A couple weeks ago, a reporter was kidding around with Korey Dunbar, Nitro's all-stater and major league catching prospect.
"I heard you're doing so well with your pitching that you're going to try that in college,'' the reporter said.
Dunbar, who has already signed with North Carolina, opened his eyes wide in astonishment.
"No . . . oh God, no,'' he said, then shaking his head in disbelief. "I'm a catcher.''
After what he's pulled off in one year's time, though, you couldn't help but wonder if Dunbar could actually do it. Because he's sure caught on to this pitching thing.
As Nitro prepares for a sixth straight appearance in the Class AAA state baseball tournament this week at Appalachian Power Park, Dunbar has morphed into the Wildcats' ace pitcher.
Coach Steve Pritchard has already decided that Dunbar (4-2, 0.53 ERA) will start on the mound against top-ranked Fairmont Senior (28-7) in the state semifinals at approximately 7:15 p.m. Friday.
In short, Dunbar gives the Wildcats their best chance to advance to the championship game, even though his future is behind the plate instead of firing pitches toward it.
"I don't think we'd be in the state tournament the last two years without Korey pitching,'' Pritchard said. "I think I can safely say that without insulting anyone or stepping on anyone's toes.''
Consider it an experiment that succeeded - but succeeded, perhaps, is too mild a word. Try exploded.
Dunbar came into last year's postseason having thrown just 11 innings all year. Consider that his previous experience on the mound before that was in Little League, and you see what a quantum leap it was.
When Dunbar came to Nitro's rescue by firing a five-hit complete game for the victory in the regional finals against heavily-favored Cabell Midland, Pritchard knew he had something special. Dunbar was called upon to pitch again in the Wildcats' state tournament loss to Jefferson.
"It's kind of funny,'' Pritchard recalled. "Last year before the state tournament, Korey's working out in practice, throwing 87, 88 [miles an hour] and our pitching coach, Dave Sneed, is so excited. 'I get a pitcher to work with fulltime,' he told me.
"I told him, 'Coach, he's a catcher. As soon as next season's over, he's going to leave for North Carolina, and he won't pitch an inning down there, so don't get too excited.'''
But despite their protestations, both Pritchard and Dunbar seemed to have caught the bug. Last February, Dunbar couldn't wait to tell Pritchard that he'd developed a new pitch - a slider.
"Obviously we're biased,'' Pritchard said, "but when we saw that, I said now we've got the best catcher in the state, the best hitter in the state and the best pitcher in the state.''
With his program having to replace eight starters, Pritchard couldn't resist the temptation of throwing Dunbar into the fire this season as a pitcher, often at the expense of limiting his innings behind the plate even as scouts showed up at most games to watch him catch.
The initial plan was to bring Dunbar in late as a fireballing reliever to close out games. That tactic worked again last week in the regional semifinals when he threw 31/3 hitless innings of relief and picked up the win against Parkersburg South.
However, Nitro needed Dunbar to start again in the regional finals - and he again answered the call. He pitched a nine-inning three-hitter with 10 Ks as the Wildcats outlasted Winfield 3-1.
Dunbar, who has now fanned 86 in just 53 innings, again showed Pritchard a little something extra during a warm night in Winfield.
"In the regional, he threw more submarine and sidearm pitches than he's thrown all year,'' Pritchard said. "I know he was tired because the heat was getting to him, but he showed them another pitch. He's developed into a good pitcher. Last year it was more you didn't ever know where the ball was coming from.
"I'd say he and J.R. [Bradley, another pro prospect] are the only two pitchers in my 19 years that when they get a 3-0 count on a hitter, I'm very confident they can come back and strike the guy out. Korey's control is amazing. We never feel we have to give in. He struck out a kid on a 3-2 slider. Coach Sneed says that's what you can do when you've got a pitcher on the mound - you don't have to give in. That's what Korey gives us.
"He's one of the best players I've had the privilege of coaching. It's hard to say he's the best, because I don't want to slight anybody. But he's one of the best.''
Still swinging away
Dunbar's flip-flopping between the mound and the plate may have held up games as he switches gear with sophomore Ryan McDonough (who catches when Dunbar pitches), but it certainly hasn't hurt his hitting.
He's been on a tear in recent weeks, raising his batting average to .462 with nine home runs and 34 RBIs. Two of his roundtrippers have come in the postseason.
"The main thing [scouts do] is watch him hit,'' Pritchard said. "If you watch the [West Virginia] Power players, Korey's bigger than their guys now. He came to Nitro at 135 pounds, and he's leaving at 215. There's not a lot of catchers who can hit. That's really more or less where his stock lies.
"He's the guy who's at the weight room when you open it up and he's the guy you have to run off in the evening so you can go eat dinner. He's done everything he can possibly do to be the player he is as far as physical development.''
Dunbar said if the new position caused any problem with his hitting, it was purely temporary.