The timing of his November knee injury couldn’t have been much worse for Paden Smith.
The two-sport athlete was preparing for his senior season of basketball and had an offer to play junior college baseball at Wallace State.
Trying to save a loose basketball in a pick-up game, he tore a ligament in his knee, requiring surgery, keeping him off the court this season and sidelining him for much of the upcoming baseball season.
He was worried his baseball offer might disappear, too.
That thought was officially put to rest this week, as Smith signed with Wallace State.
“A first, I thought they might take my scholarship away,” said Smith, a right-hander who figures to continue pitching in junior college. “But we called down there after it happened, and they said I’d be OK. I had committed to them in August, and they stuck with me and told me to get well. It’s really exciting. I’ve wanted to play college baseball since I was 5.”
Smith was one of at least four area athletes to sign with colleges this week.
Brooks teammate Drake Tucker also signed with Wallace State baseball. Florence’s James Hillhouse signed to play baseball with Calhoun Community College. And Florence soccer player Justin Whitten signed with Huntingdon College.
Whitten is the first boys soccer player out of Florence High School to sign with a four-year college.
“It’s humbling to have this opportunity, but at the same time, I worked for it for a very long time for it,” Whitten said. “People don’t really expect people coming from Florence, Ala., to go on to play soccer at the college level. I’ve wanted to since middle school. There have been a lot of other guys who could have. I just had a passion for it.”
As an NCAA Division IiI institution, Huntingdon doesn’t grant athletic scholarships but Whitten has earned an academic scholarship.
Getting the attention of prospective college soccer programs proved a challenge coming out of an area where the sport is largely ignored.
Whitten sent out emails seeking interest from colleges, including one to Huntingdon. He received a return phone call from the coach the day before he payed in the North-South All-Star Game in Montgomery in July.
The coach came to watch him play. Whitten visited the campus the next day and was sold.
He figures to continue playing striker at Huntingdon.
A standout four-position baseball player at Florence, Hillhouse said the coaches and their reputation for placing players at four-year colleges impressed him most about Calhoun.
“I really like the way they run the program and I really like coach (Mike) Burns,” Hillhouse said. “They do a great job getting opportunities for their guys after they leave and they really know the game.”
A three-year starter who has led the team in every offense category except home runs the last two years, Hillhouse plays catcher, middle infield and pitches for Florence. He said he figures to player wherever he’s needed at Calhoun.
“I think I’ve improved the most in the infield,” Hillhouse said. “That and in conditioning. I’ve gotten a lot stronger.”
From Brooks, Tucker will have a familiar teammate in Smith in the fall at Wallace State.
He figures to continue playing centerfield in junior college.
“I’m pretty excited about having somebody I’ll know down there,” Tucker said. “They have a pretty strong program at Wallace State, they have a lot of potential and the facilities are really nice.”
He hopes to have a chance to play alongside Smith before then. Smith said he should have an opportunity to return to baseball by the beginning of April at the earliest, meaning he could be back for the playoffs at Brooks.
“We’re all behind him to get back,” Tucker said. “He’s recovering quickly. I think we’ll make a deep run. Pretty much everybody on our team can pitch, and when we get Paden back, we’ll be set.”
Bryan App can be reached at 256-740-5730 or email@example.com. Follow @bappster on Twitter.