Editor’s note: Ozzie Hurt is a graduate of Bryant High School and a former member of the Bryant Hornets and Bryant Black Sox American Legion baseball teams.
By Jonahan W. Gipson, UAFS Director of Sports Information
FORT SMITH – Ozzie Hurt knew exactly what he was supposed to do when he stepped into the batter’s box to face Regis relief pitcher Victor Sanchez with one on and no outs in the eighth inning of a blowout game.
Hurt’s not known for his hitting power by any means. At 5-foot-10, 150 pounds, the UAFS shortstop is counted on for his vacuum-like glove and for making highlight-reel defensive plays.
His orders, to say the least, were pretty simple – put the ball in play. At least that’s how it was scripted.
“We were supposed to do a hit-and-run, but (left fielder) Alec Pender got picked off at first base. That was when the count was 2-1. He threw another ball to make it 3-1. The next pitch, I pretty much knew what was coming,” Hurt said. “He threw a fastball and grooved it.”
Hurt made solid contact, crushing the ball with all his might through the thin mile-high, Denver, Colo., air and out of the ballpark for the Diamond Lions’ fourth home run of the game. As Hurt crossed home plate, he was mobbed by his teammates as though he’d scored the winning run to win the NCAA Division II College World Series.
It was a scene reminiscent of the home run celebration for Hurt’s namesake – former St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith – after he ripped a walk-off home run over the right field wall of Busch Stadium to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 3-2 in Game 5 of the 1985 National League Championship Series.
All that was missing was late Cardinals broadcaster Jack Buck screaming, “Go crazy, folks!”
“I did a pretty good job of keeping my emotions in until I crossed home plate,” said Hurt, who went 4 for 5 with three RBIs, a double and a home run in the 15-7 win. “Everybody was going crazy. No one expected it. There were guys warming up in the bullpen, and they all ran down. It was crazy … a great experience.”
Why all the celebration?
You see, Hurt doesn’t hit home runs, not even in batting practice. His home run against Regis? It was his first ever – Little League, Babe Ruth, high school or college.
“It was weird … I’d never been able to experience it,” Hurt said. “It was definitely the best baseball moment for two minutes that I’ve had in my life.”
Hurt’s first name is Donovan. His dad, Darren, is a huge fan of the St. Louis Cardinals and their Hall of Fame shortstop, so he gave his son the middle name “Ozzie” in honor of the 13-time Gold Glove Award winner.
Oddly enough, Hurt played second base – not shortstop – throughout his prep career with the Bryant (Ark.) Hornets, a perennial Class 7A state title contender with three state championships since 2010.
As a senior, he received the American Baseball Coaches Association’s Rawlings Gold Glove Award for high school players after helping lead the No. 20 nationally-ranked Hornets to their second state title in three seasons.
Hurt’s highly-decorated career as a second baseman, which included an American Legion Baseball state championship with the Bryant Black Sox during the summer following his high school graduation, ended when he began fall ball with the Diamond Lions his freshman year.
The transition was relatively seamless for Hurt. He had 46 putouts and 140 assists with only 10 errors and helped turn 21 double-plays while compiling a 0.949 fielding percentage. He also earned the first Gold Glove on the collegiate level.
“I’d never played shortstop until I got here, so it was different,” Hurt said. “My freshman year was 100 percent a learning experience. Every day was like, ‘What can I learn?’ I won a Gold Glove, and it was like, ‘Whoa, maybe I can do this.’”
There’s no “maybe” to it.
As a sophomore, Hurt had 47 putouts and 97 assists with only seven errors and helped turn 11 double-plays while compiling a 0.954 fielding percentage. He won his second collegiate Gold Glove.
Last year, he had 59 putouts and 148 assists with only six errors and helped turn 17 double-plays while compiling a 0.972 fielding percentage. He became the first Heartland Conference shortstop to win three Gold Gloves. Prior to that, he and former St. Edward’s shortstop Esteban Raygoza were tied with two apiece.
“I had 10 errors my first year, seven my second year and six last year. Every year, I keep getting better and better,” Hurt said. “To be able to keep it together for a full season at that position is very hard, but at the same time, it’s awesome and so much fun.”
Hurt is off to another solid season defensively with 21 putouts and 49 assists and a 0.933 fielding percentage, but he does have five errors through 21 games. That fact weighs on Hurt even though he’s having the best offensive start of his collegiate career.
“It’s a terrible feeling, but then again, it’s a great feeling. Early, I’ve been hitting the ball, and I’m not used to hitting the ball. I leave the park, and it’s like, ‘Wow, I made an error today, but I went 4 for 5 with a home run.’ It’s a terrible feeling because I’m not used to making errors. I already have five on the year,” Hurt said.
“I’m batting over 0.380, so everything is coming together. I just have to keep focused and realize that now that I’m hitting doesn’t mean that I’m a hitter and that I’m still out there to play defense. I’m still out there to win another Gold Glove.”
Hurt hasn’t lost sight of the fact of how important he is defensively for the Lions, who after sweeping the Oklahoma Panhandle Aggies are seven games above .500 overall and 3-0 in Heartland Conference play.
He can’t, however, ignore the type of season he’s having offensively. It’s the one aspect of Hurt’s game that has, perhaps, kept him from being a complete player the past three seasons.
As a freshman, Hurt batted 0.237 with two doubles and 13 RBIs. As a sophomore, he batted 0.248 with four doubles and nine RBIs, and last season, he batted 0.283 with 11 doubles and 18 RBIs.
Through 21 games this season, Hurt is third on the team in hitting with a 0.389 average, tied for third with six doubles and seventh with 11 RBIs. And, he is one of seven players with at least one home run.
“The more I hit, the more it helps the team,” Hurt said. “That’s how I think of it.”
Hurt’s maturation as a hitter hasn’t gone unnoticed. The past four games, he’s batted leadoff for the Lions and compiled a 0.438 batting average with four RBIs and one double. In that span, the Diamond Lions went 4-0, outscoring their opponents 42-8.
For the season, UAFS is batting 0.313 as a team with 68 extra-base hits, including 43 doubles, four triples and 21 home runs. The Diamond Lions are only 11 home runs shy of tying the school single-season record (NCAA Division II era) of 32 home runs hit last season.