God and Georgia Highlands help to mold Eagle into a stronger person

Shayla Smith enters her last season as an Eagle.

Amanda Arnold

As senior short-stop Shayla Smith suited up for her last weekend of fall softball in her collegiate career, she knew that this time was special for another reason… she would play her alma mater, Georgia Highlands, in her Georgia Southern uniform for the first time.

“Georgia Southern, along with Coach Dean, has allowed me to continue my softball career for 2 more years,” Smith said. “I’m forever grateful for the opportunity to end my career with great coaches and awesome teammates.”

During her time at Stephenson High School, she was a four time First-Team All County honoree, named team MVP for all four years and was named the Dekalb County Player of the Year her senior season.

She was previously committed to another school, but things didn’t work out, so she commited to be a Charger late in the summer before her freshman year began. Her mother, Lisha Smith, gave me a peek into her daughter’s room when she was in high school. When things were uncertain and the future of her softball career was up in the clouds, she found a quote online and wrote it on her whiteboard. Now, three years later, the quote has never been erased. It reads, “Lord, if I worry too much, help me learn that your plan for me is far beyond my control and better than I can imagine.”

With this mindset, she moved to Rome to begin her collegiate career. When she arrived at her first practice, she was inspired by her team’s work ethic.

“I was brought in on a team of girls that had something to prove and wanted to play on the next level,” she said. “Anyone that has played any type of JUCO ball knows you have something to prove everyday you step on the field because this isn’t your final destination, just a stepping stone.”

At Georgia Highlands, she holds two school records. She scored the most runs in school history with 107 over the course of her two years and set a single season record for stolen bases with 37. She also earned NFCA All-American Scholar honors before she transferred to GS, where she would declare a biology major.

Her work paid off, as she committed to GS after a successful tenure at Highlands. She came in and got to work at the same time as new Head Coach Kim Dean, who took over the program in 2018 after the GS and Armstrong State University merger.

In her first season as an Eagle, she made 28 starts as a junior and played a crucial role on defense. She was a fan favorite and whenever the crowd heard ‘Monster‘ by 21 Savage, they knew she was getting ready to come up to bat and do a little dance before getting set to hit.

This recognition was not taken lightly for Smith because she sometimes felt overlooked at Highlands. This feeling is not uncommon at smaller schools and she knew that the school was full of often great athletes from high schools who were unfortunately looked over. The junior college experience forced her to develop a tough mindset that she still carries today.

As a Charger, she learned that softball was a ‘grind’ and she needed to stay focused in order to make it to a higher level. She chose Georgia Southern because it was not too far from home and she loved how the school prioritizes both academics and athletics. 

“My transition was fairly easy,” she said. “Once you’re used to the practices and long days, it becomes the norm. I think my biggest adjustment was finding my place on a new team… and in a new environment.” 

She was not the only transfer on the team when she arrived. Due to the merger, she was joined by several former Armstrong State girls and her best friend, senior infielder Alia Booth, from Highlands. Booth also holds the Charger’s single-season record for the most doubles and was named to the NJCAA First-Team All-Region her sophomore season.

On Sunday when she saw her former school for the first time, she got goosebumps remembering when she was in their spot. Highlands has had the same coach for seven seasons in Melissa Woods. Smith can name countless times where Wood would get fired up during games and saw some of the same antics on Eagle Field. She considers it Woods’ trademark.

“It was great playing them and seeing the program thrive,” she said. “I didn’t know many of the girls but seeing them have opportunities like I did made the game a little more special for me.” 

With one more weekend of fall softball, Smith is savoring the time she has left with her team. Regular season begins next semester and she is one of four seniors. She admitted that she gets emotional at the thought of her softball career ending but has high hopes for the season and hopes to make it to the Sun Belt Championship. 

“I’m definitely going to miss the team,” she said. “You realize that the game must come to an end, but when it’s close you want the days to slow down. Softball has been a big part of my life since I was four, so it’s definitely a part of my identity.”

Amanda Arnold, The George-Anne Sports Editor, [email protected]