High School Sports

Hiller takes draft process in stride

Editor’s note — This is the second in a series of stories documenting the senior season of Tattnall Square Academy pitcher DeAndre Smelter. High school sports reporter Jonathan Heeter will chronicle Smelter’s journey from the first pitch of his senior season to the Major League Baseball draft in June, where Smelter is projected by many to be the first Macon native to be selected in the first round out of high school.

The professional scouts are lined up all around Tattnall Square’s baseball field.

Their radar guns are fixated on a pitcher, and their stopwatches are ready any time he runs.

Some bear identification: an Atlanta Braves cap, a Chicago White Sox jacket, a St. Louis Cardinals notebook.

This is a scene that takes place nearly every time Tattnall senior DeAndre Smelter pitches, be it in a bullpen session or against an opposing team.

Smelter is considered a potential first round pick in June’s MLB draft. He is rated as the fifth best high school senior in the nation by Lindy’s and No. 17 by Baseball America.

The circus that is taking place every time Smelter takes the mound could be a prime distraction for a head coach, particularly for one fielding a team capable of chasing a third straight state championship.

That isn’t the case with Tattnall head coach Joey Hiller.

He has been through this before.

Hiller experienced a similar scenario in 2000 when then-senior Brandon Spillers started to draw the attention of baseball scouts.

Spillers became a top-notch prospect much like Smelter, and Hiller had to learn on the fly how to balance boosting Spillers’ exposure and his responsibility to his team on the field.

“Situations like this don’t come around a lot, so you have to learn how wear two different hats,” Hiller said. “You want to do what is best for the player and for team.”

Spillers was eventually drafted in the sixth round by the Baltimore Orioles. Only five Bibb County players have been drafted higher.

Hiller had another player — Daniel Renfroe — drafted in the 26th round of the 2006 draft by the Detroit Tigers. He also observed back-to-back Jones County players — Willie Greene and Rondell White — get selected in the first round. To date, those are the two highest draft picks — No. 18 and No. 24 — in Middle Georgia history.

“I learn a little bit more each time we go through this,” Hiller said.

One of the ways Hiller has tried to make it easier on scouts was by posting Smelter’s schedule on the Tattnall baseball Web site. The schedule shows when Smelter is scheduled to pitch and an approximation of how many pitches he’ll throw. It also gives bullpen session times.

Even though the schedule doesn’t take much time to put together, it’s a huge help to scouts who might want to make the trips to see Smelter pitch.

Hiller also spends quite a bit of time on the phone talking to scouts. It doesn’t cause Hiller to miss much time, but his coaching staff makes up for any extra minutes spent speaking to scouts in person or on the phone. Hiller has one of the most experienced coaching staffs around. Pitching coach Kevin Brown played in the majors for 19 seasons. Assistant coach Bryan Kemp was a head coach at Mount de Sales.

Hiller said maintaining the balance between coaching and serving as an intermediary for Smelter hasn’t caused many distractions.

“I certainly want what’s best for DeAndre, but none of that gets in the way of coaching the team,” Hiller said. “You just have to find a balance.”

The Trojans have started the season 5-4, but they are expected to be contenders for another state championship. Hiller has won five state championships since 2000.

“I think we all are focused on winning another state championship,” Smelter said. “The draft stuff will play itself out. Coach Hiller has done a great job with our preparation for the season. I think we’re all focused on the season and winning another championship. No distractions.”

Coming April 4: Smelter went to Tattnall from Appling Middle School. Because of an outgoing personality and dynamite athleticism, Smelter fit in immediately at Tattnall. Obviously the athletic talents have helped his draft status. But how much will personality and character matter when it comes to draft day?