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Smith one-of-a-kind for Tigers

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Nash Smith entered the Fort Hays State University baseball program in 2009 after he attended Jewell High School and Beloit High School. He played just one season of high school baseball and was lightly recruited. FHSU noticed Smith when he attended a camp.

Smith had played infield in high school, and, because of several injuries, started the season opener in a road contest against University of North Alabama. Smith committed three errors in a 14-11 loss. Soon after, then-Tiger coach Rick Sabath moved Smith to the outfield. That remains the only game Smith started as a Tiger infielder.

"I wish I wouldn't have made the errors," he said. "I enjoy the infield a little more than the outfield."

The move, though, helped Smith enjoy one of the top careers in Fort Hays history -- and certainly the best four-year career of any Tiger since the program joined the MIAA six years ago.

Known for his athleticism, incredible bat speed and ability to hit the ball to all fields, the quiet and fiery Smith is a four-year starter, the last three at right field.

"I am just proud that I made it this far," Smith said. "Not everybody else gets to do this. It's a privilege, and I enjoy it."

Smith is one of 16 seniors who will play their final home games at Larks Park this weekend against Missouri Western State University. Fort Hays (25-19, 19-16 MIAA) is in fourth place, while Missouri Western (30-14, 23-11) stands second. The first game is scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday, followed by a doubleheader Saturday and a single game Sunday.

Smith ranks in the top-seven in Fort Hays' annals for games played (173), at-bats (584), hits (204), doubles (48), triples (8), homers (29), RBIs (132) and total bases (359).

Smith, a returning second-team all-MIAA selection, carries a career .349 batting average and .615 slugging percentage. No Tiger since Dusty Dreher graduated in 2002 can match Smith's career numbers.

"It's an honor and I'm proud to play here for four years," Smith said.

This spring, Smith moved to the leadoff spot in early season and carries a .367 average with a team-best 17 doubles.

"He had has ups and downs this year, but Nash is one of those guys that even when it's not going great, he still does several things that will help a team win a game," second-year coach Steve Johnson said. "That's what makes him different."

Much of Smith's talent and ability is natural. After Smith switched to the outfield as a freshman, he said the hardest adjustment was getting reads on balls. But he admitted that was "really not too hard."

"Just catch the ball," he said.

He quickly became one of the conference's top outfielders. Johnson said Smith and senior center fielder Brandon Hoefler can cover 80 percent of the outfield on their own. Multiple Tigers have been impressed with Smith's athleticism, speed and arm strength during the years.

Smith has changed little in his career. One difference came during winter break when he proposed to his longtime girlfriend, Tazsa Marlier, at Rooftops in Hays.

"Oh yeah, definitely felt some nerves," Smith said with a smile. "A bottle of wine helped the situation a little bit."

On the field, Smith weighed 160 pounds as a freshman and now weighs 165 pounds. His demeanor -- "quiet and fired up at the same time" - remains the same.

Smith has never become a vocal leader and the coaches haven't asked him to. At the start of the season, Johnson told Smith, "Just go out and play." Smith, who normally hit lower in the order earlier in his career, is fine with batting leadoff.

"It's not a problem," he said. "I just take the same approach as a leadoff if I was hitting lower in the lineup."

Smith doesn't make many changes, but can spray the ball to all fields better than most.

"Just a lot of practice," he said. "Practice all my life doing it. It's just paying off. I really don't mess with my swing too much, just come out and do it. It starts with staying back and hitting the ball where it's pitched. If it's outside, you take it the other way. If it's inside, just react and pull."

Johnson, in his 17th season as a collegiate baseball coach, has never seen a hitter with Smith's ability to use the whole diamond.

"There are days when it's all (opposite) approach and there's days when he pulls everything and I really don't think it matters sometimes where the pitch is located," he said. "That's just the mindset that he gets in. Fortunately, he has the ability to do that. A lot of guys couldn't say that or couldn't do it, but he can."

The ability and consistency has helped Smith hit .355, .378 and .367 the last three years.

He has collected 15, 16 and 17 doubles and eight, seven and eight homers in each season.

"When you look at the numbers at the end of the year, anybody would take it," Johnson said. "He is going to hit mid to upper .300s, he is going to have 20 doubles, he is going to have 10 home runs, he is going to have double-digit steals and score a lot of runs. He has had a great career here, and hopefully he finishes off in the same way that he has been doing it."