Graig Smith will be the new head coach for the Warriors after working on the staff as an assistant and junior varsity head coach from 2010-17.
WINTER GARDEN Graig Smith’s desire to be a high-school baseball head coach goes all the way back to when he was a kid, growing up in Amsterdam, New York — where his dad, Gary Smith, was a varsity coach.
And after seven years on the staff of the West Orange High baseball program as a varsity assistant and a junior varsity head coach, Smith finally got to fulfill that wish last week when he was named the Warriors’ new head coach.
Now Smith, a Venice High alum who played his college baseball at Florida Gulf Coast University, doesn’t have just any job — he has one of the best in state. Smith was introduced to the team at West Orange as the Warriors’ new varsity head coach Jan. 16, four days after longtime head coach Jesse Marlo resigned.
“This is a great job,” Smith said. “What they’ve been able to do in this program, and what it’s turned into and the expectation of what it needs to continue to be on the field — it’s a dream come true.”
After seven years on the staff at West Orange, Smith had left the program after the 2017 season to help Eric Lassiter start the new program at Windermere High. Smith only spent a semester away from his old stomping grounds, though, as the unexpected opportunity created by Marlo’s departure made him a natural candidate for a replacement — he has coached nearly every player on the Warriors’ varsity roster in some capacity.
“Just being familiar with the players, with the parents, I think that really kind of helps a lot of the abruptness in that transition."
“Just being familiar with the players, with the parents, I think that really kind of helps a lot of the abruptness in that transition,” Smith said.
Smith inherits a program that advanced to its first FHSAA Final Four in 2016 and played in the regional championship in 2017. The program’s success creates a high standard to maintain, something that could be daunting, but Smith said he has been encouraged by the way many have responded to his new role.
“I think the biggest part for me is just the support I’ve gotten,” Smith said. “Not just from the school itself, but (also) from the community, the parents and the players. It’s really a humbling experience, how many people have stepped forward and said, ‘Hey, I know the situation. What can I do to help?’”
A new staff under Smith already has started to take shape, with veteran coach Bill Chambers signing on, as well as former player T.J. Sullivan and strength and conditioning coach Jeff Montalbano. Robbie Flynn will be the program's junior varsity head coach.
The Warriors graduated a strong senior class in 2017, but returners such as Ole Miss signee Doug Nikhazy — a pitcher who anchors a strong rotation for West Orange — will have the team as formidable as ever.
“The way we said it is, ‘This is not a rebuilding year — this is a continuation of what we’ve been building since you guys have been with us here,’” Smith said.
“I’m not really looking at it as we’re losing players (to Windermere High), because of the kids we still have. It’s a great group of kids.”
In addition to the abrupt nature of the transition, it is an interesting time for the program already as 2018 will be the first season since Windermere High opened — significantly splitting the former talent-rich school zone for West Orange. But Smith, who helped coach the Wolverines as an assistant during the fall season, said there is plenty of talent to go around for both programs.
“I’m not really looking at it as we’re losing players (to Windermere High), because of the kids we still have,” Smith said. “It’s a great group of kids.”
More than two decades after Smith was a kid at the ballfield in upstate New York watching his dad coach, he now finds himself in that role. All these years later, he hopes he especially can bring one characteristic his father exemplified.
“Really, the big thing is just the work ethic,” Smith said. “Even though he (Gary Smith) spent a lot time at the field, he still always found time to spend with his kids.”