In his first full season of his collegiate career, redshirt sophomore shortstop Mason Dunaway has been a standout for the Dukes. JMU baseball head coach Marlin Ikenberry said the team rallies behind Dunaway and his play in the field.
“It’s huge,” Ikenberry said. “I think our guys believe in him defensively.”
Dunaway has recorded career highs in batting averages, boasting a .276 and slugging percentage of .378 while contributing three home runs on the season, the first of his collegiate career coming March 1 in a matchup vs. VMI. Dunaway is relishing the opportunity to play in a full season for the first time, and he said he does not take it for granted.
“I leave it out on the field every time I play,” Dunaway said. “Especially because our coaching staff [emphasizes], ‘Remember last year we wouldn’t be playing this weekend … play as hard as you can, you never know when your last game is going to be,’ and I take that to heart.”
Dunaway’s hitting has improved this season, Ikenberry said, but it’s not his best attribute.
“He’s really the backbone of our infield,” Ikenberry said. “[He’s] making some really nice plays at short and being consistent.”
The stats show Dunaway’s play in the field has been incredibly reliable this season. In 187 chances, Dunaway holds a .941 fielding percentage, with only 11 errors to this point.
Redshirt junior second baseman Nick Zona said he understands the role Dunaway plays for the Dukes on defense and recognizes Dunaway’s defense is a huge contributor to the Dukes’ success.
“He provides a really good glove in the field, [and] he has really good arm strength,” Zona said. “Shortstop is one of the harder positions in the infield to play, and he can really take away runs … That’s a big asset to the team, holding teams off and preventing [them] from scoring runs.”
With Zona and Dunaway playing second base and shortstop, Zona said the two of them often interact with each other in live play during games — this is why they have such strong chemistry, he said.
“We actually have really good chemistry together,” Zona said. “Especially being up the middle type guys and being double play partners, I think we work really well together.”
Dunaway’s consistency in the field is a huge part of his game, but he’s also contributed a number of highlight reel plays, most notably in an April 27 game against Virginia Tech — a line drive between second and third that looked to be a base hit was robbed by a diving catch by Dunaway.
“He hit the ball and there was a lot of topspin on it,” Dunaway said. “As I was diving [I thought], ‘This is going to go one of two ways: It's going to hit me in the chest or it's going to hit my glove. It hit my glove and I got up and thought, 'Dang, that was pretty impressive.’”
Dunaway’s athleticism allows him to make a number of stunning highlight reel plays. So much so, Ikenberry said, that if he doesn’t do something jaw dropping, he gets on himself about it.
“He makes them all the time,” Ikenberry said, “and when he doesn’t make a play he thinks he can make, you can tell he is upset, because he prides himself on his defense.”
After having the first two seasons of his career shortened by the pandemic, Dunaway came into this year looking at his first full collegiate season. Dunaway got into his normal routine, but added that he spent more time in the weight room to prepare for this season. Ikenberry said he noticed this and believes it’s been a benefit to his game this season.
“He’s gotten a little bit faster, gotten a little bit stronger,” Ikenberry said. “The arm strength playing shortstop is very, very important.”
Zona, who played shortstop before Dunaway joined the Dukes, said he hasn’t underestimated Dunaway’s growth throughout the season.
“He’s developed really quickly, and he can learn at a fast pace,” Zona said. “He came in as a freshman with an abbreviated season, then came in last year with [limited games] because of [COVID-19] issues, then hops right into it this year … He's a quick learner with the way he picks up his defense and translates it to offense.”
Dunaway has had success at the plate this season, posting career highs in almost every hitting stat. He attributed this to his growing comfortability while batting.
“I think my confidence has definitely gone up since my first two seasons,” Dunaway said. “I think it's just, the more at-bats you get in college, the more comfortable you get … Being able to play on a regular basis [and] getting into a good routine [has] really made my confidence go up.”
Just as important as comfortability, Dunaway said, is discipline. After two years of getting used to college pitching, he said, he’s “settled in a little bit.”
Statistically, Dunaway has gotten better every year, and with players graduating and roles needing to be filled, the trends show that Dunaway should build upon this season going into next. With the amount of development seen in his first full season as a collegiate player, coupled with his tenacity and athleticism, Dunaway’s potential is boundless.
He said it best himself.
“That’s how I like to play,” Dunaway said. “Full speed, all the time.”
Contact Will Moran at email@example.com. For more baseball coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.