Fielder’s Choice

Hopewell baseball standout makes tough decision to bypass scholarship to Duke

Hopewell High School’s Hunter Conley has committed to play college baseball at Lenoir-Rhyne College.

Hunter Conley was living the dream. He’d already accepted a scholarship offer to play baseball at Duke University, where he envisioned himself as one of the Cameron Crazies cheering on the basketball team during hoops season and starring on the baseball field for the Blue Devils in the spring.

But there was one problem.

Even though the partial scholarship offer was for a huge sum of money, it still left a bigger gap than Conley wanted to pay to go to school, even at Duke.

So the Hopewell left-hander, who has starred the past two seasons as a hitter and pitcher for the Titans, had to make a tough phone call last August to Duke pitching coach Sean Snedeker, telling him he had changed his mind.

“I could tell he was disappointed, but he understood,” said Conley, who will now take his 85 mile-per-hour fastball and sweet swing to Lenoir-Rhyne, where he committed to play last month. “I hated making that call to Duke,” he said. “But it was the right decision.”

Conley makes a lot of good decisions.

Whether he’s trying to confuse opposing hitters or trying to out-guess rival pitchers when he’s batting, the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Titan’s success rate is better than most players.

“Even when we were little, he was always one of the best players,” Hopewell teammate Michael Russell said. “He has the skill set. And when we were young, he was always one of the biggest kids, and so much better than everyone else.”

Now, Conley is no longer one of the biggest players on the field, but Russell says his work habits have kept him ahead of nearly all his peers.

“He is always putting in extra time to get better,” Russell said.

Two years ago, Russell and Conley were sophomores and star players on a Titans team that went 12-0 in conference play and 20-6 overall. Conley batted .432 and started earning rave reviews and hearing All-American whispers. Some watched him spray the field with line drives and saw him as a can’t-miss college prospect as a first baseman or outfielder.

Others saw him star on the mound and said any left-hander who can throw fastballs, sliders and curves for consistent strikes and throw 85 miles-per-hour routinely is a surefire college pitcher.

Conley likes to pitch and loves to hit.

Whether it’s a mammoth 450-foot home run like the one he blasted last season against Myers Park, or the no-hitter he pitched as a sophomore against Central Cabarrus, the Titans star is always making an impact on the field.

“When you play Hopewell, you don’t let Conley beat you,” Lake Norman coach Robert Little said. “He’s a contact hitter, but not a slap hitter. He’s the kind of guy that can change a game quickly. He can beat you with one swing of the bat.”

Little’s praise didn’t end there.

“He’s a better pitcher than he is a hitter,” he added. “He’s always in control, emotionally. He doesn’t let things bother him.”

Conley has been playing baseball since he was 5. He says every year he’s grown to love the game more.

There are so many great memories that have come along with the back-to-back I-MECK 4A  conference championships for Conley. The no-hitter, especially, is memorable.

The game before the Titans played Central Cabarrus, another Hopewell pitcher carried a no-hitter into the fourth inning and after a couple outs were registered, Conley mentioned aloud that there was a no-hitter in progress. Hopewell coaches and players cringed.

“You’re going to jinx him,” they said, just as a Charlotte Catholic batter was getting a base hit to end the no-hit bid.

Russell remembers Conley laughing and denying any such jinx existed.

“People said, ‘Wait and see what it’s like when you’re throwing a no-hitter and people start talking about it during the game,’” Russell remembers. “Hunter said, ‘There’s no such thing as a jinx. That stuff doesn’t matter.’”

The next day, Conley threw his no-hitter, with teammates reminding him every inning of the situation.

Russell, who is headed to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on scholarship next year, said his friend is a better hitter than pitcher. He says it’s a bit of a blessing that his buddy is headed to Lenoir-Rhyne, where he’ll be able to pitch and be a regular in the Bears lineup. At Duke, the likelihood was good that Conley would have been used only as a pitcher.

Last season, Hopewell won the I-MECK 4A for the third straight season, but with the two stars dealing with different kinds of personal experiences.

Russell was injured in the first game of the season and missed his entire junior year. Conley, who after earning all-conference and all-state acclaim as a sophomore, was injured during the summer between his sophomore and junior year and was never at full strength during the 2010 season.

Despite those hardships, he still managed to hit .392 and compile a 2-2 record and 2.40 ERA on the mound. When the Titans earned a trip to the playoffs, the ball was handed to Conley, who gave up three consecutive singles and two runs in the second inning, then allowed just one base runner the rest of the way, only to have Hopewell fall, 2-0.

Memories of the loss have Conley more ready than ever to get back onto the field and help the Titans to a third straight conference crown and a deep run in the playoffs.

Conley and Russell are among seven seniors in the starting lineup for the Titans this season. The experience and talent up and down the lineup have led to high expectations, none of which are higher than the expectations Conley puts on himself every time he steps on the field.

“I just always expect to do my best,” Conley said. “I try not to get overly excited about things. But with the players we have, we could go a long way.”

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