rec league games.
Perhaps most impressive of all of Labrador’s numbers has been his performance in Perfect Game events this summer for the Diamond Jacks, which represent the bulk of his at bats for the Super 12U this summer. Hoosta is 15-for-22 (.682) with 14 home runs and 27 RBI. His .714 on-base average and 2.591 slugging percentage equate to a 3.321 OPS. Yes, 14 home runs out of 15 hits at PG events.
“When I’m at the plate I’m looking to hit a line drive up the middle,” says Labrador. “The ball has been flying off my bat lately. Most of my home runs are to center field or right-center. I occasionally pull a home run.”
If you are looking for a trademark home run trot or bat flip or anything that’s supposedly cool these days from Hoosta, good luck. “I smirk between second and third base,” he admitted. Most likely, he’s thinking about the reception awaiting him at home plate.
“Hoosta is very serious,” said his dad, Jairo Labrador, who coached Hoosta and older son, Jason (Diamond Jacks Super 14U) on the Elmora team. “He’s focused on what he wants to do. He’s always been hooked on the game. It was a hard decision to keep him down at 12U. But we wanted him to enjoy his last year on the small field. He’s the big dog this year for the first time.”
The Diamond Jacks Super 12U (30-8) just finished a run to the semifinals of a Perfect Game event in Newark and began play today in yet another PG event in Georgia. That will be a big test for the Super 12U, which will encounter teams from all over the country in a 90-team tournament. The top two teams from each of 15 pools advance to the championship playoff bracket.
There are a couple good stories to tell about Justin Labrador’s nickname, “Hoosta” and his flowing blonde mane that makes him easy to spot at 100 yards.
“The letter “J” in Spanish is pronounced like an “H,” says Jairo Labrador. “Justin’s grandmother calls him “Hoostin” or “Hoosty.” We all started calling him “Hoosty.” We were at a game once and grandma called him “Hoost” and one of our coaches, Chris Suseck, heard it and said, “That’s it. He’s “Hoosta” from now on.”
Suseck, a star at Hunterdon Central before playing college ball at Coastal Carolina and Rutgers, gets the credit for hammering home the “Hoosta” nickname.
“For some reason, the nickname fit,” said Suseck. “He was a younger kid playing up, wasn’t the biggest or strongest but had confidence he could make a big impact. He never shied away from a challenge. That calls for a nickname.
“Hoosta is a student of the game and has a great work ethic, which has led to a lot of success so far. Talk about intangibles, he stays level-headed and understands the game’s ups and downs. It’s awesome to see him be able to do that at his age.”
Justin “Hoosta” Labrador is a Mets fan, through-in-through, ingrained by his parents and reinforced daily. Understandably, one of the players he fell in love with early was Noah Syndergaard, he of the flowing blonde mane. “That’s why he grew it out,” says Jairo. Syndergaard has since gone to a much more conservative cut, but Hoosta, as Jairo says, “is still flowing like Thor.
Crawford: “Hoosta is the perfect teammate. He doesn’t have your typical best kid on the team attitude. He leads by example.”
Hoosta on what makes a good player: “A good IQ. You have to know what you’re supposed to do when the ball is hit to you. You can’t take reps off in practice. You have to work hard. You can’t expect good results without working hard.”
Hoosta on what makes a good teammate: “A good teammate is respectful of all his teammates. You have to show them love when they are down, when they make an out. You have to cheer them on. You can’t be down on your teammates. You have to talk to them and be nice.”
Quick hits with Hoosta
Favorite player: “Francisco Lindor. He’s smooth, has a great attitude. He’s a great player overall.
Best LL World Series memory: “My first hit against Oregon. It was with the bases loaded and broke a tie. We won the game.”
Best home run memory: My first one as a Djack. I was 11 and playing with the 12U team. We were winning 11-1 and I came up with the bases loaded. I hit a line drive to left and it went out. Off the bat I knew it was gone. I was in shock rounding the bases.
Most home runs in a game: “Two. Three times.”
Best Djack memory: Last year we were in extra innings in the championship game against the Garden State Ducks. They hit a ground ball to third base. Our third baseman stepped on third and threw to first for the double play and we won.
Favorite subject in school: “Math. It’s probably my best subject.” Hoosta is entering 7th grade in September at School 21 in Elizabeth.