TRION, Ga. — Gabe Howell always has been a big fish in a little pond.
That's the way things are when you grow up in a small town and stand out in pretty much everything you do. Howell has excelled on the football field and baseball diamond, in the classroom and in the community.
And now the small-town hero's hard work and ability have put him on the cusp of becoming a high pick in this year's Major League Baseball draft.
In a few weeks, the Trion High School senior will decide whether he'll leave the pond for a college campus in Florida or to start his career as a professional baseball player. Until then, this tight-knit community will ebb and flow with its young star, relish in his highs and commiserate in his lows — though those are few and far between these days.
"Everybody in Trion, Georgia, is a Gabe Howell fan," said Bulldogs baseball coach Jason Lanham, who has seen the shortstop go from excellent high school player to pro prospect. "He's a great teammate, a phenomenal kid. That's why we're all rooting for him."
Howell, who earlier this year signed with junior college power Chipola in Marianna, Fla., ended play Wednesday hitting .650, a mark that put him in the top five in the nation according to MaxPrep's statistics. The rest of the numbers are also eye-popping: eight home runs, four triples, 10 doubles, 32 RBIs, 14 stolen bases and 32 runs scored.
He has a .750 on-base percentage, is slugging at a 1.377 rate, has struck out only four times and has left just six runners on base for the 17-4 Bulldogs.
The numbers are a big reason a handful of scouts now follows the team around and why Howell's parents, Smoky and Lori, have been told their son is likely to be drafted within the first 10 rounds in June. Four big-league teams had representatives — including the Pirates' regional scouting director — at Monday's win over Mount Zion-Carroll in which Howell hit a leadoff homer. Three other scouts watched Tuesday's win over Christian Heritage.
Howell played in front of scouts from all 30 MLB franchises last week at Mount Paran Christian in Kennesaw, many of whom came to watch a postgame batting-practice session featuring elite Mount Paran prospect Taylor Trammell. Though the Bulldogs lost the game, Howell hit a home run and showed out when invited to hit after Trammell during the session.
"It was like a movie at Mount Paran when he took batting practice in front of all 30 teams," Lori Howell said, pausing for a second to relish the moment one more time. "He almost hit Chipper Jones' truck with his homer."
Since then the interest in the hometown hero has increased.
"It's interesting to see it unfold," said football coach and athletic director Justin Brown, who watched the 6-foot-2, 180-pounder become a two-way star in the fall sport.
"At the beginning of the season you had one or two scouts come by, which was a big deal then, and now there are four or five each game. To watch the year he's had and to see that he's popped up on every major league team's radar, it's amazing. That kind of stuff usually does not happen to a kid from Trion, Georgia."
Brown said there is no big secret to Howell's success — he just works harder than everyone else and has an inner drive few possess.
"The thing with Gabe is, and it holds true for every aspect in his life, any talent he's been blessed with he's always worked to enhance that talent," Brown said. "He's never satisfied with just being good; he's always pushed himself to be better.
"Every day when I leave the football field I see his truck over at the Triangle Gym. He worked just as hard when he was preparing for the ACT. He worked for five Saturdays in a row just studying. He's never been a guy who is going to sit around and hope he's good enough."
At the suggestion of a scout, Howell started working with a personal trainer, Derwin Jones, to add muscle. He gained 20 pounds, and the on-field results were immediate as the kid who hit better than .500 but with little power a year ago has shown the type of pop scouts drool over.
He also maintained the speed that allowed him to average 8.9 yards per rush and 25.3 yards per catch this past football season. Howell was clocked at four seconds flat recently going from home to first, an elite time for a right-handed batter.
"He's just different this year," Lori Howell said. "Gabe's always been a consistent hitter, but this is the first year he's hit home runs. The added strength made a huge difference. The day after football season ended, he said he was ready for baseball, and he hasn't stopped since."
The Howells also credit travel ball coach and noted hitting guru Charles Culberson for helping adapt Gabe's newfound strength into his swing. Culberson, whose son Charlie starred at Calhoun and is now with the Los Angeles Dodgers, says the added muscle was the final piece to the puzzle.
"He's always been more consistent with his mechanics, being able to repeat his swing more often," Culberson said. "That's what makes a hitter consistent day in and day out. Then it becomes a matter of timing a pitch, because you trust your swing to be there.
"Strength plays a big part in being a hitter, and him putting on some weight and getting stronger has contributed to him being able to repeat that swing. He's gotten faster, more powerful. As you see faster pitching, you have to have enough strength to get that bat through."
Plenty of heralded high school players flame out after being drafted, not because of a lack of skill, but because they can't handle the mental aspect of going from playing the game for fun to trying to make a career of it. The pressure to succeed can be overwhelming.
Will Howell be able to put aside the distractions and find a way to focus on finding the fun that remains in the game?
If the last few weeks are any indication, that won't be a concern.
"I just don't pay attention to them," the soft-spoken Howell said of playing in front of scouts who are judging his every move. "I don't look into the stands. I just play my game. It's kind of nerve-racking, but once you get out on the field it's just another game.
"Baseball is fun, and that's what I try to concentrate on."
There is a proud athletic history in this hardworking mill town where people still reminisce about the 1957 and 1974 state football champions, where former Atlanta Braves relief ace Rick Camp grew up and where ex-Auburn star and current University of Miami assistant coach Stacy Searels honed his line skills.
Still, it's been a while since an athlete has been able to capture this town's collective heart the way Howell has.
"We're all enamored by it," a smiling Lanham said. "We all think it's neat to have that type of player. We're all happy for him and glad we get to be a small part of the process.
"Trion, Georgia? Who would have ever thought we would have a player of that caliber."
Contact Lindsey Young at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6296. Follow him on Twitter @youngsports22.