Hunter makes a difference for LHS baseball team
A trip to Buffalo Wild Wings last week was never more anticipated for Lafayette senior outfielder Tyler Hunter. A night after the Commodores wrapped up the Region 2-4A title to earn the top seed, and a week off prior to the start of the MHSAA Class 4A playoffs, Hunter was really ready to dig into his order of Honey BBQ wings and celebrate the accomplishment with his fellow seniors and coaches.
“I don’t know if I would have wanted to eat if we had lost. I would have wanted to take a few more swings in the cages or a few more fly balls,” Hunter said a day after the region-clinching win over Ripley. “We were all real excited after that win.”
Lafayette, which started its run to Pearl to play in the state title series last night with a 7-6 win over Corinth, has been a much improved team this season, one that has a lot of talent, but one with a lot of hard-nosed players on the roster as well. Hunter, who was singled out by coach Patrick Robey as someone who exemplifies that mindset, said the road to win the region started after last season’s loss to Tishomingo County.
“At the end of last year, after that bitter loss, I realized I didn’t want to see that again. I had seen that every single year, coming so close, and just losing. I pretty much dedicated my summer to baseball. I played for a travel team, put in the hard work to not let that happen again,” Hunter said. “It hurts because you work so hard all summer long and it was all we wanted. After last year, losing, and then winning the NEMCABB, it showed that we can do it. We say we’ve got the 13th man, that’s what it takes to win every game and everybody just wants it so bad. It was just so sweet, almost surreal after winning the game.
“One thing that we’ve done is get back to Lafayette baseball and what that means to us. We have the talent. It was about toughness, grinding out, scratching, clawing our way to the top and having fun. Really just putting on a show for everybody in the crowd,” Hunter added. “Playing with class is really a thing I’ve tried to stress to the team and the coaches as well. Doing your role and playing for the guy next to you. That’s really what we’ve done.”
Robey couldn’t say enough good things about Hunter, who had only started one game entering the 2014 season.
“Tyler is a kid who has always had a great attitude. He’s always been a member of the team since he started high school. He’s worked and worked and gotten better and better and really went to work this summer and the fall. His bat has gotten better. He’s more athletic. He’s a kid that’s battled, him and Devon Thomas both, are working some in the outfield. Tyler is just a kid that’s had a great attitude about him,” Robey said. “He’s real special to us because he’s willed his way into becoming a good high school player. He’s had some big hits. He’s a great teammate, first and foremost, and that’s what we preach to kids all the time. That’s what we preach the most. Not everybody can hit third (in the lineup). Not everybody can be the starting center fielder, but everybody can be a great teammate. No matter if things are going good or bad, he’s always positive. He keeps everybody in the dugout in the game, in a positive mindset.”
Hunter said he wasn’t aware of his specific role as much as he was very aware of what he wanted to accomplish.
“I just want it from a team aspect. If I’m in the dugout and so and so gets a big hit, I want to pick them up and make sure that everybody sees it. I guess in some way I do realize my role and what I mean to the team,” Hunter said. “I like to be that guy that if somebody is having a bad day, to get them up and tell them what they’re doing wrong. I like to see them succeed. If coach needs a bunt down, call me in and I’ll do it. Anything to help us win. I do anything to get the W.”
The bottom third of the lineup is where Hunter has spent most of his time this year, but that’s in large part because of Lafayette’s potent offense, Robey said.
“He’s going to be sitting close to .300 and he’s had those clutch hits for us. At the bottom of the lineup, there are times where you’re just thinking can we find a way to get on base? But you know with him, and a couple of other guys, he can make something happen. He could easily be a guy that can hit at the top or the middle of the lineup on a lot of teams,” Robey said. “We have had a good year offensively and we’ve got some guys that are capable of producing at the top and the bottom, so it’s nice to have a guy like Tyler down there hitting in the seven and eight hole this year.”
Timely hits are just one of the ways Hunter has contributed. Against Ripley, he made a diving catch, keeping the game close, just in time for Lafayette to have its big inning that sparked the victory.
“If he doesn’t make that play, they’re sitting on first and second with nobody out. He makes that diving catch and it changes the whole complexion of the ballgame,” said Robey, who added Hunter has played through an injury without complaining. “He had a pulled oblique muscle and never batted an eye. He did have to sit for a couple of games, but he was still doing the great teammate thing and keeping everybody in the ballgame. Even early in the year when he was splitting time he had the same attitude, the same demeanor, whether he was in the game or pinch running.”
Hunter isn’t the only Commodore that has been key in allowing them to win the region. Robey felt like John Murprhee and Josh Keel have both been very important contributors, while standouts such as Eli Murphree and Austin Arrington and Jake McPhail have all been steady. “I think losing last year made us hungrier and this year we have great senior leadership. A lot of those kids and were big contributors last year so they got that experience. There is no substitute for experience. The biggest key is our offense is so much better,” Robey said. “We need (Eli Murphree) at third base for a lot of reasons and his innings on the mound haven’t been as much because we have Mack Bishop, the sophomore lefty, that’s stepped up and gained confidence.
“Then Austin Arrington is just a great competitor. He doesn’t always look sharp early, but as the game goes on, Austin seems to get in that groove. John Murphree and Josh Keel have both been big. Josh has made the transition from second to short. I think he’s a better second baseman, but he’s certainly done a great job for us at shortstop. John’s bat is above and beyond what it was last year. You know with those two guys in the lineup, offensively that have a chance to drive in some runs for you.”
Lafayette prepared for the playoffs by playing at Water Valley last Saturday. Good, efficient practices were key to staying sharp and Robey felt like focus was the key to obtaining good results in the playoffs.
“You have to continue to preach focusing on your process, focusing on one day at a time, focus on our job. It’s all about getting better whichever repetition you’re doing,” Robey said. “Whether it’s hitting or taking ground balls, working on balls in the outfield. You have to preach the importance of it and out kids have bought in. They understand that what we preach isn’t just made up, it’s something that is important.”
Hard work is great, but there is also no substitute for playing loose, Robey said. “We heard Tyler in the locker room laughing and giggling and cutting up before the Ripley game. He had a big smile on his face. The kids that have that loose attitude, they’ve got to be able to flip that switch on and get serious when it’s time to get serious. They do that at practice,” Robey said. “They’re about business and working hard and grinding it out, but at the same time, they’re loose and playing relaxed. At times when we haven’t been as successful, we got a little tight. Tyler has a big impact on keeping guys playing that way.”