Ole Miss baseball and softball have been dominant at the catcher position over the course of the past decade. Year-in and year-out, the diamond Rebels produce high-energy sluggers with rockets for arms that turn heads within the SEC and around the country.
The 2020 season was no exception as Hayden Dunhurst and Autumn Gillespie donned the tools of ignorance and squatted behind the dish. Dunhurst, entering his second season, and Gillespie, a senior taking advantage of the NCAA’s granted eligibility relief, will both be back in 2021.
Between the foul poles off of Hathorn Road, the Rebel backstops reign of terror began in 2012 with Marina Parra, who started 51 games and tied for first in the SEC with three runners picked off and 18 runners caught stealing. She threw out a conference-high 22 runners in 36 games the next season.
Courtney Syrett took over the true starting role in 2015 and played a significant role in helping Ole Miss reach its first NCAA Regional in 2016 when she hit a team-high five home runs and caught 10 runners trying to steal a base for a .688 SBA percentage.
The New York native didn’t hit the ball as well the next season, but tied for the team lead with eight doubles and finished her career in the Ole Miss top-10 with a .986 career fielding percentage. She made only two errors as a senior and caught six runners stealing in SEC play alone, second-most in the conference.
Enter Gillespie, the 6-foot-1 University of Central Florida transfer from California. She registered a .361 batting average and posted a 62 percent caught-stealing average as a freshman at UCF, but a season-ending injury after 12 games.
When she took the field for Ole Miss in 2018 as a sophomore, her presence was felt right away. En route to the team’s third consecutive NCAA Regional birth, Gillespie knocked in a team-high 30 runs and scored 20 runs of her own. It was her defensive presence that really set her apart.
That duel-threat danger continued in 2019 when she led the SEC in 2019 with 13 base runners caught stealing. It’s pretty silly to even attempt to run on her.
It is a thing of BEAUTY when Ole Miss catcher, Autumn Gillespie, throws from her knees! She gave a little advice yesterday for what has helped her be so good at it!Posted by Amanda Scarborough - Softball Pitching Angel on Saturday, February 2, 2019
Her big bat drove the ball deep, and Gillespie registered 15 extra-base hits with six doubles, four triples and five home runs, including this moonshot against Arizona in the Tucson Super Regional.
The 2020 season was cut short due to COVID-19, but Gillespie was seeing pitches like a beach ball. She hit .349 and scored 21 runs with 13 RBIs, five home runs and nine stolen bases in 25 games.
Is that any good?
Gillespie chose to return to Ole Miss in 2021 and will be the anchor for a lineup looking to return to glory under first-year head coach Jamie Trachsel. Baserunners beware. Pitchers beware...r.
On the other side of campus at Swayze field, the recent lineage of dominant catchers stems from the coaching staff. Head coach Mike Bianco, and assistant coaches Carl Lafferty and Mike Clement were all catchers in their playing days.
In the lineup, the reign of excellence began with Stuart Turner in 2013. Turner transferred to Ole Miss from LSU at Eunice in 2013 and became baseball’s top catcher in his lone season in Oxford, being named the Johnny Bench Award winner. At the plate he hit .374 with 51 RBI and five HRs, and threw out 51 percent of runners behind it, leading the Southeastern Conference in that category. He went on to play in the MLB.
Will Allen, who caught as a sophomore and moved aside for Turner in 2013, returned as the starter in 2014. With big shoes to fill, he became a Johnny Bench Award finalist with a .339 batting average and team-highs with 64 RBIs and 24 doubles.
He hit a walk-off home run in the 10th inning to secure a sweep over UCF early in the season and never looked back. Allen was always big in the clutch and was an electric factory for a team that reached the College World Series.
The three catchers that followed Allen carved quality careers of their own. Henri Lartigue was a Johnny Bench Award semifinalist in 2016 and is quickly rising through the ranks of the Philadelphia Phillies organization, Nick Fortes won the starting job over a blue-chip prospect in 2018 and was also a Johnny Bench Award semifinalist before being drafted in the fourth round of the MLB Draft, and Cooper Johnson ended his career as the Rebels’ most sought-after MLB defensive catcher ever.
Lartigue threw out 13 baserunners throughout the 2016 season and led Ole Miss with a .353 batting average, while Fortes hit .319 with 11 home runs and 12 doubles in his place. Both guys could really crush the ball when a pitcher left one hanging.
Johnson, who struggled with his bat at times, was named to the SEC All-Defensive Team and hosed 18 would-be base stealers. His presence behind the plate was extremely important for a young pitching staff that reached a Super Regional in 2019.
Florida tries a double steal but gets the lead runner thrown out. Why people think it’s a good idea to steal on Ole Miss catcher Cooper Johnson is beyond me. pic.twitter.com/tWZ5iSz7Bq— SEC Baseball (@SECbaseball) April 6, 2019
When Johnson went pro, it wasn’t entirely in-stone as to who would takeover the catcher spot until No. 1 overall catching recruit Hayden Dunhurst showed up on campus.
Once fall ball rolled around it became clear that Ole Miss was in good hands as the Carriere, Miss. native started to impose his will on his teammates.
The first week of the season came with a title bout against No. 1 Louisville and Dunhurst was snapping necks and cashing checks.
True freshman Hayden Dunhurst just gave the throat slash after throwing someone out from his knees and my god it wasn’t even close pic.twitter.com/5T1iHJUaoP— SB Nation Forever (@RedCupRebellion) February 15, 2020
It was a definitive series win over the nation’s top team and Dunhurst ended it with an exclamation mark. With a one-run lead in the top of the ninth inning, the Cardinals attempted a hit-and-run that failed miserably. He sent a missile down to second from his knees and caught the runner stealing for a strike-em-out, throw-em-out winner.
Dunhurst had arrived and his bat soon came with him. The true freshman finished the 15-game season hitting .269 with five home runs in 52 at-bats, and was named to the Buster Posey Award (renamed from Johnny Bench) watchlist. He capped off his first season with two home runs in the same game against Louisiana Monroe. They were bombs.
D1Baseball ranked him the nation’s No. 18 catcher after the abbreviated freshman season.
As is per usual, both diamond Rebel squads are in good hands behind the dish. Dunhurst is poised for a breakout year and Gillespie brought her swagger back. Having two catchers for both team with serious arms and serious pop is seriously fun. The pure athletes continues to rise and step into the role without a hitch.
Ole Miss is ‘Catcher U’ and the talent, numbers and steady honors speak to that title.