As the game inched closer, Hunter Barnhart was anxious.
It was the opener of PAC 5 play between Paso Robles and Arroyo Grande. And Barnhart, Paso Robles’ sophomore quarterback and baseball prodigy who’s verbally committed to play at Arizona State, knew he would have to beat back-to-back league champion Arroyo Grande if the Bearcats wanted a shot at their first league title since 2014. He hadn’t played his best in his first two starts the previous weeks, but Barnhart knew he had more to give.
So did interim head coach JR Reynolds.
“Before the game started, my coach said, ‘This is your game to come out, this is where you are going to be you,’ ” Barnhart said. “ ‘You are going to show that you can play some football.’ ”
When the game was over, everyone in the stands knew — Barnhart was definitely more than just a baseball player.
“He put on a heck of a show that night,” Reynolds said.
Barnhart, who started the season as the junior varsity quarterback, broke tackles on a spinning 62-yard touchdown run and threw another long touchdown to lead Paso Robles to an upset win on Arroyo Grande’s home field. With a cannon for a right arm that’s capable of hurling a baseball close to 90 mph and the foot speed of a wide receiver, Barnhart helped Paso Robles recover from a 1-4 start to the season and was instrumental in its first undefeated PAC 5 championship.
For his accomplishments this season, Barnhart has been named The Tribune 2017 County Football Player of the Year.
Barnhart was first called up to the varsity team for the third game of the season against Cajon, but he didn’t play. He stood on the sidelines and watched as Paso Robles lost its third straight game. He could see the varsity game was faster, the hits harder. It wouldn’t be long before he would see it first-hand.
“After that, the coaches said we want you to play varsity,” said Barnhart, who stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 175 pounds. “I was scared at first. I was like, ‘That’s a big step.’ But I knew I could do it, come up and perform.”
Barnhart made his first start of the season the next week against Clovis North. During the week leading up to the game, he quietly went about his business and learned the offense.
“At first, I knew that I am probably not going to get their respect by being vocal,” Barnhart said. “So I wasn’t vocal for the first week I was playing with them, but I can just show them how I play.”
Barnhart opened up the play-calling possibilities for Paso Robles and didn’t try to do too much in his first start. The arm was there, so was the dual-threat ability. But one play early in the game stood out.
On a pass play, Barnhart sprinted out to his left, narrowly avoided a sack and tossed a 40-yard dart off the wrong foot to a wide-open receiver as he took a big hit to the chest from a Clovis North defender.
“I knew from there I had their attention, that I can get them to follow me,” Barnhart said.
Barnhart finished the game with a 163 passing yards and a touchdown to go along with 40 yards rushing to lead Paso Robles to its first win of the season.
“It gave us a jolt,” Reynolds, who coached Barhart on the junior varsity team last season, said of his first start. “He can do some things that a lot of other people can’t athletically, it’s not just the big arm. There was no surprise to a lot of people when he came in a did what he did.”
Tough as nails
Barnhart turned making accurate throws in the face of pressure into a habit all season. The perfect example came against Arroyo Grande, when Barnhart stood tall and delivered a perfectly placed 50-yard touchdown pass to Daede Murphy as a rushing defender put his helmet into Barnhart’s chest.
“He will make that play for his teammates knowing he’s going to get smoked,” Reynolds said.
His toughness was on display again against Righetti a couple of weeks later. On a third-down play, Paso Robles needed to pick up a first down to move the chains and run out the clock. Barnhart kept the ball on a read-option play, turned the corner and lowered his shoulder and bowled over a Righetti defender to pick up the first down and seal the game and at least a share of the PAC 5 title. He wouldn’t find out until the next week that he made that play, along with passing for 190 yards and a touchdown, with a torn meniscus in his knee for three quarters of the game.
“It’s almost to the point where you’ve got to tell him to tone it down, but you like to have to type of guys,” Reynolds said.
The injury would cause him to miss the final two games of the season, but backup quarterback Reese Brumley led Paso Robles to a win over Atascadero to finish off the undefeated league season. It was an unexpected turnaround from a team that lost its coach after the first game of the season and had one of its key players ruled ineligible — and it wouldn’t have been possible without Barnhart.
The injury at the end of the season with a baseball scholarship waiting on the table from Arizona State begs the question: Will Barnhart continue to play football?
His answer, without hesitation, is yes.
“I plan on playing both,” said Barnhart, who decided not to play basketball this season to focus on the two sports. “I have to put the same amount of time into football as I do into baseball, and I think I can do it.”
But, he added, baseball is the main priority right now as spring approaches.
“I don’t know what comes ahead,” Barnhart said.
For now, he will straddle both worlds and get stronger.
“I bring my football mentality to baseball and my baseball mentality to football, with my brains and just (being) smart in both but also be aggressive in both,” Barnhart said.
Reynolds, who is also an assistant coach on the baseball team that made a deep playoff run in the spring with Barnhart playing first base as a freshman, sees his job as helping him get to wherever he wants to go. He’s encouraged Barnhart to attend quarterback camps and keep his options open. With two brothers both over 6-foot-3, he could potentially look more like a prototypical quarterback by the time his senior season rolls around.
“Obviously, he has a great opportunity ahead of him in baseball, but at the same time — and this is coming from a baseball coach and former college baseball player — he has an opportunity on the football side, too. It’s not impossible to think he can do both,” Reynolds said, tossing out names like NFL quarterback Jamies Winston, who played football and baseball at Florida State. “He’s got that talent where the sky is the limit.”
Total Yards: 983 (638 passing, 345 rushing)
Touchdowns: 5 (4 passing, 1 rushing)