Gabriel Hughes sparked a debate early on.

Coaches discussed whether or not to move the Rocky Mountain baseball ace up to varsity as just a freshman. But they ultimately left him on the junior varsity team.

It’s easy to see why the decision was so difficult four years later.

The senior went 7-1 with a 0.91 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 53.2 innings pitched on the mound. He also hit .365 with seven home runs and 39 RBIs to earn 5A Southern Idaho Conference Co-Player and Gatorade Idaho Baseball Player of the Year honors.

For these achievements, Hughes is the 2018-19 Idaho Press’ Sports Stars Baseball Athlete of the Year.

“Every time he went out on the bump, we knew we could win the game because all we had to do was score one or more runs because there was no chance Gabe was giving up more than that,” Rocky Mountain sophomore infielder and brother Jacob Hughes said. “And hitting wise, his stats speak for themselves. If there was someone on base, there was a really good chance at least one run is going to score.”

The discussion started after the Anchorage, Alaska native breezed through the entire varsity lineup in practice during the spring of 2016. This wasn’t a surprise.

Hughes had been playing since he was 5. His grandfather, Donald Hughes, was in the Detroit Tigers’ minor league system during the 1960s as well. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

But Gabriel Hughes had to wait his turn. He remained on junior varsity while the varsity team missed state for the first time since 2009.

Hughes made varsity the following season. And the Grizzlies had one of the best seasons in program history.

They became the first team to win 5A SIC, District III and state titles in five years. Hughes helped Rocky Mountain get to the title game by having a 14-strikeout shutout performance in a 3-0 win against Bonneville during the semifinals.

He went unbeaten on the hill at 6-0 and earned All-SIC first-team honors that season.

“That just lit a fire under me,” Hughes said. “I wanted to go out and prove myself because I was a (junior varsity) kid who no one had ever heard of committing as a sophomore to a Division I program. So I just went out, had fun, competed and everyone on that team made me better. That was probably the most fun I’d ever had with a baseball team.”

The Gonzaga signee then went 7-1 with a 1.84 ERA and 59 strikeouts in 45.2 innings on the mound last season. He also hit .461 with four home runs and 31 RBIs. Hughes was appropriately named the SIC and Gatorade Idaho Baseball Players of the Year.

Rocky Mountain won the district title for the second straight season and brought home the state consolation championship.

But the pressure was still on Hughes in 2019.

He was one of only four starters back on a team that lost four All-SIC first- team selections. Hughes more than did his part.

He threw three one-hitters, two shutouts and had at least five strikeouts in 10 of the 11 games he pitched. Hughes only threw two innings in the one game he didn’t.

The 6-foot-5 right-hander also had a three-week hitting streak from March 19 to April 10. Hughes also recorded at least one hit in 22 of 28 games.

It resulted in Rocky Mountain playing for its third straight district championship. The Grizzlies were beaten in two games by Mountain View in the best-of-three series, but rebounded during the state tournament on May 16 at Capital High in large part to Hughes.

He only needed a little more than an hour to beat Boise 10-0 in the first round with a one-hit, five strikeout shutout.

Hughes and company had a very uncharacteristic performance two days later, though.

The Grizzlies were upset 2-0 by Capital. They had defeated the Eagles twice during the regular season by a combined score of 30-10. Capital was just 14-15 before the upset.

However, Hughes went 0 for 3 at the plate for just the fourth time and didn’t pitch. Danny Burns got the call instead.

Rocky Mountain was shutout for just the second time all season.

“It was disappointing and not how we wanted to end it,” Hughes said. “Just a couple plays didn’t go our way. Just couldn’t find ways on bases that day. It was an off-performance all around, but that’s how baseball is. We just had one of those games, so it was a sour taste in our mouth to not be in that state championship.”

Hughes still went out on a high note.

He closed out a 6-4 win over Eagle in the third-place game by allowing no runs, three hits and striking out three that same day.

Hughes ended his prolific career with a 20-2 record, a 1.19 ERA and 186 strikeouts on the mound. He had a career batting average of .400 with 12 home runs and 81 RBIs. Rocky Mountain went 66-18 (.786) and took home three state trophies during his tenure.

“He had an opportunity to be great and he proved it,” Rocky Mountain coach Joe Santa Maria said. “His character and work ethic got him to that point. He was the kid I texted to let everyone know what the deal was. I called him dad because he was the responsible one. So he gave us all the confidence in the world. You don’t get kids like him in your program often.

Hughes is playing for the Bellingham Bells in Washington before he officially joins Gonzaga. The Bulldogs are coming off four consecutive winning seasons, and have qualified for the NCAA Tournament twice in the last four years.

“I’ve been ready to put on the Gonzaga name, the blue and red, ever since I committed two years ago,” Hughes said. “It’s been a long and arduous wait, but it’s going to be worth it. I’m so excited.

“You know when every kid says something like, ‘I want to be an astronaut when I grow up.’ Well for me, it was being a professional baseball player and I’m that much more closer.”

There’s no argument there.

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