Sherando coach Pepper Martin and just about everyone else in Stephens City knew that Hunter Entsminger could throw a baseball.
Landing a baseball scholarship to James Madison University proved that his senior pitcher has an arm that is coveted at the next level.
But Martin had higher hopes for Entsminger than seeing him mow down opposing batters.
“This winter we wanted to untap his potential as a hitter,” Martin said. “I knew it was in there somewhere. I noticed a couple of little mechanical things that we made adjustments on.”
But, this was a player that already had signed a college scholarship. Why would Entsminger want to put in the extra work to change a few little things?
“A player of his stature might pay you window service … and then you look around in drills a half-hour later and they’re back to what they were doing before,” Martin said. “He’s a different breed of player. He’s over and over again repetitively doing some of the little adjustments mechanically that we showed him. It certainly paid off for him.”
And the Warriors reaped the benefits.
Hitting in the cleanup spot, Entsminger hit .359 and drove in 15 runs and scored 20. He was second on the squad with nine stolen bases.
And of course, he had a solid season on the mound, going 6-2 with a 1.57 ERA. Adding a slider to his four-pitch repertoire, Entsminger whiffed 87 batters in 53.2 innings, while walking 19. He also saved four games in four opportunities.
His all-around play makes him The Winchester Star’s Baseball Player of the Year.
Entsminger’s play earned plenty of accolades this spring. The right-hander was first team All-Northwestern District and Region 4C as both a pitcher and outfielder and was a second-team All-State pick at both positions.
“This year he had a complete season in terms of all of the aspects of the game,” Martin said. “Not only was he our No. 1 pitcher and performed extremely well in that capacity, but he really had an offensive season that he could be proud of. That’s for sure.
“In previous seasons he showed some glimpses of what he could do offensively if he put it all together. Just all-around he had a good season — offensively, defensively, baserunning — he was one of my best baserunners — and of course, pitching. He just had a breakout season at the plate for sure.”
Entsminger said he enjoyed hitting cleanup for the Warriors, especially with his best friend Payne Bauer (.439 average) batting No. 3.
“I enjoyed hitting behind Payne because he was always on base,” Entsminger said.
But Entsminger’s success at the plate was more than having people on base in front of him. Martin said Entsminger’s approach was entirely different and points to one impressive turnaround. As a junior, Entsminger walked twice, while striking out 16 times. This season it was nearly the opposite as Entsminger walked 16 times while striking out three times.
Often pitchers will see their batting averages plummet while they are concentrating on how to get the opposition out. Entsminger did not let his hitting suffer because of what happened on the mound.
“When you go up to the plate, you have to just clear your mind of everything,” he explained. “You can’t think about what you did the last inning on the mound or anything like that. You just try to clear your mind and think, ‘Go up there and get a base hit. Do something for the team. Do your job, really.’ It’s just clearing your mind and having a clean slate.
“Baseball is all about having a short term memory,” he added. “Baseball is a game of failure. You’re going to have bad innings, so you’ve really got to come in, forget about everything and play the next inning.”
Hitting cleanup also presents those clutch situations that have come to define the career of Entsminger, the Star’s Offensive Player of the Year the past two seasons in football.
“I live for big moments,” Entsminger said. “I love pressure situations. I don’t know. There’s something about it that gets me going. I love it.”
Entsminger showed no ill effects from an injury that ended his football season. And on days where he didn’t pitch, Entsminger had a new position. Instead of catching, he moved to right field, where his speed became more of a factor.
“There weren’t any doubts coming in,” Entsminger said of his physical condition. “I just felt like I was going to come out and have a strong season. I didn’t want to let anything stop me from having a good senior season.”
Entsminger said he didn’t miss catching a bit and there was no adjustment heading into the outfield.
“I have played outfield since I was nine years old,” Entsminger said. “It’s really just going out there with a different mentality than it is pitching, especially having to hit and all of that. You have to go out there with a different mindset than when you’re on the mound.”
And that approach when on the mound is pretty simple.
“My mentality when I step on the mound is to just dominate,” Entsminger said.
He did just that as his strikeout total attests.
