Wilson's 'dream' comes true after wayward path
Posted: February 16, 2017 at 2:48 a.m.
FAYETTEVILLE -- Hunter Wilson grew up near Fort Smith in Spiro, Okla., about 75 miles southwest of Baum Stadium, but he took the long way to Arkansas' lineup for this weekend's season-opening series against Miami (Ohio).
"It's been a journey to finally get here, but it's special, I'm telling you," Wilson said. "I'm basically living my dream."
Wilson had stops at Stephen F. Austin in Nacogdoches, Texas, and Eastern Oklahoma State Junior College in Wilburton, Okla., before signing with the Razorbacks.
A junior known for his strong defense and ability to play second, third and shortstop, Wilson was set to be a utility infielder. His role changed when Jared Gates -- the projected starter at one of the corner infield positions, likely first base -- broke a bone in his right hand last week during practice. He's likely out at least five weeks.
Chad Spanberger, expected to start at third base, will now play first, leaving an opening for Wilson.
"Hunter would have probably played a lot of third anyway, whether starting or as a defensive replacement," Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn. "Very good defender."
Wilson understands his strength isn't on offense.
"I can pick it," he said. "But hopefully I can hit well enough to stick in the lineup. We'll just see how it plays out."
Wilson struggled offensively in fall practice, but Van Horn said he's improved this spring with the help of assistant coach Tony Vitello.
"He's a left-handed hitter who hits a lot of fly balls without a lot of power," Van Horn said. "That's not a good combination, but coach Vitello has worked extremely hard with him as far as getting on top of the baseball.
"You go off the last few scrimmages, he hits as well as anybody."
Spanberger said he's been impressed by Wilson in practice.
"Defensively, he's as solid as anybody on the team," Spanberger said. "He's got a real good arm. Good feet, good hands.
"Hitting-wise, the past like two weeks, he's really come on with really strong hitting."
Friday won't be the first time Wilson has started at Baum Stadium. He started two games at shortstop as a freshman for Stephen F. Austin in 2015 when the Razorbacks beat the Lumberjacks 8-2 and 15-3.
Wilson said the performance of Andrew Benintendi, Arkansas' center fielder who is now playing for the Boston Red Sox, dominated the series.
"To be honest, the most memorable thing was watching Benintendi hit about a 400-foot bomb on us," said Wilson, who was 1 of 6 against the Razorbacks. "We knew who he was going into the series, but that really made you take notice."
Wilson started 37 of 43 games as a freshman and batted .252 with 1 home run and 15 RBI, but he said he wanted to be closer to home.
He hoped transferring to Eastern Oklahoma State would lead to playing for a major program -- with Arkansas at the top of his list.
Wilson said he began watching the Razorbacks play at Baum Stadium in 2004 when he attended Arkansas' NCAA Super Regional victory over Florida State.
"I used to come here and watch games almost every weekend," he said. "I fell in love with the program, so I've wanted to play for Arkansas ever since I was a kid."
Wilson wasn't recruited by the Razorbacks during his time at Spiro High. After he batted .361 at Eastern Oklahoma State with 9 home runs and 39 RBI, Arkansas' coaching staff paid attention.
"He's a left-handed hitting infielder, which is something you're always looking to add to your team," Vitello said. "He can play a lot of positions, which is invaluable.
"He can run a little bit, he plays with a lot of energy, and he's a great kid who is really going to be good in our locker room."
Wilson said he knew it was risky to leave a starting job at Stephen F. Austin to see whether he could get a shot to come to Arkansas.
"I pretty much gambled my whole career on one decision," he said, "but it ended up working out."
ARKANSAS VS. MIAMI (OHIO)
WHEN 3 p.m. Friday WHERE Baum Stadium, Fayetteville INTERNET SEC Network+
Sports on 02/16/2017