Growing up only a half-hour away from Seattle in Maple Valley, Wash., the Seattle Mariners have always been Taylor Smartâ€™s baseball team.
The former Western Nevada College infielderâ€™s boyhood dream of one day playing for the Mariners became closer to reality on Saturday when the Mariners selected Smart in the 26th round of the Major League Baseball draft.
â€œItâ€™s pretty cool,â€ said Smart, who played his first two seasons of college baseball at WNC before concluding his college career at the University of Tennessee. â€œIt was kind of my hometown team and growing up rooting for (Ken) Griffey (Jr.) and A-Rod, itâ€™s a very special time to be picked.â€
Following Smartâ€™s selection, three more players who played two seasons for the Wildcats were selected before the three-day, 40-round draft concluded late Saturday afternoon.
Right-handed pitcher Andrew Woeck, a 2011-12 member of the Wildcats, was taken in the 31st round by Tampa Bay; right-handed pitcher Brandon Show, a member of the Wildcatsâ€™ 2012 and 2013 teams, was picked in the 38th round by the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox; and right-handed pitcher Conor Harber, who played for WNC in 2013-14, was chosen by Tampa Bay in the final round.
Including pitcher Luke Eubank, who was selected in the 15th round by the Cleveland Indians, a near-record five players who have suited for the Wildcats, were chosen.
â€œThese 5 players are outstanding representatives for our program. Their selection by major league organizations is great validation for our recruiting, our development and the work ethic of the players,â€ said WNC coach DJ. Whittemore. â€œOur staff is excited for these young men and also proud.â€
Seven Wildcats were taken during the 2011 draft.
For Woeck, his late-round selection by the Tampa Bay Rays was a relief. Following Tommy John surgery to his right elbow last month, Woeckâ€™s draft stock plummeted.
â€œI just wanted a chance,â€ Woeck said. â€œWithout a doubt, getting an opportunity is what itâ€™s all about.â€
Smart said his parents, grandparents, other family members and girlfriend gathered to follow the draft on Saturday, when at least six teams expressed interest in him.
â€œIt was a very special moment,â€ Smart said.
As a freshman at WNC in 2011, Smart was selected as a Region 18 first-team member. He hit .254 with 12 doubles and 20 RBI. The following season, Smart raised his average to .261 and hit with more power, totaling 13 doubles, four triples and two homers while knocking in 34 runs as the Wildcats advanced to the National Junior College Athletic Association World Series. Those numbers helped the middle infielder land on the second team for Region 18 and secure two years at Tennessee.
â€œI canâ€™t say enough about Western Nevada,â€ Smart said. â€œI donâ€™t think Iâ€™d be where Iâ€™m at right now if wasnâ€™t for D.J., coach Demo (Aaron Demosthenes) and coach (Jeremy) Beard.â€
Smart flourished during his two seasons as an infielder for the Tennessee Volunteers. He hit 25 points higher as a senior, finishing with a .292 average, as well as hitting four homers, scoring 37 runs and knocking in 29 runs.
â€œThis year, it came together for me,â€ Smart said. â€œI tried not to do too much at the plate. Baseball is a funny game. It seems like the less you try to do, the more success you have.â€
Smartâ€™s selection provided WNC with the ninth straight year of having at least one player taken in the draft.
After an elbow injury derailed his promising senior year at North Carolina State, uncertainty and anxiety trailed Woeck into the three-day draft.
â€œAs it got into the later rounds, I got worried about it,â€ Woeck said. â€œAt that point, I was losing hope, but then I got the text from the Rays that they were going to take me.â€
There was talk earlier this spring that Woeck had improved his stock to warrant consideration for being selected in the first 10 rounds.
â€œMy velocity had increased and I had gotten into a starterâ€™s role,â€ Woeck said. â€œI got hurt in my second start. It was such bad timing.â€
Woeck delivered 15 wins for the Wildcats in 2011-12 and followed that with two outstanding seasons with the North Carolina State Wolf Pack. Woeck posted an 9-2 career pitching mark for the Wolfpack, while coming out of the bullpen for the most part.
In 11 appearances for North Carolina State this spring, Woeck was 3-1 with a 2.17 ERA along with 41 strikeouts in 29 innings.
Three weeks into his recovery from surgery, Woeck no longer has the pressure of speeding up the process to create opportunities for himself.
â€œWith the fact that I wonâ€™t be trying out for teams and pursuing a free-agent contract, it gives me the ability to slow down and make sure Iâ€™m at 100 percent,â€ he said.
For the second straight year, Harber was taken near the end of the draft. Last year, Baltimore invested a 38th-round pick in him.
The two-way player was voted co-Region 18 pitcher of the year in 2014 after registering an 8-0 record and 2.49 earned run average. He led the Wildcats with a .331 batting average and 13 stolen bases and was recently selected as a National Junior College Athletic Association third-team All-American.
Last season, Harber hit a program-record .411 and 11 triples. Last fall, Harber signed a letter of intent to attend the University of Oregon.
In 2013, Show won four of five decisions for the Wildcats and compiled a 4.54 ERA, following a 2012 season that saw him make 13 appearances and pitch to a 4.05 ERA.
As a junior at San Diego, Show was 1-0 in 17 appearances, including one start.
Eubank played part of the 2013 season for WNC, posting a 3-4 record and 2.89 ERA before transferring to Oxnard College. This past season, Eubank was 12-1 with a 0.94 ERA and 131 strikeouts in 124 1/3 innings.