Luke Smith Louisville

Luke Smith delivers a pitch for Louisville during its 2021 season. The Centennial graduate, Champaign native and former Parkland standout is hoping he’ll hear his name called at the upcoming MLB draft later this month.

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CHAMPAIGN — Luke Smith is working on developing a cut fastball.

In addition to his four-seam fastball that he routinely throws in the low 90s. To mix in his with his curveball, changeup and slider.

“I want to have a breaking ball that’s a little bit harder than a slider,” Smith said, “but one that looks like a fastball coming out of my hand.”

The Centennial graduate is keeping his cell phone nearby, too, in the coming weeks.

Wise move.

Even though the now-former Louisville pitcher went through the pre-MLB draft process a year ago, Smith could receive life-altering news at some point between July 11-13.

Those three dates represent the time the 20 rounds of the MLB draft will take place. It’s at a later date on the calendar this year (smart, so not to interfere with the end of the college baseball season) and only 20 rounds compared to the usual 40 rounds (kind of a bummer, but somewhat of a compromise). The COVID-19 pandemic whittled the 2020 draft down to just five rounds and only 120 minor-league teams are affiliated with MLB teams this year, down from 162 in 2019 after MLB restructured how the minor leagues operated.

If the 2020 draft went its customary 40 rounds, there’s a chance Smith isn’t waiting to hear if his name is called this month. The 6-foot-3, 175-pound right-hander is likely going through his first full season in the minor leagues.

Yet he is keeping a realistic perspective about it all, too. Can’t change what happened in the past. Can’t change the fact his first two stellar seasons at Louisville turned into a 2021 season he’d like to forget.

“I can’t sit here and tell you what round I might go in or if I’ll even be drafted,” Smith said, “but it’s awesome to sit down and take it all in by looking at my journey.”

A journey that saw him lightly recruited out of Centennial, only for the Champaign native to walk on at Parkland and start his college career in his hometown.

Where he thrived under the tutelage of Jon Goebel, then the Cobras’ pitching coach and now the community college program’s head coach.

Which caught the attention of the Louisville staff. Which saw Smith make the most of an opportunity to turn into a top-flight pitcher at a successful Division I program. He posted a 6-1 record with a 4.24 earned run average in 2019 and then was on the cusp of a breakout 2020 season, going 3-0 with a 3.42 ERA in his first four starts before the season was canceled.

He opted to return for a final season with the Cardinals, but it didn’t pan out the way he or his teammates wanted. Louisville finished 28-22, missed out on the NCAA tournament two years after reaching the College World Series and Smith went 3-4 with a 5.85 ERA.

“It wasn’t the year that I envisioned having,” Smith said. “I hold very high standards for myself. What I did this year was not what I was hoping for, but that’s the beauty of baseball. You’re never guaranteed success, but that’s why I find it so addicting because you’re always chasing something. If you’re not chasing anything, then there’s no point in playing.”

Smith wants to keep playing. Wants the chance to work his way up in pro ball, much like he’s done at every stage of his baseball career.

He came back to Champaign a little more than a month ago, setting up a throwing program with Goebel to prepare more for this moment.

“Growing up, I was never really the big-time name player on any of the teams I played on,” Smith said. “I was a smaller kid, but I loved the game. My dad introduced it to me at a young age, and I remember being around it as soon as I could walk.”

Smith understands he’ll walk away from playing the game at some point. But he wants to stay immersed in baseball moving forward. Even if he’s not on the mound.

“Over winter break, I started working with some kids locally in Champaign and Tolono. I felt it was the right thing to do,” Smith said. “I was given so much by so many great coaches through the years that I’m just trying to pass off that info to the next generation. I love trying to help, whether it’s an 8-year-old who’s picking the game up for the first time or the 18-year-old entering his final high school season. That’s where my passion is. I have a hard time believing I’ll be a guy sitting behind a desk, making a living that way. I’d get a little too restless. I’d love to stay in the game in any way possible.”

Matt Daniels is the sports editor at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-373-7422 or at mdaniels@news-gazette.com.

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