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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Dunhurst dreams big at PG Jr.

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Like most of the other players on the Green team at this week’s Perfect Game Junior National Showcase at jetBlue Park, Mississippi class of 2019 catcher Hayden Dunhurst watched the first two rounds of the MLB June Amateur Draft Monday night.

The Green and Gold teams completed their showcase schedule Monday before lightning and rain delayed the proceedings later in the day for the Maroon and Navy teams. So, given the opportunity, the solidly built, 5-foot-11, 210-pound rising junior at Pearl River Central High School in Carriere, Miss., sat down and watched the draft.

What Dunhurst saw was more than just exciting for the 16-year-old who PG ranks as the No. 63 overall national prospect in his graduating class (No. 10 catcher). Nine of the first-round selections are alumni of the PG Jr. National, including No. 6 overall pick Austin Beck, No. 8 Adam Hasely, No. 10 Jo Adell, No. 15 Jacob Bukaukas and No. 16 Clarke Schmidt.

For the first time in his life, it occurred to Dunhurst that he was beginning to climb the first rungs on the ladder that might one day lead to some special things happening when June 2019 arrives in two years.

“This is one of the big things (in the process) and it’s kind of fun for me to look at it that way,” Dunhurst said from the jetBlue Park playing field Tuesday morning. “You look at it and it’s like ‘Wow!’ that you actually got invited to something this special. It makes you realize how grateful you are that God blessed you this way.”

This week’s PG Jr. National is Dunhurst’s first showcase experience, although he’s played in a half-dozen PG WWBA and PGSuper 25 tournaments in the last couple of years. As he looked at jetBlue Park’s two dugouts Monday morning, he was obviously appreciative of the opportunities he and the other prospects had been given.

“This is a positive experience for all of us and it puts us on a big stage in front of all these scouts,” Dunhurst said. “Once you start doing it and you get onto a bigger stage like Atlanta (PG WWBA National Championships), you get more (comfortable) with it, more settled down with it. You go out there, play your game and have fun. It’s baseball; you’ve got to have fun.”

Hayden was here with his mom, Gwen Dunhurst, who was just as happy for her son being here as he was for himself.

“He enjoys every minute of it; any chance he gets to play baseball he’s a happy guy,” Gwen said Tuesday morning. “I just really enjoy watching him grow and mature as a player and as a young man. It’s really incredible to see how much he progresses each year, and I’m really looking forward to see what the future holds for him.”

PG scouts were impressed with Dunhurst’s performance during the first day of the Jr. National on Monday. After taking BP, a scout wrote: “(Dunhurst) is a physically built Ole Miss commit and he showed well on both sides of the ball today. Strongly built, the left-handed hitting Dunhurst displayed plenty of barrel whip and was able to generate the ball with the quality bat speed and lift in his swing.”

During the workout session, he recorded a 1.94-second Pop time (5th best of the session) and threw 81 mph from behind the plate to second base (3rd best).

By his own account, Dunhurst has been a baseball kid ever since he was 3 years old and it’s been his dream to play at the college or professional level ever since he first picked up a ball. He showed some versatility during his youth baseball days – every kid does, really – and just started catching once he got into middle school.

“I really loved (catching) so I put a lot of time and effort into it, and that’s what I am now,” he said. “I like it because you get to control a lot of the game and you get to control the pitchers, and you’re into the action every single pitch. (The position is) a big part of the game and I love being right there in it; I love being accountable for myself.”

Dunhurst is coming off a very satisfying Mississippi high school season. The Pearl River Central High School baseball team made history this spring when it won the MHSAA Class 5A state championship, the first MHSAA state title won by the school in any sport. The Blue Devils snuck past mighty Oxford HS, 2-1, in the championship game and finished 28-12.

Dunhurst, still a sophomore in the spring semester, played in all 40 games, slashing .306/.446/.644 with nine doubles, a triple, 10 home runs and 45 RBI; the home runs and RBI were team-highs.

“We graduated a bunch of people (in 2016) and our whole team was new this year,” he said. “We didn’t start out really well and I felt like I had to be a leader on the team and pick things up, and we got hot and we didn’t stop. … We made a name for ourselves and put ourselves out there.”

Added Gwen: “I’m still on cloud 9 about that. It was just so unexpected with such a young team. We graduated nine seniors (in 2016) – seven of those were starters – we had a young group and they just came together. We were all so shocked at how well they meshed and how hard they worked; it all paid off in the end.”

