Kameron Johnson, Hayden Gilliland, Blake Hughes and Tate Daniels have spent most of their lives playing baseball together, providing them plenty of time to take about what they want to accomplish and what the future holds.
The Heritage seniors lived out one of the childhood dreams Wednesday, signing National Letters of Intent to continue their baseball careers. Johnson signed with Middle Tennessee State, Gilliland paired himself with Tennessee Tech, Hughes inked with Montreat College and Daniels joined Cleveland State Community College.
“These four guys that I signed with today, we’ve been playing together since we were six years old, and it’s always been a big dream of ours to sign and go play college baseball,” Hughes told The Daily Times. “We’ve been working toward it ever since then in the weight room and on the field. It’s definitely a dream come true.”
Johnson, Gilliland, Hughes and Daniels make up two-thirds of the Mountaineers’ senior class. Blake Cooper and Garrett Porder are also expected to sign at some point before graduation.
That pipeline to collegiate programs is proof of how much Heritage baseball has ascended in the years since former Heritage and current Triple-A Iowa right-handed pitcher Trevor Clifton signed with Kentucky before deciding to go pro after being selected by the Chicago Cubs in the 12th round of the 2013 MLB Draft.
“I’ve known most of these kids since they were little — I’m talking about 4, 5, 6-years-old — so I’ve got to see these kids kind of grow up in our program,” Heritage coach Robbie Bennett said. “Anytime you get kids signing a scholarship to go to the next level it means something to them, to the coaches and the whole program.
“It gets better and better every year. We went a long time without a Division-I signee, and then Trevor (Clifton) signed and it has just snowballed from there.”
Johnson and Gilliland doubled the number of Division-I baseball prospects to come out of Heritage on Wednesday.
Johnson slashed .341/.425/.436 with 16 RBIs and 23 stolen bases as the Mountaineers' leadoff hitter last season. Gilliland hit .374/.542/.758 with eight home runs and 36 RBIs while calling the game from behind the plate.
Hughes was recruited as a two-way player, but he was primarily a pitcher a year ago, posting a 2.23 ERA in 37 2/3 innings. Daniels went .389/.524/.505 with 20 RBIs at the dish and 5-0 with a 2.49 ERA on the mound.
“We really haven’t had a lot of athletes come out of here, but it’s getting better as the years go on,” Johnson said. “A lot of the credit has to go to Coach Bennett and Coach (Bret) Lindsay. I’ve been with them since I was seven or eight, and they’ve always coached me.
“They’re the ones who have helped this program get to where it is now.”
The quartet will be playing for somebody other than Bennett a year from now, and all of them pointed to their future coaching staffs as one of the main reasons they ended up where they did.
Before they move on, though, an expectation-filled season awaits, and all four believe the Mountaineers can accomplish another childhood dream and reach the Class AAA state tournament in the spring.
“It would mean everything to us because it’s what we’ve talked about ever since we were little kids,” Gilliland said. “Us making it to the region tournament two years ago just shows that were capable of it. When one of those gates opens, it makes everything seem possible, and I think this year is our year to make it to state.”