Hunter Barnhart was in awe.
It was late August and the Paso Robles High School sophomore was getting a tour of the baseball stadium at Arizona State University along with other members of his travel team. The names he saw on the outfield wall at the stadium read like a who’s who of Major League Baseball — Barry Bonds, Reggie Jackson, Dustin Pedroia, Andre Ethier.
Barnhart had pictured wearing the burgundy and gold before, but it was hard to imagine what came next. He soon found himself in front of the Arizona State coaches. They told Barnhart they usually don’t give offers to high school sophomores, but they saw something in the him. The meeting ended with a scholarship offer.
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“It was was crazy hearing that I got an offer from ASU because that is my dream school. I was nervous, my dad was nervous, but the coaches made it easy for us to decide,” Barnhart said Wednesday.
Barnhart, who also had interest from Cal Poly, UCLA, Arizona and Pepperdine, verbally committed to ASU and plans to join the elite college baseball program following his graduation in 2020. At the start of the 2017 season, ASU had 12 former players on MLB opening-week rosters, the most of any school. He becomes the second SLO County baseball player to commit to ASU at a young age after SLO High pitcher Cooper Benson made his choice before the start of his freshman season.
“It is going to be amazing,” said Barnhart, whose primary position is middle infield. “It’s going to be nerve wracking because the people who have played in front of us are some big players now.”
Meanwhile, back in Paso Robles, the varsity football team was struggling and in need of offense. At the time, Barnhart was the starting quarterback for the junior varsity team. That wouldn’t be the case for long.
Paso Robles interim head coach J.R. Reynolds knew what he had in Barnhart. As an assistant coach on the baseball team, Reynolds watched Barnhart become a key contributor as a freshman first baseman as the Bearcats made a historically deep run in the playoffs. Reynolds also coached Barnhart as the junior varsity head football coach last season.
After the Bearcats’ varsity team lost to Lemoore to open the season and former head coach Larry Grant left his job, Reynolds made the decision to bring the 6-foot-1, 165-pound Barnhart up to varsity. He made his first start of the season against Clovis North last Friday and led Paso Robles (1-3) to a 27-7 win, its first of the season.
“The team did amazing,” said Barnhart, who went 11 of 25 for 163 yards and a touchdown. “I had a lot of support. The speed of the game was a little faster, but I felt right.”
Barnhart, who has a strong arm and throws an 88 mph fastball, also showed off his athletic ability against Clovis North with a handful of scrambles and finished with 40 yards on five carries. He had help from senior running back Julian Madrigal, who had 174 rushing yards and a touchdown.
Former starting quarterback and senior captain Zach Hanson was moved to wide receiver and safety, two positions expected to be occupied by senior Frederick Thompkins, who was ruled ineligible for varsity play this season by the CIF-Southern Section.
“We had needs at multiple positions where the other two QBs (Hanson and Reese Brumley) could help us at those positions, as well,” Reynolds said. “Hunter is a heck of a talent, so it was a perfect fit.”
But Barnhart still looked like a sophomore in his first start, throwing four interceptions.
“He is still learning everything, that’s why he didn’t play the week before when he was up with us,” Reynolds said. “Obviously, he made some big plays with his legs, and obviously he has a good arm. I think he is just going to get better as he learns the offense and gets more confident.”
Barnhart is expected to make his second varsity start Saturday against Sierra Canyon, but the biggest game of his young career will come in two weeks when Paso Robles goes on the road to open the PAC 5 season against Arroyo Grande, the favorite to repeat as league champions.
“We have to win out,” Barnhart said. “We have to win league. It’s going to be a dog fight to win league, but I have confidence in our team.”