EUGENE — Darrell Hunter, once the first of Oregon's baseball players, is back to give it one last shot with the Ducks.
This time, it's as a full-time pitcher rather than being an infielder or splitting time between the two positions as he has done in the past.
"I'll be doggone if Darrell hasn't just shocked us," UO coach George Horton said. "He's been one of more consistent pitchers" in fall and winter workouts.
Much remains to be decided about Hunter's role with the 15th-ranked Ducks, who open their season Feb. 15 at Hawaii. But even reaching this point has to be considered a success for Hunter, who has negotiated some detours along the path.
"It's good to see you guys again," he joked with a couple of reporters who talked to him during media availability with the baseball team as it began official workouts last week.
Way back when, Hunter was the first recruit to commit to the resurrected UO program, as a senior at Thurston High School. He was among the candidates to play third base for the Ducks his freshman season, but ultimately lost out in that bid.
As a sophomore, he suffered a concussion when he was struck in the head by a baseball. There were subsequent issues with seizures and concern about whether Hunter could even continue playing baseball. He was at Lane Community College two years ago and found success playing the sport again, then returned to Oregon last year, but after an initial attempt to make the team, decided to take a year off from baseball.
That time off from the sport allowed him to concentrate on academics, and he's completed his requirements for a degree in sociology. He also worked on his overall physical fitness.
Hunter went to Horton last fall asking for one last opportunity at playing baseball, and look at him now. He's down 55 pounds from the 235 he weighed a year ago and, he said, it's been more than 12 months since he last suffered a seizure.
"Knock on wood, but that's been going well," Hunter said, adding "I think I just got better at managing it."
He credits feeling less stress, and "dropping the weight and being healthier."
As a pitcher, he said he threw 90 miles per hour for the first time in a game against the alumni last fall, and he feels stronger than he's ever been, perhaps because he's finally only working as a pitcher.
"I've been here before, but it seems so new because it's the other side of baseball," he said of pitching. "I thought I knew pitching pretty well "… (but) you learn so much new stuff with our coaches. I like it a lot."
"It looks like he might bring some quality innings to us and that makes my heart warm because he deserves it," Horton said. "Nobody has worked harder. We hope it keeps going in that positive direction for Darrell."
Hunter is one of only two local players on the UO roster, along with catcher/pitcher Derek Smith, a redshirt freshman from Pleasant Hill.
In fall workouts, freshman Ryan Land from Sheldon participated but then decided to transfer to Concordia University Irvine, where he will redshirt this season. The school won the NAIA national championship in 2011.
Horton said Land was informed after fall practices that he was "on the bubble" for one of the 35 roster spots, the NCAA limit.
While that roster won't be finalized until the first game, Horton said he wanted to warn players who were in that group of their tenuous status so that if they felt they wanted to transfer where playing time was more likely, they could do it in time to enroll elsewhere for school this winter.
"We wanted to give them every chance (to make the Ducks) but to wait until we have to make that (final) cut, their fallback position is not very good," Horton said. "He elected not to go down to the very end."
Horton described Land as "a good player, he just happened to come into a year where we had a bunch of experienced guys back at his position. He might have been the ninth outfielder and the ninth outfielder doesn't get to travel (to away games) or play very much."
In addition to Hunter and Smith, the UO roster has four other players from Oregon high schools: sophomore Jordan Spencer (Beaverton), redshirt freshman Sam Johnson (Westview) and two true freshmen from Roseburg, Josh Graham and Jared Priestley.