Before the Tennessee Smokies team bus arrives at AT&T Field these days, it must first travel along Highway 27 past Finley Stadium.
Which makes Smokies outfielder and leadoff hitter Matt Szczur smile every time.
Szczur (pronounced SEE-zur) was the most valuable player of the last NCAAFootball Championship Subdivision title game held in Chattanooga. In leading Villanova to a 23-21 upset of Montana in December 2009, the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder racked up 270 all-purpose yards, rushing for 159 yards and two touchdowns and adding 68 yards in receptions.
"When we drove past that football field this past weekend, I took pictures and sent them to all my teammates and coaches," Szczur said. "I said, 'Guess where I am?' I wanted to see if they could figure it out, and everybody knew where it was. It's just crazy to be back here."
The 23-year-old New Jersey native is becoming even fonder of Chattanooga after going 5-for-10 in Tennessee's first two wins in the series. Szczur continued his surge Monday night with a two-run double to left field as the Smokies erupted for seven runs in the fourth inning of a 9-2 rout during the first of two seven-inning games.
Chattanooga regrouped to claim the second game 1-0, winning it in the seventh inning when Blake Smith doubled to center with one out, advanced to third on Marcus Hatley's wild pitch and scored on another Hatley wild pitch. The Smokies are 23-20 following the split, while the Lookouts are 17-27.
Szczur went 0-for-4 in the second game but is still hitting .295 with 13 stolen bases.
"His work ethic is impeccable, and he asks a lot of good questions," Smokies manager Buddy Bailey said. "Baseball is very demanding in terms of being mentally consistent, and that's a really big upside he has."
In 2007, Szczur was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 38th round out of high school before electing to enroll at Villanova. He was selected by the Chicago Cubs in the fifth round of the 2010 draft before his final football season with the Wildcats, which included a five-touchdown performance in a 42-24 quarterfinal thumping of Appalachian State.
Villanova lost in the semifinals to Eastern Washington, but Szczur began his journey into professional baseball a month later by signing for $1.5 million.
"It really wasn't a difficult decision, because I felt like I had accomplished everything I wanted to in football," he said. "The opportunity for baseball was better, and that's why I took it."
Finley Stadium wasn't the first football reminder Szczur experienced this spring. The Tennessee Titans caravan, which included former Montana receiver Marc Mariani, recently visited Smokies Park.
"I introduced myself, and then we each got pictures of us together," Szczur said. "That made me miss football a little bit."
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...