SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. – Cullen Smith has embraced the grind in 2018, and he is reaping the rewards.
The Lebanon native and former Wilson Central High School standout was an all-conference selection at East Tennessee State University this past season and this week was named an all-star with the Ocean State Waves of the New England Collegiate Baseball League.
With nearly 100 games under his belt between the spring and summer, Smith is going strong.
“What I really found out this year is, ‘Man, it’s a long season,’ and you’ve got to stick with it,” Smith said. “It’s not about the first two weeks or the last two weeks. It’s the whole thing. That’s the main thing I learned from sophomore year and going into the summer – just stay grounded for every single at-bat.”
Smith’s busy year began with a strong sophomore season at East Tennessee State. After earning Southern Conference all-freshman honors in 2017, Smith batted .295 with two home runs and 12 doubles as a sophomore. He tied for the team lead in stolen bases and logged a 13-game hitting streak late in the season.
For the summer, Smith headed north, joining a league that rates as one of the top summer collegiate circuits in the country and a team ranked No. 1 in the nation at one point last season.
“I’ve really enjoyed it a whole lot,” Smith said. “The people up here are incredibly nice. The food is great, the hospitality is great, and you can’t ask for a much better location. Plus, playing for a great team like Ocean State has been awesome.”
Smith viewed the summer as an important opportunity to hone his craft, both in the field and at the plate.
“Just to get better all the way around,” he said. “I punched out a little too much in my sophomore year. So I’ve been trying to work on that, as well as driving balls the other way and just staying simple. Just trying to help my team win.”
After playing third base as a freshman, he slid to second base this past season and has continued to play mostly up the middle for the Waves. He’s made just four errors in 34 games.
“I played shortstop my whole life,” Smith said. “Then third base last year. Second base this year. It definitely helps in the long run, being able to play three different positions.”
With the bat, Smith has been a key cog for the league’s top offense. He’s hitting .296 with four homers, eight doubles and 21 RBI, having no trouble adjusting to the wood bats of summer ball after a spring with metal.
“I like hitting with wood, almost better than with metal,” Smith said. “It’s been great. The pitchers are tough. Every night, you’re pretty much seeing an upper echelon type pitcher, but you’ve just got to stick with it.”
Alongside a diverse group of players, from Pepperdine University in California to Seton Hall in New Jersey, Smith has emerged as a team leader. That’s been crucial at this stage of the season, with the Waves battling the injury bug and their core players getting no days off.
“He’s been awesome,” said Waves president and general manager Matt Finlayson. “Offensively, defensively, as a teammate. He seems to really enjoy the game, and he has an infectious personality. It always helps to have a guy like that in the middle of your order who plays hard, has great energy and is really talented on top of it.”
Smith’s success earned him a spot in the NECBL All-Star Game, which will be Sunday in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Smith will come off the bench for the Southern Division team. The selection was a big box checked off for the summer.
“It was pretty awesome,” Smith said. “That was one of my main goals coming in. This is an upper echelon summer collegiate league, so I was really excited to get the opportunity.”
When the All-Star Game concludes, Smith and his teammates will gear up for a playoff push. The Waves are currently fighting for a berth in the six-team bracket, a year after finishing as the league runner-up.
A playoff run would make a long summer a little bit longer, but Smith wouldn’t mind.
The grind continues.
“Hopefully, we keep winning,” Smith said. “We’ve all been talking about – we’re here, we’ve been here two months and we might as well win the thing. No reason to go home early now.”
— William Geoghegan, Special to The Democrat