CARY, N.C. —Hunti0ngton Beach (Calif.) baseball coach Benji Medure arrived at the media tent, following his team’s 8-5 victory against Brooklyn’s Poly Prep in the first round of the 2016 National High School Invitational.
Medure stepped through the opening at the front of the tent, then held the flap so his ace pitcher, junior Hagen Danner, could follow him to the postgame press conference.
There was one problem: Danner was nowhere in sight.
Medure stepped back onto the concourse at Coleman Field and located his player. Danner was still making his way through the stands, giving hugs and chatting with well-wishers.
“Look who’s getting the celebrity treatment,” Medure said with an eye roll.
Danner seems to be the man to meet at the NHSI, and the outgoing righthander is more than happy to oblige.
As the rest of the Oilers pileed into the bus after the game, Danner is again on the concourse. He made it about two steps from the media tent toward the parking lot before getting sidetracked again.
That time, a gaggle of players on other teams stopped to chat up Danner. He stood in a group with teammate Nick Pratto, Poly Prep’s Ehtan Ehrenberg and Nick Storz. They were joined by Brax Garrett of Florence, Ala., who pitched five hours earlier but hung around to watch Danner’s game, and a few other players from earlier games who returned in street clothes. Many knew each other from USA Baseball events last spring and summer.
At Danner’s urging, the players pulled out their cell phones to trade numbers before he finally made his way to the team bus.
“Yelling at him works,” Medure said, smiling. After thinking about it, he added, “sometimes.”
Medure hasn’t had much to yell about on the field, as Danner has established himself as one of the most promising right-handed arms in the Class of 2017. He’s committed to UCLA, but, as the strikeouts and scoreless innings accumulate, the chances get better that he’ll never wear the Bruins uniform. At the moment, he’s projected to be a high draft pick in the 2017 MLB Draft.
In the meantime, Danner is leading a Huntington staff that, when healthy, could be one of the best collections of high school arms in the country. Danner was among the few juniors on the American Family Insurance ALL-USA Preseason Team.
Behind Danner in the rotation is Pratto, a Mater Dei (Santa Ana) star who transferred prior to the season to join Danner. They were teammates last summer on Team USA, but also were teammates, along with five other players on the Huntington Beach roster, on the 2011 Ocean City team that won the Little League World Series. Danner said the members of the team still get together each year to watch the game again and relive old memories, no doubt at the urging of the social butterfly himself.
Logan Pouleson, another UCLA commit, would be the third man in the rotation, but he’s sidelined following Tommy John surgery. The injury contributed to a slow start for the Oilers, who were ranked No. 4 in the Preseason Super 25 before falling from the rankings thanks to a 3-4 start.
“We all love the guy,” Danner said of his fallen teammate, who made the trip cross-country for the tournament despite being just a few days out of surgery.
Medure and Danner both praised Pouleson’s loud support of the team from the dugout — no surprise on Danner’s Huntington Beach Social Club.
Once he reaches the mound, however, Danner is done making friends. He shut down Poly Prep for five innings before tiring in the sixth and leaving for a reliever, but he gave Huntington plenty of time to build a lead.
It’s the second consecutive year that Danner has given Huntington a strong performance at the NHSI. Last year, as a sophomore, he threw a shutout against Washington Puyallup to vault the Oilers into the semifinals. Danner went the distance and allowed three hits in that game.
At the time, Medure said of his young pitcher, “I think he has a lot to work on on the mental side. We have to remember that he’s still 16 years old and a kid. And at times he’ll show that … That is what is going to take him to the next level, him getting stronger mentally.”
This year, Danner has taken the next step, mentally. Medure had no concerns about putting him on the mound to start the tournament.
With the win, Huntington Beach advances to meet Trinity Christian (Jacksonville) in Thursday’s quarterfinals. Trinity Christian (15-1), which won the event in 2014, posted a 7-0 shutout against host Topsail (Hampstead, N.C.).
“Game 1 is the biggest game,” he said. “It’s the only game. I think it’s more important for the kids to understand it’s a big moment but that they need to stay calm not put so much pressure on themselves.”
That’s why he chose to give the junior the ball. “It’s comforting having him out there,” Medure said. “It’s a good feeling. He had command for most of the game. We’re just very confident with him on the mound.”
The game tightened up late, as Danner neared 100 pitches and tried to close out a Poly Prep rally that saw the tying run reach scoring position. He showed no sign of concern, however, even as he battled through fatigue. He allowed four hits, struck out seven and walked five in 5 2/3 innings to get the win.
“We do this all year,” he said. “We’ve been playing baseball — all of us have been playing for our whole lives. It comes natural to us, that we just need to keep our composure and stay positive.”
“There’s a level of faith that we have with each other. We’ve been in the big moment, where we’ve had to shut teams down with the tying runs at third base.”
All it takes is a little toughness, which Danner has developed, and tight relationships among teammates. That, of course, is Hagen Danner’s speciality.