Tenacious. A competitor. A winner.
Those are a few qualities or superlatives that could describe former Valley standout and Kentucky Christian University forward Hayden Dunn.
With Dunn, who is tied with teammates Nick Miller and Conner Gauze as the team’s tallest players at 6-4, the senior-to-be certainly has to exercise those qualities in order to win many individual battles that have propelled the Knights to 29 wins — including 18 last year — since the Lucasville native arrived on campus after transferring from Ohio Christian in 2015.
However, Dunn — who averaged an astounding 24.2 points and 10.5 rebounds in 28 regular-season affairs during the 2016-17 campaign — has proven to be up to the task on every occasion. The stats are proof that the Southeastern Ohio native has won more than his fair share of battles.
But Dunn says that’s due in large part to what, and who, he represents.
“It means a lot to represent KCU because it’s done so much for my family and I,” Dunn said. “They put my sister (Lauren) in a great position to flourish, whether it be on the volleyball court or in life, and they’ve done the same for me. They have also shown us the type of atmosphere that you can obtain in college, which a lot of people don’t get to experience. It’s incredible. To show other schools and our fans how God has affected our lives in a way to where we can have the ability to play and go out and be blessed with a chance to be at a school like ours is truly special. KCU shows others what it is like to live with assurance, hope, and with Christ living inside of you, whether it’s in practice or the classroom.”
But long before Dunn even decided on Kentucky Christian — and even before his initial choice to attend Ohio Christian — the Southeastern Ohio area, and Lucasville, in particular, got to enjoy the truly special mindset that the All-District and All-State honoree had back when the college standout was starring on the gridiron and the hardwood.
On the gridiron, Dunn led Valley to an astounding 44-5 mark over the course of his four year high school career while starring on the offensive and defensive fronts for the Indians. Dunn, who was a First-Team All-Southeast District selection as a menacing defensive end in his senior season, allowed Valley to complete its SOC I to SOC II rise as the Indians won four straight SOC II titles, including 30 consecutive conference games over his final three years of high school play.
But even after the litany of accomplishments that the senior obtained in football, the roundball proved to be Dunn’s best sport.
Over the final three seasons of his high school career, Dunn proved to be an absolute wrecking ball inside and outside of the Scioto County lines as the versatile standout recorded a 61-18 record from the 2011-2012 to 2013-2014 seasons. This included a 2013-2014 campaign that saw Dunn lead Valley to a 22-3 record, a Division III District Championship — including a district semifinal victory against Coal Grove where the senior helped the Indians make up a nine-point deficit in less than three minutes of play with his game-winning putback with less than one second remaining — and a Division III, Region 11 Final appearance, which ended in a narrow 38-33 loss to Columbus Bishop Ready.
When all was said and done, Dunn had accumulated two First-Team All-District accolades, an Honorable Mention All-Ohio tally in 2013, and Division III All-Southeast District Player of the Year honors, in addition to First-Team All-Ohio standing, in 2014 to add on to the two district final appearances, the D-III District Championship, and the D-III Regional Final appearance that he accumulated with his teammates.
“The experiences that I had on the football and basketball side at Valley are a big contributor to anything that I’ve done in college,” Dunn said. “In basketball, we had a really good crew, and I was fortunate to just be a part of that. Then in football, we had such an amazing run. I really believe that’s where a lot of us got our tenacity and spirit to win. We were so used to winning that we didn’t take it for granted. We just wanted more of it. We were fortunate to have good athletes, sure, but I’ll tell you this: nobody ever worked harder than we did, and that’s why we were successful. The foundation that Scott (Rolfe) and Darren (Crabtree) put into us was a big deal in anybody’s success, not only on the court, but off of it.”
That competitive nature and drive to win at any means necessary drove Dunn to Kentucky Christian — where the 6-4 standout immediately made a massive impact, as evidenced by his 22.1 points and seven rebounds per contest on 53 percent shooting.
However, team success proved to be harder to come by.
