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Eastside's Smith signs with Bears to play soccer
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If Braden Smith isn't the definition of a team player, it would be hard pressed to find one who is.

On Wednesday, Smith, an Eastside High senior, signed a soccer scholarship to play for Truett-McConnell College, a Georgia Baptist junior college located in Cleveland.

"It's pretty important," said Smith regarding signing day. "Ever since I've been little I've always enjoyed playing soccer. Now that I've gotten older I've decided that I want to play at the next level, and this is a pretty big deal."

Entering Tuesday, the Eagles had already won four games (4-6 overall), tying their season total in wins from last year when they were 4-11.

"It's a learning experience," said Eastside first-year head coach Brian Saffold, "but having guys like Braden on the team makes it a pretty easy transition."

In 2006 Eastside was 3-17-1, proving that Smith has indeed helped rebuild the program during his career.

"He's probably one of the harder workers on the team if not the hardest," admitted Saffold. "The other guys on the team look at him, (and) if he's pushing himself they're going to push themselves even harder. The younger guys look to him for that leadership and that's what he gives them."

After visiting Truett-McConnell in mid-November 2007, Smith received an invitation shortly thereafter to come back for yet another tryout. In his first tryout, he competed with approximately 45 other players. However, when Smith returned in January the coaches had narrowed it down to 18.

For Truett-McConnell men's head coach David McDowell, he realized it would be no easy task pinpointing one particular player during the tryout. But there was just something about Smith's play that intrigued McDowell.

"In warm-ups I'm just seeing if they can do the little things well," said McDowell, who primarily focused on the players away from the ball, not just those with it, in the tryout. "I was noticing Braden's movement off the ball; he was making things easier for his teammates by creating space to make it easy for them, and I liked that."

As a result of his unselfish play, Smith has more assists than goals this season for the Eagles. In addition, he has countless stops and saves, making him an elite defender on the field which earned him team captain honors. His position this year is basically more of a set up role than attacking, which is crucial to every team. 

"He's a midfielder like I was when I played, and it's always the first position I look for," said McDowell. "His movement is very good. Even when we went to full field, he kept things very simple, very tidy, and that is the way that I want soccer to be played at Truett. He's thinking before he gets the ball, thinking two or three passes ahead (and) knows it will be more advantageous to go forward or backwards.

"The simplicity and the tidiness of his game were great," he added. "We play a possession-type game, and he'll fit right into that where he just wants to let the ball do the work."

With Eastside's tendencies to be soft at times defensively, Smith spends more time playing spoiler than attacker. A center midfielder is more of director or initiator, allowing him to bring more to the game that cannot be measured in statistics.

Smith has played for the Eagles all four years. Yet next season he is simply looking forward to extending his career on the soccer field above anything else.

"I've loved it since I started playing at five years old," he said. "If God will let me, I plan on playing until my legs won't let me anymore."

And like most teenagers on the brink of leaving home for college, Smith will miss the friendships he has established while living in Covington.

But with all good student-athletes, it takes a special someone to make a profound impact in one's life, and Braden is no exception.

"My dad has been there through everything for me," acknowledged Smith. "Because of him, he's the reason that I'm doing this right now."

His father, Tom Smith, has been that spark to light the fire under his son, particularly when it came to soccer. In fact, he helped orchestrate most of Braden's soccer tryouts, and has been his biggest fan on the sidelines.

"This is extremely special," said Tom fighting back tears of joy. "He's doing all the right things. He did the work - I just kept encouraging him, that's all."

When asked how many games he plans on attending next season, Tom smiled and said, "As many as we can make."

Like all sports, making the leap from high school to the collegiate level will certainly be a significant change; however, it is a change that Braden is willing to meet head on.

"I know I need to improve on strength mainly and speed," he said. "You watch college soccer on TV and you see those huge guys, so I need to definitely work on that some."

And since fathers know best, the elder Smith is in agreement with his son's assessment pertaining to his soccer skills.

"He's going to have to work on his physical strength a lot," noted Tom. "I've watched the game for a while at a lot of different levels and Braden is an incredibly bright player on the field. He'll play any position when asked, but he's got to get stronger physically. He's got a little catching up to do, but he has a strength trainer he works with, so he's trying to get there."

Getting there shouldn't be a problem. According to Saffold, Braden's biggest influence on his team is actually his work ethic.

"Seeing him sign with a college to go and play and have his education paid for, I think that's the ultimate example of seeing where hard work and dedication can take somebody," said Saffold.

That type of commitment is something McDowell hopes Smith will bring to his team. Last year, the Bears were 10-7-2 overall, leaving the door ajar for improvement.

"I want to have good people as well as good players, and he's a good kid with strong character raised by good parents," praised McDowell, "and that helps with the team as well."

In regards to whether or not Smith will start for the Bears next season is up to him and him alone.

"It does get fairly competitive with open positions," admitted McDowell. "With bringing Braden in, I know he's going to be competing with maybe two or three other guys. And with being a junior college, I don't recruit somebody to sit on the bench, if that makes sense.

"So, I won't say that he'll definitely start each time," he added, "but he will come in and I'm expecting him to make a strong impact from the beginning."