Leading The Way

Is the 2011 baseball team at Ole Miss Matt Smith's team? You might say that. Besides returning pitcher Jake Morgan, he's the only five-year man on the squad this time around.

"I don't think that's unfair," said Smith, a native of Milan Ga., and Dodge County High School. "Coach (Mike) Bianco and I sat down and talked recently and went over that same situation. He talked to me about leadership and how I've been a team captain for two years and how I am the older guy. He thinks the more I can help the younger guys, and not just the freshmen but the junior college kids, the better we'll be."

Smith knows how important the role of leadership from the veterans will be to the youth on this year's team.

"We have 20 new guys and 18 returners (this fall). The more I can help out, the better. I need to let them see that this is how it is and you can get through it. That it's just going to be worth it in the long run."

Smith said most of it is leading by example.

"If they see a guy who has been here five years busting his butt every day, then they know they have to do the same thing or it's useless," Smith said. "The younger guys look up to the older guys. We know how most of it works around here."

Smith might have been gone from Oxford by now had he been drafted, or a year ago drafted higher. But he wasn't drafted after his fourth year of college this past June.

The summer before, he had been drafted. Smith was taken in the 49th round by the Houston Astros after being a big part of the Rebels' lineup in 2009. Then a redshirt sophomore, Smith hit .336 on the year with eight home runs, which tied for most on the team with catcher Kyle Henson while driving in a team-high 59 RBI on the season. His 78 hits on the year was second on the team, and he came up with 15 doubles and two triples to go along with the eight home runs.

This past season Smith led the team in batting average at .348. He and Matt Snyder tied for the team lead in home runs with 12 apiece. His 54 RBI and 14 doubles were team highs as well.

Smith is in his 5th year at UM

But the professional franchises passed on drafting him this time around, and so he returned to Ole Miss for year No. 5 in the program.

"I wouldn't say it's disappointing. It's one of those things that when I first came to college and started here, I would hear the draft eligible guys who couldn't wait to get drafted. So that's how I was. I couldn't wait to get drafted that draft-eligible year. And then it got here and you talk to scouts and you hear things. And it just never seemed to me to be what I thought it was. It wasn't as exciting as I felt it would be."

Smith had redshirted his true freshman year and in the first game of his redshirt freshman year, he tore the UCL in his throwing arm as he came in to close the game from first base. That has been a challenge ever since.

"I warmed up like I normally did and did everything like I normally did. I tore the UCL and that was a tough thing. But I came back pretty quick. Some people can stand it and some people can't. It's still like it was that day. I'm pretty sure I'll have to have it done (surgery). That's another thing about the draft, and that's if my elbow could hold up throughout more games within a season. That's one thing they always try to hold over my head and a way they can get you for less. It's just one of those things that happens."

The option for surgery was there at the time of the injury. But that would have meant sitting out a second season of college baseball before he ever really got started.

"The way I looked at it was I had sat out the first year, and I was like, man, I don't want to have surgery right now if I could hit," Smith said. "I talked to Coach Bianco and we decided that if I could truly hit and be able to help the team, I wouldn't worry about the surgery thing. That's where that decision came from, and I stuck with it. From that point on, I worked on my hitting and fielding and tried to improve all that."

Smith continued to play first base and more recently has spent a lot of time in right field. His throwing hasn't been hampered by the injury.

"Coach (Carl) Lafferty has the same problem, so if you ever watch him throw BP, you'll see it," Smith said. "The only thing is, when you tear it for some reason, you can't get fully extended. I get some movement I used to not have. You really can't tell what it's going to do. No matter how hard I get on top of a ball and stay on top of it, it's pretty much impossible.

"But from a hitting standpoint, I really don't feel it at all. Hitting doesn't bother you. If you swing and miss, it just seems to compound it. It bothers me then."

Smith is wrapping up a Park and Recreation Management degree this year. He is happy he will get his degree, and so is his family.

"When I first got here, I struggled a lot with my school," he said. "I couldn't seem to figure it out a lot to start with. But since I've been here I've been able to figure it out and catch on and be on top of things. I didn't think I would be here five years. But now that I'm in this situation, it's a good thing for me to be able to have a degree. Neither of my parents have a degree, so that's something they're proud of me for. It is an accomplishment within itself to me as well."

Jake Morgan is also a 5th-year Reb

He also wants to continue his superlative play on the diamond.

"I've got a lot of goals to accomplish here offensively and all," he said. "I feel like for me everything will work out coming back and finishing up."

His goals are the same as any year, but this year he wants to finish on top.

"I think, for me, my goals this year are to expand on last year – more RBI, more home runs, especially if I'm going to be in the middle of the lineup. That's part of what we're supposed to do. One thing I do want to improve from a personal standpoint is my outfield play. Last year was my first year out there, and I just felt like there were some balls I could have gotten that I didn't get to. This fall I'm going to focus on my defense and my reads and stuff. If I can do that, I'll be a lot better outfielder than I was last year.

"Offensively I just want to stay as consistent as I can and produce more than I have before. I feel like I've improved my hitting. Last year I felt I really hit well all season. I didn't feel I hit that slump like my previous two seasons. I felt like if I was struggling at the plate, I was able to make adjustments faster (this past season). I was just more mature as a hitter. I felt like I handled the off-speed better, even if it was taking off-speed pitches that were closer or actually putting them into play when runners were in scoring position, things like that. I think those were some of the things I did better last year.

"I felt like I had a pretty solid year all the way around offensively. Of course, everybody always wants more RBI and more power. There's always room for improvement in those categories. No matter how well you do, you always feel you can do more. There's always pitches you miss or higher levels of concentration in certain at-bats that you can do."

Back to that title of Matt Smith's team. He doesn't necessarily want it, but he will gladly take it.

"I wouldn't say it's my team. But I would say the more that I can do well out there, that will help this team in the long run."

A long run is what Matt Smith has been on at Ole Miss. And wrapping it up in a winning fashion is the only way he wants to go out, no matter what it takes.

"One of our goals, and for every competitive team, is to get to the postseason," Smith said. "This year, from what I can tell so far, has been the toughest fall I've been through up to this point. We've got a new weight coach who is tremendous. He's really good. Coach Bianco said this would be the toughest fall we've been through. I thought I'd been through some tough ones before. But I can admit this is the most challenging I've been through.

"That will help us. We have some kids who can really hit with some power. We've got some new pitchers in here who will do well. We'll have some depth and will be versatile and can do some things. That's our goal and I think this year will be different from last year. Last year we couldn't do too many things. This year, things are better."

And although he still has a year left on what has sometimes been a winding road, Smith said it's all been worth it.

"My time here has been awesome. It's part of the reason I chose to come back," he said. "I love it here. It's just right. Big town feel in a small town place. People here are genuine. They're really nice and there's a lot of hospitality here. This place has been awesome, and I hope I've had an impact on the program. I hope I'm remembered as a good player who helped my team and as a good guy.

"I'd like for my last year to end up in Omaha, somehow someway," Smith concluded. "I think we've got a good shot."

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