Harford Community College has always picked up mid-year transfers — that’s baseball life for any successful, junior college program.
But how did the two-year school in Bel Air, a consistent power at its level, land Spencer Smith, an East Carolina University signee and Major League Baseball draftee last June?
Well, it started with a phone call to Harford head coach Tom Eller in January.
About a week or so before Harford started its spring semester, Eller was contacted by Smith’s hitting coach — whom Eller had worked with previously– saying Smith was leaving ECU, a regular participant in the NCAA Division 1 tournament.
Eller had worked with the right-handed hitting Smith a few times while the slugger was in high school in North Carolina. Eller jumped at the chance to pursue the possibility of bringing him to Harford County, a baseball world away from the bright baseball lights of ECU. Within a week after a follow-up conversation, Smith was on campus in Bel Air.
“I had the right people surrounding me to help me make this decision,” Smith said. “And the way that Coach Eller and the team had performed in previous years, it speaks for itself.”
The Fighting Owls live and die – but mostly live — by the home run. Last season, they led all JUCO Division 1 schools with 137 blasts. In 2016, Harford ranked in the Top 3 with 119.
Smith, who has been the club’s designated hitter this year following labrum surgery last fall while at ECU, has fit in perfectly. The Northern Durham (N.C.) High School graduate leads Harford with 13 home runs in 38 games this spring.
“We want our guys to swing with intent,” Eller said. “Even if we strike out, swing at three pitches and miss three pitches, the next at-bat will be better because of that. … We teach guys to hit the ball in the air. There’s some days we take batting practice and I (say) ‘no ground balls.’ That increases guys to hit line drives and, obviously, put the ball over the fence.”
It’s not just playing for the solo shot, though. Harford draws tons of walks. In each of the last two seasons, the Fighting Owls walked more than 350 times, ranking first within JUCO Division 1. With 12 games remaining in the 2018 regular season, they already have recorded 281.
A renewed passion for the game
Last June, coming off his second consecutive season as an all-state catcher in North Carolina, Smith was listed by Baseball America as the 151st best draft-eligible prospect in the country. He was selected by the Texas Rangers in the 37th round, but didn’t sign, choosing to go to ECU instead.
Injuries, stiff competition for playing time and the constant responsibilities that come with top-tier baseball took their toll. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder couldn’t pinpoint exactly when his passion for baseball waned, but it happened.
It’s now been three months since Smith, 19, stepped foot on the Harford campus. In that short time, he has learned to love the game again.
His baseball fire has been rekindled. And his draft stock remains solid.
Baseball America’s most recent ranking for 2018 draft-eligible amateurs lists Smith in the prestigious Top 300 at No. 267. Because he is at a junior college, Smith can be drafted again this year; if he were at ECU, he wouldn’t be eligible.
“Coming here made me realize that this is the game that I love and want to play for a really long time,” Smith said. “When I came here, it was an eye opener and I found my passion for the game again.”
That can be credited to Eller’s coaching style as well as the overall culture of Harford baseball.
“I’m not the coach that’s going to scream and run a military practice,” Eller said. “We run a very organized and structured (program), but I want them to have fun.”
The players also get more free time than at most institutions, something that’s necessary with a grueling schedule year after year.
“I don’t practice in the spring,” Eller said. “Once the season starts and we start to get going, I want them to have their free time and not worry about baseball. (Enter) into the next day with a fresh mind and not worry about your struggles or whatever else.”
Smith’s mindset has certainly changed, as he now wants to be the first person on the field and the last person to leave.
“The coaching staff and the players have really accepted me coming from another school,” Smith said. “It’s the best group of guys I’ve ever played with, and they really make sure that they have your back no matter what.
“It’s just been an amazing experience.”
Postseason shapes overall goal for Fighting Owls
Eller, a Rising Sun native, has helped create the best-kept baseball secret in the state of Maryland. But those in the know – scouts and Division 1 recruiters — are well aware of what’s happening annually on the diamond in Bel Air.
In Eller’s previous 11 seasons at the helm, the Fighting Owls have been crowned Maryland JUCO champions (’12, ’15, ’16, ’17) and JUCO Region XX champions (’12, ’14, ’16, ’17) four times each. In 2016, the program also made an appearance in the JUCO World Series, coming away with two wins against the nation’s best at that level.
In the past two seasons, three Owls have been drafted by major league clubs, including right-hander Will Reed, who was selected in the 20th round by the Pittsburgh Pirates last year. And, under Eller, more than 70 Owls have gone on to play at four-year schools after leaving the program.
