Settling in: Change of scenery has helped Payton Martin flourish on the diamond

Published 10:53 am Tuesday, May 3, 2022

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By Jay Spivey
For the Clemmons Courier

For some athletes, motivation to play a particular sport is rooted in just wanting to prove people wrong.

That could very well be the case for shortstop/pitcher Payton Martin on the West Forsyth baseball team. And he’s parlayed that giant chip on shoulder into signing his National Letter of Intent to play in college at East Carolina.

Martin, a 6-foot, 150-pound senior said that it’s not necessarily his size that’s helped motivate him into being one of the top players in Forsyth County, as well as North Carolina.

The chip on Martin’s shoulder was rooted in his freshman year of high school when he was at Walkertown and playing for Coach Bobby Smith, though no fault of Smith’s, according to Martin.

“That actually took a big turn. Like nobody at the school liked me,” Martin said. “I came as a freshman and I started on varsity. I started on second base. And it took me a couple games, and we had a shortstop there, and he was having a little bit of trouble. But they moved me over to short. So, I started shortstop as a freshman over a junior. And they were friends at the time, that whole community. And I was a newcomer, the new guy. So, I guess they didn’t really like that. I got a ton of hate.”

“So, I got a ton of hate. And I had to eat lunch with a teacher. It was pretty bad. We (Martin and his mother, Candy) contacted the school multiple times, but they didn’t really do anything.”

It actually became a more tenuous situation at Walkertown, according to Martin.

“They actually forced Bobby Smith almost to resign, or he was going to be fired,” Martin said. “It was bad. They accused him of boosting stats and stuff. It was bad, but I actually keep my own stats. I had proof of everything.”

According to Martin, Smith was on his side.

“Bobby is probably one of the greatest coaches I’ve ever played for,” Martin said. “He told me towards the end of that year, my freshman season, that he was going to leave Walkertown.”

During the summer of 2019, immediately after Martin’s freshman year at Walkertown, Smith started a travel-ball team called U.S. Elite, and Martin played for U.S. 20-22 South.

“I went there and I batted above .500 the season I played,” Martin said. “I played two seasons. Aside from that, I transferred to West Forsyth.”

Not only did Martin transfer from Walkertown to West, he, his mother, and his half-sister, Skye Smith, moved to Clemmons.

“At first it was pretty hard,” he said. “I mean, getting to know new people, but I’m always an open-minded person. So, I made friends quick. There’s nothing like making friends through baseball because everybody’s kind and nice and easy to get to know. It took me a little time to get to know people, but when we moved here, the people in Clemmons are just amazing. And everybody that goes to West on the baseball team, they’re just amazing people, and the parents are just outstanding. So, it wasn’t really hard.”

Although he was new to West, he knew Coach Brad Bullard of the Titans.

“My mom was actually friends with them when they were younger,” Martin said. “I think my grandma worked with his dad a long time ago. We looked at the location of the school I could’ve gone and it was East (Forsyth) and Glenn. So, at the time, I didn’t really want to go to Glenn. My cousin went there and I didn’t really want to fall in like a family circumstance. Then there was East, but I didn’t really want to go East either because I felt like I didn’t fit in there.

“So, the next school in line was West. And we were actually on the last leg, and we found one house in Clemmons. So, we moved here, got to know everybody, and look at us now.”

Bullard always has his ear to the ground about talent in the area.

“I had heard about him,” Bullard said. “I knew he played on varsity at Walkertown. Back then, I think Bobby Smith was the head coach. So, I knew Bobby fairly well. And Bobby had sent me an email saying that I was getting a good one, and he was probably one of the best shortstops he’s ever coached.”

According to Bullard, Martin’s history at Walkertown is in the past.

“He really hasn’t discussed the history of Walkertown with me at all,” Bullard said. “I think he’s done very well at West from the get-go, with our guys. That’s hard. You’ve got sort of your core group of guys, and you’ve got a guy with the status of Payton coming in and obviously potentially taking someone’s spot, you don’t know how that’s going to turn out. But he fit right in and our guys accepted him, and it’s just been a huge blessing.”

Although he credits his mother for much of his success, Martin does credit the past three years at West for his growth and maturity.

“I’m open-minded. I don’t judge anybody,” he said. “I came in and gave everybody a chance, and they took a chance and were super-nice to me. And we just became brothers after that.”

However, according to Martin, the harassment continued from Walkertown.

“As soon as I left to go to West, I still had Walkertown kids texting me telling me I wouldn’t make the team,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to play, wouldn’t make anything. And I wouldn’t be anything in life.”

Then, COVID-19 hit in March 2020, halting the baseball season at West Forsyth after just four games.That was tough to stomach for somebody who had just transferred to the school the previous summer, and at the time, was only playing shortstop.

“I got to go through the whole workout stage, and we got full practices in,” Martin said. “And I got to know everybody. And it kind of sucked losing that season, but it gave me a fresh start, and it gave me a new family coming to West Forsyth.”

West Forsyth began that season with a loss against Ledford but won the next three games before COVID ended the season.

“I think we played (four) games that year,” Bullard said of the 2020 season. “We were young. I think we were starting about four sophomores, including Payton. You could see flashes of the talent that he had, and some of the younger guys had.”

Even though Martin’s season was shortened, he played travel ball for the Richmond Braves that summer.

That summer, according to Martin, is where he began to turn the corner, both emotionally and as a baseball player.

