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VCU-bound Barnett ‘looking forward to leaving my mark’

Tanner Cook • May 21, 2019 at 9:40 PM

BIG STONE GAP — Union senior standout Justin Barnett is a rare breed of thrower, one that does not come through Southwest Virginia all that often.

On Tuesday afternoon, Barnett signed his national letter of intent to continue his track and field career at Virginia Commonwealth in Richmond.

“When I went to the track meet in Richmond, I visited the college beforehand and I really liked the environment there,” Barnett said. “I really liked the coaches there and they know what they’re talking about. I liked how the attitude of the program was with throwing farther and getting better.”

“As a freshman, you could tell that he wanted it,” Union coach Tim Thomas said. “He didn’t like to be content. He would practice long after everyone else was gone. He’s got a lot of passion about it and he’s intense. He’s very competitive and intense all the time. He has a little bit of a temper sometimes, but that’s his intensity and competitiveness coming out.

“When the competition comes out and does something good,” Thomas added, “he wants to work that much harder.”


Barnett has had quite the senior campaign, improving his personal- best marks in both the shot put and discus to historic far Southwest Virginia standards.

How historic, though?

Some perspective: Virginia High’s Nikolas Huffman is by far the best thrower to ever come out of the area, recording heaves of 58-8.5 in the shot put and 181-1 in the discus. He eventually ended up at Kentucky and had a decorated career, qualifying for NCAA championships in 2017 and finishing 13th.

Barnett ranks fifth since 2000 in the shot put with a throw of 56-3.5 and is second behind only Huffman in the discus after unleashing a throw of 164-10 at the beginning of May.

Barnett is one of the rare combo throwers collegiate coaches look for: an athlete who can score in multiple events at championship meets.

“I’m just looking forward to leaving my mark around here,” Barnett said. “I want to show that I can stand up with those guys in terms of being one of the best that has ever been in Southwest Virginia.

“I just want to leave my name in this little place down here.”


Barnett was the VHSL Class 2 champion in the shot put during his sophomore year in 2017, bursting onto the scene after not qualifying for state his freshman year.

Going into last spring’s state meet, Barnett was the top seed at 52-9 but lost on the final throw to Floyd County’s Mitch Cook. Cook unleashed a 54-0 to dethrone the defending champ.

Barnett said that loss inspired him to change his throwing style. So this spring, he went from gliding to rotation, or spinning.

Gliding in the shot put is an easier technique but requires a lot of power to throw the metal ball far.

Spinning is a bit risky if the technique is not good because of the danger of falling out of the throwing ring and fouling. But if done correctly, the momentum from the rotation pushes the shot farther without as much power.

The change has also been pertinent in Barnett’s discus throwing.

Barnett had done nothing but gliding his entire high school career, so the change was difficult. But the fruits of his labor are blooming in the best way late in the season.

“Coach Lorenzo (Rodriguez) really helped me out and got me ready for the summer,” he said. “We worked out every single day, nonstop. I didn’t play any other sports and I’ve been on track to get the better marks. I’ve been completely focused this whole time.

“My brother said to me that losing state last year helped me more than winning it the year before,” Barnett noted. “Losing made me want to work and train harder. Before last summer, I never worked out.”

Since the switch, Barnett has improved his personal bests by nearly 4 feet in the shot put and a whopping 34 feet in the discus.

“The thing about the switch is putting the time in to learn it,” Rodriguez said. “I told him that if he wanted to switch, he needed to do it right after the state meet. We worked all summer, fall and during indoors.

“He was ready by outdoors and with no other sports, he did it right,” the coach continued. “He’s dedicated and he committed to it.”