Asmussen | Smith family enjoying the ride to the College World Series

 

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The Smiths are loading up their Ford Fusion for the 488-mile drive west from Champaign.

Tim, Sara and their 16-year-old son Walker leave Friday and need to be in Omaha, Neb., in time for Sunday's third game of the College World Series.

Their favorite player, Centennial and Parkland graduate Luke Smith, is a junior pitcher at Louisville. The Cardinals open against powerhouse Vanderbilt in a 1 p.m., game at TD Ameritrade Park.

"Man, this is something we've worked for all year," Luke Smith said. "Being able to make it this far with this group of guys is something that's incredibly special. We feel like we have a real good chance to take this thing even farther than just making it."

It wouldn't have happened without Smith's contributions. In the regional round, with the Cardinals facing elimination against Illinois State, Smith threw a gem. He allowed just three hits in 8 1 / 3 innings to keep Louisville's hopes alive.

Not that he will take any credit.

"I don't want to say it was easy," Smith said, "but it was easy to do it for these guys."

His family was in the stands. Just like they will be on Sunday. The Louisville fans let Smith know how they felt with a loud, long ovation as he left the game.

"That was something I will never forget," he said.

Smith has been effective all season for Louisville, with a 6-0 record in 17 appearances.

He doesn't know what his role will be at the College World Series. And he isn't worried about it.

"I'll be ready whenever my name's called," Smith said. "Whatever I can do to help the team."

Good choice

After starring two years under coach Jon Goebel at Parkland, Smith had a string of attractive Division I offers. He picked Louisville.

"This is one of the best decisions I've ever made," Smith said. "I love it here."

He could have left Parkland after his freshman year. Why stay?

"My relationship with Coach Goebel was the reason I ended up going there in the first place," Smith said. "What he does for the pitchers at Parkland is second to none. I felt like living here with him and developing and trying to gain a little more velocity would be real beneficial for me. Coach Goebel played a real big part in that decision."

Smith is also thankful for what he learned at Centennial under head coach Ryan Remole and assistant coaches Mike Alves and Pete Malinowski.

"I wouldn't be where I am without Centennial," Smith said. "Coach Remole and Coach Alves and Coach Malinowski were very beneficial in helping me, not only grow as a baseball player but also as a man. My time at Centennial was incredible."

The Cardinals coaches should be thanking Alves.

"He taught me how to throw my slider. Me and Jeff Lindgren (recent Illinois State graduate who signed with the Marlins this week) both worked on that together. I definitely wouldn't be here without him. A very big part of my career."

Smith also praised his summer baseball coach with the Central States Spikes, Tom Kimball. The coach taught Smith to pitch with emotion and to "never take reps off in practice."

Important habits for any player.

Looking ahead

Smith hopes to keep playing until June 25, the earliest the Cardinals can win the national title. The lanky 6-foot-3, 175-pound right-hander has another year of eligibility and plans to return to Louisville for the 2020 season.

"I want to keep getting stronger and hopefully gain a little bit more weight," Smith said. "I'd love to be able to throw more strikes. That's one thing I have always prided myself on, and this year I got out of the strike zone more than I would have liked to."

He wants to continue in baseball after next season. Five of his contemporaries from Champaign were picked in last week's MLB draft: Central's Alec Barger, Tanner Gordon, Joe Aeilts and Jake Snider and Centennial's Lindgren.

"It's the best feeling ever," Smith said. "I talked to all those guys the day they got drafted. We all worked out with Joe Yager, our personal trainer. It's really cool this group of guys succeeding the way they are. I think we all owe it to Joe and the coaches we grew up playing for. I'm extremely proud of all those guys."

Smith and Snider have been close friends for years. They went to Jefferson Middle School together and played on the same travel team, the Champaign Tribe, growing up in Champaign.

"It's really special to team up again with one of your best friends," Smith said. "We've got to hang out a lot more this year."

Snider was picked by Pittsburgh in the 20th round of the MLB draft. Will Smith try to talk Snider into returning to Louisville next season?

"It's been his dream to play professional baseball," Smith said. "I'll back him up in whatever he does. If he decides to come back for a year, that will be great. But if he decides to play pro ball, I'll be his biggest fan."

Baseball figures to be in Smith's future. In some way, shape or form.

The sports management major will earn his degree next spring.

"I have a hard time believing my career would be anything other than baseball," Smith said. "I would love to be a coach. My biggest passion has always been baseball. Hopefully, that's something I can continue to do after my playing career is over."

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.