“It was amazing. It got my name out there,” he said. “It got me looked at, but if it wasn’t for the West Forsyth coaches and the Richmond Braves I probably wouldn’t be anywhere right now.”

Through that summer and workouts in preparation for what he hoped was a 2021 season as a junior, Martin and Bullard developed an even tighter bond.

“He’ll tell you like it is,” Martin said of Bullard. “If you’re doing bad, he’ll tell you you’re doing bad. But he’ll also tell you how to better yourself in that subject or category.”

Last season, the Titans finished 8-6 overall and 6-4 in the Central Piedmont 4-A.

“I was extremely excited because it felt like forever since I played high school baseball,” Martin said. “But just those group of guys, to be able to get out there with them, it meant so much to me. So, when the season came around, we were just pumped and ready to go.

Bullard saw the flashes of brilliance from Martin as a shortstop early on last year.

“Coach (Randy) Pope and I have had this conversation numerous times. This is year 15 for me (both as an assistant and head coach),” Bullard said. “And of course, Coach Pope has been doing it a long time. And we’ve been blessed to have really good shortstops, and we both agree, if he’s not the best, he definitely right up there with the best.

“His hand-eye coordination and what he does with his glove — you just don’t see many kids do that at the high school level.”

His development as a hitter has also flourished.

“That’s one thing we’ve worked on a lot over the past 2-3 years,” Bullard said. “His hand-eye coordination, I know I keep going back to that, is just a different level.

“When we got Payton, in my eyes he was very sort of jerky. He had a lot of moving parts. And obviously playing at the (NCHSAA Class) 4-A level and facing Reagan’s pitchers and East’s pitchers and Davie County’s pitchers, you’re facing future D-I guys pretty much every night. And one thing we really worked on with him the past couple years is to stay more calm, and stay more balanced, and stay short. And he’s probably one of the most coachable kids I’ve ever had.”

All the work Martin has put in has paid off.

“He’s just soaked it all in, and he’s constantly asking questions,” Bullard said. “He’s made quite an adjustment over the past few years. He’s hitting well over .300 right now. It’s definitely worked.”

Although Martin picked up pitching later, he’s proven to be one of the best pitchers in the area.

“Payton’s always had a great arm, and he’s a good pitcher,” Bullard said. “…Payton’s even been getting some professional looks the past couple weeks.”

Being a well-rounded player has been beneficial to Martin during the recruiting process. According to him, other than East Carolina, he was recruited by Wake Forest, Clemson, UNC Wilmington, George Mason, and Virginia. He committed to East Carolina last July.

“So, I was in a hotel in Georgia playing (travel ball) down at East Cobb,” he said. “And that’s where all the scouts were. It was like the biggest tournament of the year. So, I was about to go in, and I got a call on my phone. And I went to the side of the hotel because that was where it was the most quiet, so I could hear something.”

The call was from Jeff Palumbo, an assistant coach to Head Coach Cliff Godwin at ECU.

“When he was talking to me it was like I was talking to family,” Martin said. “I said family, but it was actually family. They just welcomed me in. He let me take a virtual tour and I hopped on the computer in my hotel and I just felt the love of the campus. It was amazing.”

Martin also spoke about going to ECU with Bullard.

“Payton and I have a special relationship,” Bullard said. “We talk a lot, an awful lot. He was starting to get tons of looks and those guys were giving him phone calls and texts. Ultimately, as far as I know, and I’ve told everybody this, Payton’s lifelong goal has been to get drafted. And out of all the coaches and all the schools, Coach Cliff Godwin at ECU, he was one of the only ones who said, Payton, if you come here we will truly develop you and give you the best opportunity to get drafted.

“And talking with Payton, that one statement stood out above everything. But that is the truth. Payton has the work ethic to make it happen.”

His recruitment hasn’t hurt the team. West, as of Monday, finished the regular season 19-5 overall and No. 3 in the Central Piedmont with an 11-3 record, just behind East Forsyth and Reagan. West played host to No. 6 Mount Tabor in the first round of the conference tournament Monday night.

After the conference tournament is scheduled to conclude on Thursday, West Forsyth will await the NCHSAA Class 4-A pairings, which will be announced next Monday. The first round is scheduled to start the following day, Tuesday, May 10. The state championship is slated for June 3-4.

“It’s tough, man,” Bullard said. “You look at Reagan, you look at East, you look at West Forsyth, obviously, all three of us have been ranked top-10, top-15 in the state all year long…You’ve got to bring it every night and do the best you can and try to keep the kids motivated.”

Not only is the end of the season near for Martin, graduation is next month. As he plots his future, it could all hinge on what happens July 17-19 in Los Angeles.

Why, you might ask?

That’s the three days where the 20 rounds of the Major League Baseball Draft will be held. Depending on if and where Martin gets drafted, he could forego his chance to go to East Carolina.

If he’s not drafted in an optimal position, or a good slot value for a signing bonus, he will go to East Carolina with the prospect of going there at least three, if not four years, before the chance of being drafted again.

“Take out the baseball part, I’m glad to be done with school, high school and stuff,” Martin said. “I feel like I’ve dedicated my whole life to school and baseball. And my one goal for my mom was to get me past high school and go to college or, of course, to go to MLB. And that’s happening soon. So, I want to make her proud and make sure that all the hard work she’s put in is paying off. So, that’s one thing I’m excited about.”