Drew Gray won't have to sweat out a critical decision in two or three years.
The Belleville East outfielder, a 14-year-old freshman, has given a verbal commitment to play baseball at the University of Arkansas. Gray, who also will play a more prominent role as a pitcher in the next three seasons, won't graduate until 2021.
A left-handed hitter and thrower, Gray is batting .463 (19-for-41) with a team-high eight doubles, one home run, 10 RBIs and five stolen bases from the leadoff spot. He has eight walks and just two strikeouts, with an on-base percentage of .551.
Gray visited Arkansas in early April and came away dazzled with what the Razorbacks had to offer.
"They had the best facilities I've seen," Gray said. "They were at the top of my list to start with, so with them offering me, I didn't know why I wouldn't accept it. I was amazed (to commit). But it's starting to settle down and I know that in a couple of years when everybody else starts looking for colleges and looking where to go, it will be such a relief."
Gray, the son of Chad and Laurie Gray, of Belleville, also considered Louisville. Edwardsville sophomore slugger Drake Westcott committed to the Cardinals as a freshman.
But Jordan McFarland, a Waterloo High School graduate, is a sophomore infielder, outfielder and designated hitter at Arkansas, and he helped sell Gray on the Razorbacks. Arkansas has been ranked in the Top 10 most of this season.
"We had a conversation in the locker room when I was down there," Gray said of McFarland, a pro prospect. "He used to play for the (St. Louis) Pirates, which is the summer program I play for. I've seen him around and he still comes back to where we train to hit."
Gray said Pirates founder, owner and coach Rick Strickland shares a similar hitting philosophy with Arkansas hitting coach and recruiting coordinator Nate Thompson. Gray predicts that will help provide a smooth transition to the Division I level.
"What (Thompson) was showing me through this slide show about their goals for hitters — the mechanics they want to teach — was the exact stuff I'm already being taught," Gray said. "I didn't want to go somewhere they were going to change me, change my swing and change what I do. I thought that was really cool. They're doing the same things I've trained with the last two years."
East coach Ryan Wiggs said the original plan for Gray was to start him in center field on the junior-varsity team. But Wiggs quickly determined Gray has the necessary skills to help the varsity squad.
"We had decided he wasn't going to play freshman (ball)," said Wiggs, whose team is 13-6. "We were going to jump him straight to JV and see how he did. As practice went, we saw him hit, we saw him track down balls, we saw him do everything. Every day, we were like, 'What about Drew? What about Drew?' By the time our first game came around, he was one of our starters.
"He's starting in right field or left field and earned the spot. He continues to earn the spot. It's tough for a freshman to compete, especially in our (Southwestern) conference. Drew not only being a player for us, but being a big contributor, has been awesome."
Wiggs was concerned about using Gray against left-handed pitching, but his thought process changed after watching Gray slap two hits to the opposite field against Granite City junior Cameron Hibbets in the Lancers' 10-0 win on April 5.
"He's started every game since then," said Wiggs, who credits Gray for setting a strong example. "He's got all the tools, but it's his mindset and his work ethic. He gets after it and refuses to fail. He's the exact type of player you want on your team. He'll listen to you, he gives 100 percent effort all the time, he works in the weight room. He's that type of kid and leader.
"His teammates, too, deserve some credit. It's tough for a freshman to fit in, but it hasn't been a problem at all. Our guys have welcomed him and made him feel comfortable and confident. He's just one of the guys."
Wiggs said Gray will be a center fielder in his remaining seasons at East. He has played left and right field this spring, which has occasionally been a challenge because of the angle of the ball coming off the bat.
"During the summer, I play center field all the time," Gray said. "This was the first time I've ever played left or right field. It seems easy, but it's kind of hard reading fly balls, the spin on them. It's been a little rough, but I think I'm doing pretty good at it."
Gray has only pitched in two games this season for East, but Wiggs said he will figure more prominently in the Lancers' plans on the mound next year and beyond. Gray wants to be a two-way player at Arkansas.
"That's the goal," he said. "I like hitting better right now, but I think pitching will come. Last was my first year of pitching, but over the winter I trained a lot and put a lot of time into it. I'm excited to pitch (in the future)."