The door bell rang at the Smith house, and a harmless prank was in full motion.
Three boys had “kidnapped” the family’s 7-year-old son, Will, tied him up and left a note on the front door demanding three pieces of gum each for his release. Will’s mom, Kayla, did the math.
The captors had overshot their mark.
“Kayla said for that price they could keep him,” remembered Ashley Smith, Will’s father.
The ransom was never paid, but it set off a fortuitous path for the boy who was six and seven years younger, respectively, than his newfound buddies. The three older boys — Jordan Gore, Grant Holmes and G.K. Young — were poised to become three of the biggest names to ever come out of the Conway High baseball program.
Before and during, though, they had a Chester and Spike-style relationship with Smith. If they were hanging around the neighborhood near 16th Avenue and Church Street, they allowed their mini-shadow to tag along. If the trio had a game up U.S. 501 at the high school, there was a good chance Smith was there, too, watching them become all-state players in the green and gold.
It was only natural that he followed their careers intently after their graduations, too.
Young was a huge part of the 2016 national championship squad at Coastal Carolina and went on to the Minor Leagues. Gore started at South Carolina before transferring to CCU and getting drafted. Holmes was a 2014 first-round pick directly out of high school and could be playing at the highest level of professional ball within the next two seasons.
Yes, so much has happened since that failed ransom attempt. And now, it’s Will Smith’s turn to the be the next big thing to come out of Tiger baseball.
ABSORBING THE ATTENTION
Every piece of information on Will Smith points to him becoming the 16th Horry County baseball player to be drafted directly out of high school in the last three decades.
Smith may flirt with a selection slot that could leave him as the third-highest pick in that time frame, too. While nobody expects him to touch Holmes’ first-round spot or even former Socastee star Dylan Thompson’s selection in the fourth round in 2015, the current Conway right-hander could go as high as the early teens, according to multiple projections.
Regardless, Major League Baseball franchises are doing their research on him. In addition to the normal associate and regional scouts, teams are also starting to send their cross-checkers (essentially broader-range scouts who compare players across multiple areas).
What they are seeing more often than not is a kid who can throw a baseball faster than most people have ever driven a car. Smith said blocking it out is part of the equation, although he admitted that his adrenaline pumps a bit harder when he knows all those scouts are there.
“It’s different,” Smith said. “You’re standing on the mound and they’re looking at your every move.”
Two weeks ago, more than 20 scouts were standing behind the backstop at Conway’s stadium. In unison, their radar guns would lift, and then fall, with every pitch. Thanks to another prospect who was in-state last week, only a handful of scouts made an appearance for the Tigers’ game against Carolina Forest.
However, that will not likely be the norm the rest of the season.
It goes back to the pop Smith can deliver on a catcher’s mitt.
Routinely throwing in the low- or mid-90s, Smith has been clocked as high as 96 miles per hour. He won’t turn 18 until June 15, 10 days after the conclusion of the MLB Draft. He also hasn’t been overthrowing, so those scouts believe whomever lands him will be getting a semi-raw talent that can be further developed.
Getting all that information and more along to the professional franchises?
That’s where Conway coach Anthony Carroll comes in.
Much like he did with Holmes, Carroll’s Sunday night routine each week includes emailing an FAQ of sorts to a large number of scouts. Weather reports, which day Smith will pitch, how many pitches he’ll throw — it’s all included.
“I’ve taken it as a big honor to have a kid in this program in this position,” Carroll said. “I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure he’s successful. I have a reminder set on my phone [for the Sunday emails]. I don’t think I’ll ever forget. But I’m going to do what’s best for Will.”
Frequently, that means taking one of the best pitchers in the state of the South Carolina off the mound in critical situations.
Take that game against South Florence on March 8, for instance. That night, Conway and South Florence were locked in a close game in the late innings. Carroll brought in a reliever for Smith, and the Tigers ended up losing 4-1.
Sure, there are nights when Smith doesn’t have his best stuff, but this was all about usage. He had eclipsed 90 pitches, and with two-plus months of the season remaining, it wasn’t worth risking anything in the region opener.
Carroll heard some flack about it, but not from Ashley Smith.
When it comes to his son’s budding career, the oft-outspoken alum, football radio announcer and varsity golf coach defers to Carroll’s judgment more often than not.
“Anthony has been through this before,” Ashley Smith said. “I’m a parent. He’s the coach. I trust Anthony 100 percent. He’s going to protect him.”
What Carroll is protecting is a future that appears destined for the next step. Smith’s 5-foot-11, 175-pound frame and the powerful right arm have people in the game talking about his prospects.
The pitcher can appreciate the fact that so many professional teams have taken notice.
“That’s a huge accomplishment,” Will Smith said. “If you’re getting that type of attention, you’ve obviously worked very hard to get to that. That’s what’s I take out of it. You’ve worked so hard, and this is what you’ve worked for.”