Eller, who captured his 400th victory at Harford this year and has an impressive .650 winning percentage during his tenure, is known regionally for his strong recruiting abilities. About a third of the current Owls’ roster is made up of native Marylanders. The others come from the Mid-Atlantic region: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Washington D.C., Virginia and, this year, North Carolina.
It’s become an easier sell, simply because of the success Eller and his Owls (35-8 overall this year, 19-3 conference).
Smith, for instance, felt it was only a matter of time before he got a taste of postseason baseball. He’s ready.
“This team is very special, we’re definitely going to Colorado,” Smith said of the JUCO World Series. “I don’t think we will settle for anything less.”
Eller understands that reaching the postseason shapes his main goal as a junior college coach: developing players and giving them the best opportunity to play baseball at the next level, whether it is with an NCAA Division 1 program or through the MLB Draft.
“If you get the right kids academically, physically. If you get the right kids and you promote that goal, (you will) win baseball games,” Eller said.
BaltimoreBaseball.com’s Top Performers of the Week
(Compiled by Mike Mills)
P.J. Mikulus, LHP, Washington College
Mikulus tossed his first career no-hitter against Dickinson College in a 7-0 victory Saturday. The southpaw’s performance marked the 16th no-no in Centennial Conference history and the first nine-inning no-hitter by a Washington College pitcher in 48 years. The Shoremen (22-11 overall, 6-5 conference) are the first team to have two no-hitters in a season in Centennial Conference history; Junior right-hander Nick Roberti tossed one against Bethany College on March 16. Mikulus earned conference Pitcher of the Week honors. He struck out seven, retired the first 13 and the last 14 batters he faced with only a fielding error in the fifth preventing a perfect game.
Craig Alleyne, OF, Towson University
Junior/Philadelphia, Pa./ Bats/Throws: R/R
Towson (11-24 overall, 4-5 conference) split a doubleheader with The Citadel on Saturday afternoon. In two games, Towson scored a total of nine times; Alleyne knocked in more than half of the Tigers’ runs. The Philly native finished the doubleheader by going 5-for-7 with a home run and five RBIs. Saturday’s opening game marked Alleyne’s first multi-hit performance of the season. Alleyne carried his weekend hot streak into Towson’s midweek matchups against the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore and Delaware State University. In Tuesday’s game against UMES, Alleyne plated two runs with a double; He added another two RBIs versus Delaware State with a single up the middle.
Jack Barry, 3B, Salisbury University
Junior/Laurel, Md./Reservoir High School/ Bats/Throws: R/R
With the help of Barry’s bat, Salisbury (24-7 overall, 12-2 conference) went 6-0 this week and pushed its win streak to 14 games. The week after the junior was featured in College Corner, Barry went 12-for-26 – batting .462 with four home runs, 10 RBIs and 12 runs scored. In a key showdown against fifth-ranked Christopher Newport University, Barry hit three home runs and had five RBIs in the 17-7 victory. Barry’s performance earned him ECAC Baseball Division 3 South Player of the Week. On the year, Barry is hitting an impressive .419. He has scored 35 runs, driven in 18, and is tied for the team lead with five home runs.
The U.S. Naval Academy’s Jared Leins was selected as Patriot League Rookie of the Week for the third time this season. The right-handed reliever held his opponents scoreless in three appearances. Over 4 2/3 combined shutout innings, hitters batted .077 against Leins. … Coppin State University has won seven straight conference games after sweeping a MEAC doubleheader at Delaware State on Saturday. First baseman Nazier McIlwain went 6-for-10 with five RBIs and a double in the doubleheader and was named the MEAC Baseball Co-Player of the Week. In three games, the 225-pound lefty hit .538 with five runs scored and seven RBIs. … Hood College freshman Jake Howell was named the Middle Atlantic Conference Commonwealth Pitcher of the Week after picking up a win and two saves during a 5-0 week for the Blazers (26-5 overall, 10-5 conference). … Johns Hopkins University’s (20-10 overall, 9-2 conference) senior catcher, Alex Darwiche, recorded his 100th career hit in an 8-1 win over Haverford College. … Towson shortstop Richie Palacios tied the school record for career stolen bases with 69 in a 15-8 loss to UMES. The Brooklyn native is 18-for-18 in stolen base attempts on the season. At the plate, Palacios extended his hit streak to 13 games in a 6-2 win over Delaware State. He finished a triple shy of the cycle.
Matchup to watch
Johns Hopkins and Salisbury face-off in a highly anticipated non-conference showdown on Sunday. Both programs have a long history of success. Currently in second in the Centennial Conference, Johns Hopkins will try and slow down the streaking Sea Gulls. Salisbury also sits second in its conference (Capital Athletic Conference) and is currently on a 14-game winning streak.