Entsminger says he has added a good 5 mph to his fastball over the past three seasons and has hit 92 mph on the radar gun.
“I got in the gym more and did more baseball-specific things,” Entsminger said of his improved velocity. “And, it’s gaining weight. I’ve gained like 25 to 30 pounds from like sophomore year to this year. … It’s fixing up my arm path and just little things like using my lower half more.”
He also added that slider to his previous arsenal of fastball, curve and change-up.
“It was new this year and that was a really good pitch for me with two strikes, striking batters out,” Entsminger said.
Still, Entsminger is his own toughest critic on the mound and felt that he could have performed at a higher level.
“I definitely feel like I could have pitched better,” he said. “You never can truly be satisfied with the way you perform. I pitched alright I guess you could say, but there was room for improvement.”
Having signed a Division I scholarship, Entsminger had a target on his back every time he toed the rubber.
“There’s definitely pressure because usually when you play teams they are going to know,” he said. “You just really can’t let that get to you. You have to go out there with the mindset that you’re going to go out there and dominate them. But there’s definitely added pressure because the other team knows because they are out for your head. They want to be the team that takes you out.”
“Being that he committed so early, it is somewhat of a double-edged sword,” Martin said. “It takes a little pressure off him and having to go out there and perform night after night to try to impress a school. It relaxed him a little bit in terms of his approach — pitching-wise and offensively.
“But by the same token, he was facing the top teams in our district. Jared Tinsman and Michael Usa at various times pitched in some big games against quality opponents, but more often than not if it was a game that was extremely important Hunter was on the bump.”
While he had a 77-pitch shutout of Fauquier (8-0) that was a masterpiece during the season, Entsminger points to a contest against rival Millbrook as his highlight.
Having given up four runs early, Entsminger battled back to blank the Pioneers from there. He got a huge strikeout with two runners to end the top of the sixth and weather halted the game with the teams tied at 4-4.
A week later and having a fresh pitch count, Entsminger and the Warriors got the win that clinched the district title. After scoring a run on a bases-loaded sacrifice fly, Sherando closed it out with Entsminger getting a 6-4-3 double-play grounder to end it.
“We came out a whole week later and we executed at a high level,” Entsminger said. “We got out there and won in like 15 minutes. That just shows the type of team that we were.”
That win was among the 17 straight that the Warriors amassed after opening the season 1-1.
“I’m going to be honest, I didn’t even realize it,” Entsminger said of the win streak. “When you’re doing it, you don’t really notice the little things like that. It’s nice to win ballgames. We just forgot about it. We were just playing ball.”
The Warriors’ season ended at 19-4 with a 5-3 loss to Riverside in the Region 4C semifinals. Thanks to some wildness from Entsminger, a huge error and a couple of bloop hits, the Rams grabbed a 4-0 lead after one inning and 5-0 lead after two innings.
Entsminger rebounded and pitched well and showed his teammates a lot about leadership from there.
“He was probably disappointed in his first inning, but he never let it show,” Martin said. “Not only that, he took on a big leadership role in exhorting our players to keep grinding and that we were going to find a way to win the game and that we all needed to stay together.
“We darn near came back and pulled the game out. He wasn’t sulking or down on himself or pouting because he had a rough inning. Some players don’t have that tough psychological makeup to get over the hump when things aren’t going well.”
The loss hurt but didn’t diminish what the Warriors accomplished.
“I think we played really well,” Entsminger said. “It didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but overall we had a pretty good season. We won 19 games and it’s not just a fluke.”
While he’ll miss the big moments, Entsminger says the enduring memories will be of his teammates.
“I’ll miss playing with my brothers like Payne and all of them,” Entsminger said. “I’ve played with them. I’ve went to high school with them. It’s just you’re never going to get to play with them again. Like Jack [Duvall] and Mike [Usa], I’ve played with them since I was eight years old. It’s over, 10 years and it’s over now. It’s like a culture shock that I’m never going to get to play with them again.”
Entsminger didn’t get too much time to reminisce. The day after graduation, he reported to JMU for summer school as he prepares for another baseball journey.
“It went by too fast, but the next four years could be the best years of my life,” Entsminger said.