The first time Marty Smith learned he would be traveling to Grand Junction, it caught him by surprise.

The year was 1997. Smith, in his third year as the head coach of Central Florida College in Ocala, had just led his team to the Florida College System Activities Association championship.

His first reaction was celebrating the victory. His next was to wonder which other southern tournament his team would have to play in, unaware that his team had just qualified for the Junior College World Series.

"Up until that point, when we (Florida State College at Jacksonville, his previous coaching stop) won the state title, we had to go to three-team regionals with Georgia and Alabama," Smith said. "When we won the tournament (in 1997), they told me after the game we were going to Grand Junction and were gonna get on the big bird and fly to Colorado and I was like, 'Whoa, I was just thinking about winning this game.' "

Although his first trip to the Western Slope came as a surprise, he was much better prepared the next season, when the Patriots advanced to JUCO again.

When he learned he would be coming to Grand Junction for a third time, his reaction was somewhere in the middle.

Smith is in his 25th season at Central Florida, where he also played baseball in the 1980s. He's won 765 games in his career as well as Mid-Florida conference titles in 1996, 1997, 2001, 2004 and 2007, finishing as state runners-up in the latter two seasons.

As a result, Smith will be among the four coaches inducted into the National Junior College Athletic Association Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame this year.

"It really does make me reflect on my career and the players we've had, the coaches we've had, the college and administration that has supported the program and provided for us and been fair for us to help us try to get out there," Smith said. "I've been doing this for a long time, so I've had a lot of players come out of here, teams that I thought were good enough to get out there that didn't play well enough in the state tournament. It makes me think back to the opportunity my athletic director gave me back in 1994.

"He entrusted me to do big things with this program and get us to the national stage, which we did early."

Smith's journey to the Hall of Fame will end in Colorado, but the rest of his quest took place in his home state of Florida.

Smith grew up in Jacksonville, where he fell in love with baseball at an early age. As a kid, he played Little League and neighborhood ball. He later attended Terry Parker High School, where he played for future Florida high school hall of famer Howard May, the second-winningest coach in state history.

Smith's course was set for a life of baseball early on.

"He taught good fundamentals and how to play the game the right way," Smith said. "I was fortunate to grow up in that neighborhood with that coach and that program."

After his prep days were done, he wanted to stay on the diamond. He tried out for six schools within reasonable driving distance of Jacksonville, but the most promising responses he received assured his status would be as a walk-on.

That's when Central Florida entered the picture.

The Patriots offered him the only baseball scholarship he received. Just like that, he packed his bags and made his way two hours southwest to a school with roughly 1,700 students.

It didn't take long for him to realize he had some coaching chops.

"I got to step in right away and play shortstop," Smith said. "My coach entrusted me to be a coach on the field. I had pretty good instincts from high school. It gave me the opportunity to play a lot right away, every game for both years. To be playing in college somewhere was a really neat opportunity for me to keep playing after high school."

After two years in Ocala, Smith needed to find a new school where he could elevate his playing career further. All he needed was the right coach to take a chance on him.

That opportunity came in 1986, when Paul Mainieri, the head coach at St. Thomas University in Miami, had Smith recommended to him by his brother, who was coaching at another school.

Smith once again made a move south and played for St. Thomas for two years.

Mainieri, who has since coached at Air Force, Notre Dame and, currently, LSU (where he won a national championship in 2009), could see quickly that Smith had a long future in the game ahead of him.

"When Marty played for me, it was like having a coach on the field," Mainieri said. "He was always very intelligent, had great instincts, very coachable, and when we told Marty something, he was like a leader on the field and would take care of all the other guys to make sure the message got across.

"I'm not surprised at all that Marty's had a long, distinguished coaching career."

Smith's post-Central Florida playing days were started by Mainieri being convinced by his brother. His coaching career, on the other hand, was started by Mainieri convincing his father, legendary junior college coach Demie Mainieri.

Mainieri, the coach at Miami-Dade North, was in need of an assistant in 1988, and his son had recently coached someone who was just the guy he might be needing.

Two days later, Smith's coaching career commenced.

After two seasons at Miami-Dade, he returned to Jacksonville in 1990 to be an assistant at Florida Junior College, now known as Florida State College at Jacksonville, for one season. He coached under current Hall of Famer Howard Roey during his time in his hometown.

But then, in 1991, his alma mater called. He returned to Central Florida where, at the age of 29 in 1994, he was selected as head coach.

His career hasn't just produced trophies and wins. It's also produced numerous Major League Baseball players, most notably New York Mets legend and Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Mike Piazza.

More than 25 players Smith has coached have been selected in the MLB draft, with a notable recent example being Nate Pearson, taken 28th overall by Toronto in 2017.

Since taking over at Central Florida, JUCO World Series berths, conference titles and a whole lot of victories have followed.

But it hasn't always been the smoothest road, mainly because of the competition in Florida. The Patriots just missed out on returns to Grand Junction in 2004 after losing to Pensacola and 2007 after losing to Chipola.

"So we won a couple of state titles in my first five years as coach, so I was thinking, 'Boy, this is going to be easy', and boy, it certainly wasn't, because we haven't been out since," Smith said. "Getting out of Florida is extremely difficult. Like these days, doing what Chipola has done, probably the first repeat winners since we did it. In the last 21 years, there's probably been 12 or 15 different teams from Florida to come out there... It's difficult to get out there."

Although he hasn't been to Colorado in a while, he's still seen more of the world than just Florida. He's been a member of the American Baseball Coaches Association for nearly three decades and has also coached the Junior College All-Stars.

As coach of the Junior College All-Stars, he even got to take his coaching worldwide.

"At the NJCAA level, they were kind enough to name me an assistant for the 2002 series when China's national team came to Millington, Tennessee, and played us in USA's stadium," Smith said. "The next year, we went to Beijing and I was the head coach for that, so it was a great experience to go there for 10 days and play five games against the Chinese, four of which we won."

However, his globe-trotting has been at a minimum lately. At his core, Smith is a Floridian through and through, which is why he's never left Ocala.

"It's just a great baseball state; baseball is huge in Florida," Smith said. "The competition is good. The recruiting of players, shall you say, is plentiful in the state of Florida. When we have 24 scholarships to give out and we're right in the middle of Florida on I-75 South, it's a pretty good place to be for a long time."

From his days as a bright-eyed young kid under the scorching Florida sun to a legend of baseball in the state, Smith committed his life to baseball, giving perspective to himself as well as those who helped mold him.

"I think I'm getting old," Paul Mainieri said while laughing. "Coaching Marty was such a great pleasure. He was a coach's dream. Now, to see that he's gone on to impact so many young lives in his coaching career just warms my heart. It warms my heart to know that maybe I had a small part in his life and helped push him in this direction to be a coach and influence other people.

"I'm so proud of him."

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