Dunhurst, an Ole Miss commit, has also benefitted by his association with the Ridgeland, Miss.-based East Coast Sox organization, a “Christ Centered Program” based in Ridgeland, Miss. He praised EC Sox program directors/coaches Chris Snopek, Joe Caruso and Eric Dubose for everything they’ve done to help him develop in both his level of play on the baseball field and in his life of faith.

He was on the PSA Sox Red team that won the 2014 13u PG Super25 national championship and was also on the East Coast Sox-Snopek team that won the prestigious 2015 14u PG WWBA National Championship. Dunhurst was named to three PG all-tournament teams in 2015 and 2016 playing with the East Coast Sox Prime 14u, East Coast Sox Prime and East Coast Sox Prime-Snopek.

“They do a great job of bringing the Lord to baseball and putting a platform out there for us,” he said. “It’s been an incredible experience with how they’re doing things. It’s always been great to be with that group of guys, the same group we’ve always been around since we were little. We’ve developed our game together and we’ve become pretty good ballplayers.”

One of Dunhurst’s Jr. National Green squad teammates the last two days was his friend Ben Bentley, a 2019 corner-infielder and Mississippi State commit from Hernando, Miss. Dunhurst and Bentley are also teammates on the East Coast Sox-Snopek summer travel ball team.

“It’s easy to get along really well with guys that have the same dream as you,” Dunhurst said. “We got along really well; it’s a great group of guys here.”

It is the relationships these young prospects develop amongst themselves that is often the most gratifying aspect of the PG showcase experience for both the kids and their parents. Dunhurst’s teammates on the Green team came from places as far-reaching as Minnesota, New Jersey, Maryland, Texas and Puerto Rico, but upbringing and cultural differences never got in the way. The bonding and camaraderie on display came as naturally as taking a pitch that is high and outside.

“These are friendships that hopefully will last a lifetime,” Gwen Dunhurst said. “It’s been quite an experience for him and it’s fun; it’s really fun. But it’s also showed him what the level of work is that he needs to put in after he gets home. It’s been quite an eye-opener for him.”

Committing to the Ole Miss Rebels with head coach Mike Bianco and his many assistants – including Mike Clement, the son of Perfect Game CEO Brad Clement – also came naturally to Dunhurst: “A key factor was that all of their coaches are amazing,” he said. “I liked how they take care of their players, how good they treat players and always make sure they’re taken care of. … I wanted to go there and develop my game to the best of my ability.”

It is his parents, Bob and Gwen, that have had the biggest influence on him throughout his life, Dunhurst said, simply because of the way they’ve always encouraged him to become the best he can possibly be. The fact that he will someday be playing his college baseball in Oxford means a lot to the family even if Carriere in far southern Mississippi and Oxford way up north are separated by just over 300 miles.

“We are overwhelmed; it’s so exciting and we can’t wait for him to get there,” Gwen said. “We’re just so happy that any SEC school was interested because the SEC has amazing baseball programs at every college (in the league). To be a part of that with all that atmosphere, it’s just exciting to look forward to.”

The 2017 PG Jr. National will wrap-up its four-day run on Thursday and make way for the six-day PG National Showcase, the most prestigious showcase event for rising high school seniors in North America, if not the world.

The 2019s that are at this year’s Jr. National will all hope they can continue to develop and perform at a high enough level to be invited to the 2018 PG National. From there, maybe, just maybe, they’ll hear their name called in the first-round of the 2019 MLB June Amateur Draft, and add their names beside those of Beck, Hasely, Adell, Bukaukas and Schmidt as prominent PG Jr. National alumni.

Gwen Dunhurst told PG that she and her husband were always hoping that Hayden would get an opportunity to play college baseball at some level only because they would be so happy for him to be able to play the game for as long as he can – he loves it that much.

Now, he’s a nationally ranked prospect with a scholarship to Ole Miss who is receiving invitations to the PG Jr. National Showcase and playing at national championship-level tournaments at impressive venues months before he’ll start his junior year at Pearl River Central High School. And, if that’s not enough, his name is already being mentioned in the same sentence as the 2019 MLB Draft.

“I never dreamed it would be like this, but God has big plans for him,” his mom said. “So, I’m just excited to see what God has in store for him.”

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