When Stephen Smith signed his national letter of intent last month to join the Kennesaw State track and field team as a pole vaulter, the Cass senior did so as a one-time state champion.
When he steps foot on the Cobb County campus in the fall, Smith will do so as a two-time state champion.
While his signing ceremony on April 18 served as a celebration of all that Smith has achieved in his time as a Colonel, it also included quite the backdrop. No, not the one with "Cass" and the Colonels logo all over it. This backdrop involved the impending end of his senior season.
Most student-athletes choose to have their signings take place either before or after their seasons have been completed. Smith, though, approached it with a strange combination of laidback attitude and almost surprise that the moment had finally come.
“I still can’t believe it,” he said. “It’s crazy.”
Smith is excited to join the Owls and compete at the Division-I level for a powerhouse in the Atlantic Sun Conference, which also competes against the big boys at huge national meets across the country.
One of the biggest draws to the program, besides the location, was the chance to learn under Cale McDaniel, who took over the KSU track and field program in November.
“Their coach is good on the approach of the vault, and that’s what I need,” Smith said.
Had McDaniel not been hired by KSU, it's entirely possible he would have still ended up coaching Smith. Although he didn't know it at the time, Smith learned that McDaniel was aware of his abilities before he even moved to Georgia.
“He had me on his radar, when he was at Western Carolina,” Smith said. “I didn’t know he was looking at me. I was looking at KSU just because it was a close school. When he got to KSU, I saw him at an indoor meet. After I was done competing, he talked to me and was like, ‘We would love to have you.’”
It's fitting that Smith ended up signing with the Owls. He and his family had been making the trip south to Kennesaw for years, including attending church with Scott Arnold.
A coach at Georgia Pole Vault Club in Cartersville, Arnold said he's known Smith "pretty much ... his entire life." Arnold, though, didn't become interested in pole vaulting until his son, Hunter, did and eventually earned a chance to compete for KSU.
Now, it's all come full-circle for Arnold as he watches Smith, whom he has coached for the past few years, follow in his son's footsteps.
“The good thing about Stephen is that he’s just a natural athlete,” Arnold said. “I’ve watched him pole vault since he was in ninth grade, but I hadn’t coached him until his junior and senior years. If I remember correctly, I think he was jumping like 10 or 11 feet, when he joined the club two years ago.
"Since then, it’s just been a combination of his work ethic and having the right equipment. He’s really excelled at it.”
Smith's impressive improvement didn't slow down after he won the Class 5A state championship last year. Whereas some kids would get comfortable having won a state title, Smith seemed to be even more motivated to defend his crown.
He won in 2018 by clearing 14 feet. This time around, he needed to clear 15 feet, 6 inches to win back-to-back gold medals.
Cass track coach David Rawlins helped Smith work on his pole vaulting early in his high school career before he transitioned to training at Georgia Pole Vault Club. To see Smith improve by more than five feet in just a few years has greatly impressed Rawlins.
“It just shows that anyone, if they’re willing to put the time and effort in, has the ability to attain a state title,” he said.
Rawlins, of course, gave plenty of credit to the coaches at Georgia Pole Vault Club for guiding Smith along the way. But those at Cass, certainly deserve some credit for helping Smith get to this point.
“When he got over 10 feet, I think he realized he had potential to do great things,” Rawlins said. “I think that’s when he started going to Georgia Pole Vault. It took off from there.”
While the natural athletic ability that Rawlins also mentioned definitely didn't hurt Smith's progression, it seemed to be his hard-working attitude that got him to the level of becoming a D-I athlete. It also endears him to every coach he has the opportunity to meet.
“They’re getting a great kid,” Arnold said of Smith. “… He’s always willing to do whatever it takes to help the team out. For instance, when the club goes to meets out of town or even out of state, Stephen is the one who shows up to help load up all the equipment. He will throw the equipment in the back of his personal truck and drive it to Birmingham, Alabama, so the club can have a competition over there.
"He is the type of kid that will do anything and everything for you that you ask him to do.”