By Rob Moseley
Shortly after lunch Wednesday, George Horton delivered the news: As the UO baseball team progresses through fall practice and winter workouts, Darrell Hunter is going to have a hard time making the team as a pitcher come spring.
There was a pause to let the gravity of that reality check set in. After which player and coach broke into laughter. Then, they shared a hug.
A year ago, Horton delivered the same message to Hunter in all seriousness. The relief pitcher from nearby Springfield, Ore., was trying to return to Oregon after three seasons away. Hunter had suffered a concussion after playing for the Ducks in 2009, and subsequently battled reoccurring seizures.
Hunter not only made the team last spring, he went on to be one of the Ducks’ top relievers in 2013. Occasionally, he and Horton would look back and laugh at the coach’s dire preseason prediction.
They did the same Wednesday, when Hunter learned the NCAA was granting him a sixth year of eligibility for next spring, based on the two seasons of competition he missed due to his medical issues. The decision became official Thursday.
“It couldn’t be a better day,” Horton said. “It’s a feel-good story.”
Hunter’s appeal for a sixth season was filed in June. By the letter of NCAA rules, he seemed to have a strong case for returning in 2014. Hunter was confident enough that he was with the Ducks for the start of fall practice last week, which made for “a weird dynamic” given the uncertainty of his situation, he said.
“The longer it took, you start wondering, ‘Maybe they won’t give it to me,’” Hunter said. “I feel like a weight’s been lifted off my shoulders.”
Hunter, a right-handed pitcher, sat out both the 2010 and 2012 seasons due to the seizures. He played at a local junior college in between, following his true freshman season at Oregon in 2009.
In the spring of 2013, he returned in rousing fashion. Hunter was 2-0 with a 3.40 ERA as the Ducks reached the NCAA Regional round. No reliever on the team inherited more runners in 2013 than Hunter’s 19, yet only three eventually scored, a better rate even than stud setup man Garrett Cleavinger and star closer Jimmie Sherfy.
“He was a critical guy, a bridge guy,” Horton said. “Cleavinger and Sherfy got all the credit, but Darrell pitched in a lot of critical roles for us.”
Hunter spent part of this summer pitching in the prestigious Cape Cod League, after starter Jake Reed passed up the chance to spend a second summer there. Hunter returned with a couple of new tricks, Horton said, which he’ll put to use for Oregon come spring.
With veterans Reed, Tommy Thorpe and Cole Irvin joined by several promising freshmen as candidates for the rotation, Hunter figures to pitch out of the bullpen again. His goal is to do so in the ninth inning.
“Sherfy’s gone, so (the closer) spot’s open,” Hunter said. “If you’re a ‘pen guy and you said you didn’t want it, you’d be lying. That’s definitely the goal, but there’s some good pitchers on this team, and they’re not going to just hand it to me.”
Whatever role Hunter ultimately plays, Horton is mostly just happy to have him back for another year, given all he’s been through. Players are “like my kids,” the coach said, and there’s a particular soft spot for Hunter, his first recruit for the Ducks.
“Me and coach Horton have a good relationship; we’ve been through a lot,” Hunter said. “We’ve been through a roller coaster, and it’s really nice to have one more year.”