Deering’s Hagstrom takes last-minute leap to D-I college baseball

  • Weare relief pitcher Gunner Hagstrom delivers to the plate on Wednesday during a 3-2 win over Keene at Saint Anselm College’s Sullivan Park in Manchester.

  • Gunner Hagstrom winds up for the Hillsboro-Deering baseball team. It didn’t happen until the last minute, but Hagstrom will be playing Division I college baseball after he accepted a spot on the University of Hartford baseball team. Courtesy

  • Gunner Hagstrom winds up for the Hillsboro-Deering baseball team. It didn’t happen until the last minute, but Hagstrom will be playing Division I college baseball after he accepted a spot on the University of Hartford baseball team. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 8/30/2020 10:26:55 AM

When high school athletics were canceled this spring, Hillsboro-Deering senior Gunner Hagstrom figured his baseball career was finished, too. It seemed doubtful summer baseball leagues would play during the coronavirus pandemic, and Hagstrom was headed to the University of New Hampshire, which doesn’t have a varsity baseball team.

Then, like so much in 2020, those plans were upended.

Hagstrom played for his former American Legion baseball coach, Dennis Pelletier, on the Weare Nationals in the New England Independent Baseball League, which expanded this summer to accommodate all the kids, like Hagstrom, looking for a place to play. That changeup was followed by an even bigger one when Hagstrom was offered a late spot on the University of Hartford baseball team and decided he couldn’t pass up the chance to play Division I college athletics.

So, despite having already made his deposit, Hagstrom withdrew from UNH, enrolled at Hartford and is now on campus in Connecticut going to classes and waiting for fall baseball practice to start.

“It’s a sign of the times, I guess,” Hartford coach Justin Blood said. “There were a lot of shakeups on a lot of rosters with kids deciding to transfer or sit out or not go to school.”

The Hawks felt that shakeup when one of their outfielders decided to transfer this summer. So Blood and his staff were on the lookout for someone to fill that spot when they came across a post on FieldLevel, an online recruiting tool for college baseball coaches, that Pelletier had written about Hagstrom. Blood already knew about Hagstrom, but Pelletier’s post rekindled the interest, so he reached out to the former H-D star.

Hagstrom was also well aware of Hartford – he applied to the school back in February and was considering going there even without athletics involved. But once he heard from Blood this summer and the prospect of playing D-I baseball entered the mix, Hagstrom had a hard time saying no.

“I’ve been playing baseball since I was 7 years old, and it’s always been a dream of mine to play college baseball at a Division I program, so I just couldn’t pass that up,” Hagstrom said. “I really like the campus, too, and I’ve always wanted to go to school in a big city. So, ultimately, it was providing me with so many opportunities that I really wanted.”

Blood is from Swanzey, went to Franklin Pierce and has recruited many New Hampshire players to Hartford, including Merrimack Valley’s David Drouin and Concord High’s Ben Bengtson, who was drafted out of Hartford in 2017 by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Laconia High’s Ryan Dee is also headed to Hartford to play baseball, as is Bishop Guertin’s Ryan Anderson, the 2019 New Hampshire Gatorade Player of the Year for baseball.

Even though Blood knows the area, it’s still unusual for a Hillsboro-Deering student-athlete to be recognized as a D-I prospect. The H-D baseball team had lost 64 straight games when Hagstrom arrived as a freshman and hadn’t won, or even reached, a state championship since 1949. The Hillcats had some other good athletes in the Class of 2020, and the baseball team did improve, but they still had a 13-36 record during Hagstrom’s three years.

“I’m pretty sure everybody across the state would say that the sports at Hillsboro-Deering have seen better days, and it was a little bit difficult to play in that atmosphere,” said Hagstrom, who was also a four-year varsity starter for the H-D soccer team that went 28-35-3 during his time. “But that would also push me to perform and prove people wrong when they would write us off just because we’re from Hillsboro-Deering.”

Hagstrom said he was being recruited by one college baseball coach who told Hagstrom he already had two strikes against him because H-D was not known for its athletics or its academics.

“I think that’s really sad that some college put our school in a database and now it flags our application,” Hagstrom said.

Blood, however, wasn’t scared away by Hagstrom’s alma mater. The coach knew Hagstrom had been successful in the fall Showcase League, which features New Hampshire’s top talent. He knew Hagstrom had a great 2020 summer in the NEIBL, hitting .460 as an outfielder, posting a 1.24 ERA as a pitcher and helping Weare advance to the championship game. And Blood heard all about Hagstrom’s first-rate personality from Pelletier.

“You are not going to meet a nicer kid in high school, never mind in baseball, than Gunner. He’s just such a breath of fresh air,” said Pelletier, who also coaches field hockey and baseball at John Stark High.

The combination of high-quality character, baseball versatility and athleticism led Blood to offer Hagstrom a spot at Hartford, despite the unusual, last-minute timing of the situation.

“The kids that have his makeup and work ethic, they always seem to pan out,” Blood said. “So I talked to the other coaches on our staff and I said, ‘If we’re going to bring in a guy this late, let’s make sure we bring in a guy that, whether he’s on the field or not, is going to bring something to the table,’ and Gunner certainly seems like that type of kid.

“I’m sure he’ll have some ups and downs like any other freshman, but guys that have his kind of makeup, versatility and athleticism, they usually get their opportunities and wind up being pretty good in the end.”

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