CL South's Smith glad to be back from shoulder surgery

CRYSTAL LAKE – Josh Smith experienced the normal doubts anyone would have traveling the long road back from shoulder surgery.

Perhaps even more so given what Smith was accomplished while throwing baseballs really hard.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through in my life,” said Smith, a senior pitcher for Crystal Lake South’s baseball team. “You keep hearing [from medical personnel], ‘You’ll be fine. You’ll be fine. Just keep working at it.’ When I first started throwing it was hard to see my friends in travel league going out and doing well, getting scholarships and stuff, and I can barely throw 60 feet.”

That was last fall, which is a distant memory for Smith now. He started and pitched 5 1/3 innings in Friday’s 6-2 victory over Grayslake North. That Smith didn’t get the decision – he left trailing 2-0, allowing two hits and one earned run – hardly mattered. He was back.

“It felt good, seeing live competition and starting a game, you feel like it’s your game,” said Smith, who previously had several shorter relief appearances for the 5-3 Gators. “You set the tone for your team. It feels good to be out there and start.”

Smith, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound right-hander, gained attention after his sophomore year, when he was selected for the Great Lakes Regional 17U team to play in the National Team Identification Series Showcase in Cary, N.C.

A few months later, Smith’s career hit the huge roadblock when he collided with a Lake Zurich running back in a Class 7A football playoff game. Smith, a linebacker, felt his right shoulder get “blown out backwards.” He had suffered an anterior-interior labrum tear.

Before Thanksgiving, he underwent surgery by orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Brian Forsythe. He faced a long, challenging rehabilitation, although it beat the alternative.

“I got lucky. If it was on the bottom of the labrum,” Smith said. “If it was a superior tear, I probably wouldn’t have been able to throw again.”

Smith was in a sling for three months, then went through physical therapy for another six months. By August, Smith was throwing again. A couple months later, he threw some innings with the Pro Player Canes in fall games.

Gators coach Brian Bogda is excited to get Smith for this season.

“To get an arm like him is a shot in the arm for us, so to speak,” Bogda said. “He’s bounced back real nicely from the injury. We started him the other day and he threw really well. It means a lot and he’s done a lot of real good things.”

Smith issued three walks and struck out two in his first high school start Friday. Bogda had him on a 75-pitch limit. Smith has eight strikeouts in 10 1/3 innings, with a 1-0 record, a 1.30 ERA and has allowed three hits.

Bogda did not give mph numbers on Smith’s velocity, but said he is getting close to where he had been.

“It was awesome to see him get a start finally,” said South catcher Casey Oliver, who caught Smith as a sophomore. “And to see him get that many innings. He battled. He pitched very well. He had a long journey to get back to where he is right now. We missed him last season, luckily we had a good pitching staff. It’s even better having him back this year.”

Smith watched his brother Christian, a 6-foot-8 pitcher for NCAA Division III Aurora University, battle back from two ankle injuries. He faced a longer rehab than Christian, but attacked it with all he had.

“You’re young and you think you’re invincible, and nothing bad’s ever going to happen to you,” Josh Smith said. “One day it does and you realize, ‘I really need to work hard and put a lot of effort into it to try to get back where I was.’ ”

Had Smith not been injured, he might already have secured a D-I scholarship. Bogda has received correspondence from D-I coaches, to whom he explains what has happened. Smith thinks the junior college route might serve him best at reaching a D-I school.

“Something could still open up at a D-I school that loses a kid to the draft or to an injury,” Bogda said. “He has some offers from junior colleges that would be tough to pass up. Over two years [at junior college], he’ll have an opportunity to go to a Division I school.

“His attitude’s been tremendous. It’s difficult coming back from that caliber of injury. He’s been really positive with the younger guys and taken younger pitchers under his wing. That says a lot about Josh and his character. He’s been a true gamer and a really good person for our program.”