Former Madison pitcher Ryan Thurston has dreamed of and worked toward playing professional baseball since his days as a youth leaguer and today that will become a reality when he suits for the Dunedin Blue Jays of the Gulf Coast League in Florida.

An honorable mention all-state pitcher as a senior at Madison in 2013, Thurston went on to play for Western Kentucky where he became one of the Hilltoppers’ top starters and ended his college career second on WKU’s career strikeout list.

Thurston was contacted by several clubs prior to the Major League Baseball Draft earlier this month and while none said they expected to call his name, several wanted him to consider a contract as an undrafted free agent. The downside to not being drafted was no signing bonus or guarantees but the upside was being able to choose the organization.

Last Wednesday Thurston left for Tampa, Florida, where he met with Toronto Blue Jays team officials, passed the required physicals and finally reached and signed a deal with the organization on Saturday night. The Jays assigned him to their rookie league affiliate in Dunedin for the upcoming Gulf Coast League rookie short season.

“I would have liked to get drafted but I’m just glad to have the opportunity to keep playing. It was kind of a weird two weeks. After the draft and before I signed, I’m thinking what do I do next … Luckily now I get to play (professional) baseball,” Thurston said. “This is something I’ve looked forward to since I was a little kid. It’s a dream come true. My dad’s just as excited as I am. He calls just about every day just wondering how it’s going.”

“We had the roller coaster of emotions there from excited going into the draft to being upset or sad or mad or however you want to look at it after the draft. Then the Blue Jays reached out and we got back to excited again,” Ryan’s father, former Madison baseball coach Dan Thurston said. “He’s said from the get-go that he just wants a chance. He wants the opportunity and after that happens let the chips fall where they fall. He wants a chance as a free agent or draft pick and now he gets that chance and we’ll see how the cards play out.”

As a starter for the Hilltoppers, Thurston was asked to pitch deep into games and navigate his way up and down an opposing team’s lineup. That could all change as he transitions to professional baseball because the Jays organization is most likely looking at the left-hander as a reliever. Considering that Thurston has already pitched close to 80 innings this spring in college, throwing fewer innings starting off in the minors could be a good thing in terms of his overall career potential.

“I think I’m going to be used in relief. Our first game is tomorrow so it’s kind of early to tell,” Thurston said. “But with as many innings as I’ve thrown, I’ll probably just go out for an inning or two. They don’t want to overdo it and make sure to have a better gauge for where I’m going to go and my role.

“If I’m a reliever I don’t have to worry about getting deep into the game — just get this five or six hitters out — but it can be a little different for your routine,” Thurston said. “As a starter you know it’s this day at this time and now it’s going to be like it’s the sixth inning and you’ve got the seventh, so get going.”

At Western, Thurston relied on a combination of four pitches — fastball, curve, change-up and slider — to shut down opponents in the Conference USA as well as the Hilltoppers’ non-conference foes from programs like Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Louisville and Indiana. He will probably continue to develop those pitches but said the Jays signed him for his curveball and as a reliever the curve and fastball will most likely be his money pitches.

“I throw a fastball, change-up, curveball and slider but the way I’m going to be used — probably pitching to a couple of lefties in a row — it’s probably going to be more fastball and curveball with an occasional change-up and slider,” Thurston said. “I know I got here pretty much just for my curveball and I hope that I can put it all together. When my curveball is on, it’s definitely something that I can get guys out with. I just hope that I can continue to do that and maybe move up in the organization a little quicker.”

So far, Thurston has not worked out with Dunedin pitching coach Mark Riggins, a former minor leaguer who has coached with a number of major league franchises including the St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds. But he and Riggins come from similar backgrounds since Riggins was a baseball and basketball standout at Loogootee (Ind.) High School in 1975 and later played his college baseball at Murray State in Kentucky.

However, Thurston has spent time at the Jays’ training complex in Dunedin and so far he’s impressed with the massive facility that also serves as the team’s spring training venue.

“I like it. It’s kind of cool because they have all their clubhouses and guys that are doing rehab assignments down here,” he said. “I met Troy Tulowitzki the other day and that was pretty cool just getting to see him work out and stuff. That’s a big leaguer there and an all star. And I’ve met Tim Raines who is a Hall of Famer. He’s around. It’s just cool with the people who are around here. There’s six or seven fields and the workout facility. It’s pretty cool down there.”

As a 23-year-old college graduate, Thurston is one of the older players assigned to the Jay’s short season rookie league at Dunedin. His roommate is a 17-year-old from Venezuela and the rest of the squad is also young.

“I’m one of the oldest guys here so I think I’ll bring experience. I’ve been around the game awhile, I’ve seen some things and had the ability to play against some good players,” Thurston said. “But I’m learning more than probably half these kids are. It’s a different game down here.”

So far workdays start with a 6:30 a.m. bus ride from the team housing to the complex with a workout before breakfast at the clubhouse. Game time is at noon with possibly additional workouts afterwards. Since the Gulf Coast is a fairly compact league, the longest bus ride the team will face is about 90 minutes.

“We had 15-hour bus rides in college going to like Louisiana Lafayette and 13 hours to like Southern Miss,” Thurston laughed.

Thurston didn’t discuss details of the his contract, but players who sign for short season rookie ball earn about $1,100 a month plus the opportunity to chase bigger dreams and paydays. Thurston said that is what is important to him right now.

“The minor league payroll is not great but I’m getting paid to play baseball so I don’t know what else you could ask for,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of texts and phone calls from college teammates who have gone on. They talk about the money and ask if I got any bonus and I say ‘No.’ They just say ‘You can sit there and complain about the money while I’m working 9-to-5 at a job in suit and tie. You should play and enjoy it as long as you possibly can.””

“Being a fifth-year senior, he had no negotiation power at all. You’re either going to sign to go play or you’re going to go get a real job,” Dan Thurston said. “But all he wants is an opportunity. He’s only going to be this age with only so many financial responsibilities once in his life so you might as well go pursue the dream.”

Thurston’s family threw a party to send Ryan off last week and then waited for news of his actual signing until Saturday night. Before, during and after the excitement level has run pretty high.

“I would say part relief but more excited. We’re excited for him to have that opportunity. So many little boys dream of that their whole life but there’s very few that ever get to pursue it. I think we feel blessed as well that he’s put in the work and now he’s earned an opportunity to go pursue his dream.”

How long that dream lasts will depend on how well Thurston competes and for a guy who has been chasing this opportunity for years he’s not about to let hard work stand in his way.

“I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve been talking to the guys a little bit and I’m really excited. It’s a dream come true to be where I am right now,” he said. “I’ve just got to compete and get some guys out and hopefully I’ll have success.”

Thurston will be the fourth Madison Cub to play minor league baseball since 2000, joining Chris Bass (ninth round pick by Pittsburgh in 2000), Bryan Bullington (No. 1 overall pick by Pittsburgh 2002) and Keith Black (free agent with Shreveport of the independent Central League in 2004).