After suffering through an 11-19 campaign and dropping its first NCCAA Mideast Region contest to Valley Forge Christian (Pa.) in 2015-16, the struggles looked to be set in for the 2016-17 campaign, as well.
With an inexperienced freshman class coming in, no seniors on the entire roster, and a banged up squad, Dunn and Kentucky Christian lost seven of its eight official contests from Dec. 6 to Jan. 6 to go 4-12 over its first 16 games. All 12 of the losses were by eight points or more.
“We were little down to begin the year,” Dunn said. “Whether it was injury, or whether or not people decided that they didn’t want to be a part of the program anymore, it was certainly a bit of a rough start. We were playing a lot of tough competition, and we had everything that could’ve gone wrong, between injuries to ineligibility, happen to us. As a result, we had a lot of tough games against opponents where we didn’t end up even close on the scoreboard.”
But as he had done so many times over the course of his athletic career, Valley’s finest just found a way.
Behind the play of the junior stronghold, along with a retooled rotation that included additional minutes for Gauze, Miller, Trenton Walker, and former South Point standout Brandon Barnes, Kentucky Christian ripped off a dozen straight victories, including a 109-106 double-overtime thriller over Johnson University, to establish a great deal of momentum heading into the postseason.
“That was a big deal, just having a lot of guys that could contribute,” Dunn said. “Whenever we came into games, we all knew that there were going to be times where opponents were going to be double or triple-teaming me, and at those times, Nick (Miller), Brandon (Barnes), or somebody else was going to have to step up and score for us. Everyone really embraced their roles and stepped right into them. I am more proud of Matthew Lee than almost anybody, because he went from a starting role, and being a primary shooter/scorer, to a hustle guy off of the bench. That was huge for us. We ended up with a group of guys who realized, ‘Okay, this is my role, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability, and we’re going to be successful if I fill that role.’”
While KCU dropped an 89-62 decision to Grace Bible College in the opening round of the Mideast Region Tournament, that 12-game winning streak proved to be the difference in the Knights qualifying for the NCCAA National Tournament as KCU grabbed the fourth and final NCCAA At-Large bid.
And with a national championship hanging in the balance, there was no way that one of the best athletes in KCU history wasn’t going to show up on the big stage.
Over the three-game national tournament run, Dunn accumulated 60 tallies and grabbed 27 boards to amass a whopping 20 points and nine rebounds per contest as the No. 7-seeded Knights obtained an 82-79 upset victory over No. 2-seeded Manhattan Christian (Mont.) and — behind an amazing 25-point, 11-rebound, nine-assist performance by the Lucasville native — an 86-85 overtime victory over No. 3-seeded Valley Forge to lead the Knights to the NCCAA National Championship, where KCU eventually fell to Randall (Okla.) in the title bout.
Still, the upperclassman was proud of the responsibility that his younger teammates took on in making the entire run possible.
“During that second semester, something just clicked. A lot of the younger guys on our roster really found out what it took to win. They wanted to win the entire time, but realizing that a win might not always look pretty or mean that they were the star was huge for us. Everyone just really bought in, and when you have 10 guys that are so close and share great chemistry, then that made it a lot more enjoyable and fun for us.”
With his senior season not far away, it wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone if Dunn were to end his collegiate career with an NCCAA National Championship.
However, KCU has allowed Hayden Dunn to find himself, which is something that’s arguably greater than a national championship could ever bring to a person.
“It’s been a real blessing,” Dunn said. “Making the transition to Kentucky Christian was one of the three best decisions that I have ever made in my entire life. From a school standpoint and from a comfort standpoint, I’m really excited about how (the move) turned out. All of the personal accolades and the stats are the result of being in a system and a school that I really enjoy and love. I am fortunate that KCU has afforded me the opportunity to play college basketball, and I’m fortunate to have teammates who look to me and have a lot of confidence in me, because if I didn’t have that vote of confidence, then I wouldn’t feel right going out and playing my game. The school, the coaching staff, and my boys have provided me with the confidence and drive to go out and do just that.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7