It’s not as simple as catching the eye of the right team. He’s already done that.
Roughly a month before the start of Smith’s junior season, he received an offer from Furman and verbally committed. He was donning Paladins gear for less than four months.
Smith went 4-3 as a junior with a 2.15 ERA and 68 strikeouts in 52 innings. His consistency in the velocity department also started to improve. In the midst of all that, Coastal Carolina began taking a good hard look at him. Following a month-long courtship, Chanticleers head coach Gary Gilmore brought the local standout to campus and offered him a scholarship.
“That was probably one of the best moments of my life,” Smith said. “I’ve always loved Coastal. I love being in Conway. It was something bigger than myself. … What I love most about Coastal is knowing that people I’ve grown up with and people who have seen me grow up would be able to come see me play. I would be more connected to the fan base.”
Smith himself was part of that fan base for much of his childhood; he was sitting in the stands in Omaha during the 2016 College World Series. What’s more, the thought of joining others who had taken their baseball skills from one side of the Waccamaw River to the other had a strong pull.
There were Young and Gore — two of the guys who served as neighborhood big brothers — not to mention Dock Doyle, another Conway High star turned Chanticleer.
While the Smiths are currently in the middle of building a home on the north side of town on family land, the house back in the old neighborhood was previously owned by Doyle’s parents. Dock’s old room would become Will’s; it’s why he chose Dock’s No. 7 at Conway.
Most recently, one of Smith’s cousins, Jay Causey, is a current Coastal pitcher with another year of eligibility remaining. The two have talked extensively about playing on the same team in college.
So when Gilmore offered, Smith needed “about two seconds” to change his mind on his verbal commitment. Out of respect for Furman, he slow-rolled the process publicly. On May 15 of last spring, he pulled the trigger and told everyone he would be heading to Coastal.
If he was patient with the decision between two colleges, you better believe he’s doing the same when weighing the possibilities between CCU and a potential jump straight to professional baseball. The family doesn’t have a specific dollar figure or draft position in mind in regards to what it would take to forgo school altogether.
That decision won’t be as easy as it was for Holmes, who garnered approximately $2.5 million signing bonus as a first-round pick back in 2014, according to reports from the time. Guaranteed signing figures for players in rounds 10-20 is typically in the low six figures.
Good money? Of course.
Easy decision money? Nah.
“We have talked about it a little bit. But right now, there is a lot of unfinished business at Conway,” Ashley Smith said. “There’s [the commitment to] Coastal Carolina. To be honest, we’re going to cross that bridge when we get there.”
Coastal is no stranger to losing guys to the draft. In fact, the last two Horry County players drafted straight out of high school were also CCU commits. Carolina Forest’s Ryan Gold (2016) and Bryar Johnson (2017) both elected to head straight to the professional ranks after getting selected in the 20th round or later.
The Smiths have retained Pro Edge, a company that advises prospects on a semi-contingency basis (amateurs are not allowed to sign with agencies). Pro Edge also had Holmes under their umbrella, so it is safe to say that all involved are at least preparing to have a decision to make come June.
Carroll has been down this road before. Since he became an assistant at the school in 1995, Conway has had more players drafted (five) than any other school in Horry County.
“I can see him being a top-10 round guy. I can see it,” Carroll said. “His velocity has been up to 95-96. That has put him in that category. If his velocity jumps a little bit, it could go even higher.”
Carroll is a realist with his players and their futures. At the same time, he’s been higher on Smith longer than just about anyone else.
The would-be top-notch hurler didn’t look like much of an athlete as a middle schooler; Smith was “chunky,” in his own words.
Yet, here was the longtime Tigers varsity coach watching rec league games with a different viewpoint.
“I knew he was going to be a special talent,” Carroll said.
Convincing the player took a little longer.
Smith entered high school at 5-foot-6 and a shade under 200 pounds. His pitches were topping out in the low 70s. Still, after latching on with private pitching coach Mike Williams and the EvoShield Canes summer program, the extra competition spurred a change.
“I was a bowling ball,” Smith said. “But I told Mike Williams and my dad that I was going to slim up and get things going. I was still a little chunky that next season. I ended up gaining [velocity]. The next summer I did that same program again and I ran it up to 94. That was when I thought I had the chance to do this. I realized if I wanted to do this, I had to do it now. Once I started, I never stopped.”
Smith worked himself up to the No. 1 spot with the Conway varsity during the high school season and a place on the Canes’ national squad last summer. Neither have gone 100 percent smooth, but he’s been able to keep everything moving forward.
In the span of about 16 months, he went from no college offers to ones from Top 25 programs to the potential quick trek to pro baseball.
Undoubtedly, he’s come a long way since nine pieces of bubblegum.