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The game within the game

Players like Carroll outfielder Courtney Hawkins have been under intense scrutiny heading into the MLB draft. Andrew Craft/ESPNHS

It's Thursday, four days before the first round of the MLB draft.

Courtney Hawkins, a likely first-round pick, is on the bus with his Carroll (Corpus Christi, Texas) teammates, making the three-hour drive to his squad's regional final game.

In a season of craziness, this week has been particularly hectic. He's about to start a best-of-three series for a chance to go to the state semifinals. From there, he'll fly to New York on Saturday to prep for the draft, missing his high school graduation. After spending a few days in NYC (it's his first time in the Big Apple), he'll head back home for what he hopes will be a run at a second state title in three years. (Note: Carroll swept Alexander to advance to the state semifinals.)

Luckily, the past three months have prepared Hawkins for this onslaught. Rated the nation's No. 5 player in the ESPN 100, the senior outfielder has been subjected to a level of scrutiny normally reserved for vice presidential hopefuls.

Carroll coach Lee Yeager fields dozens of emails, calls, texts and tweets every day regarding the team's schedule. Hawkins often takes batting practice early -- after seventh period -- to accommodate the horde of scouts descending on his school each day.

"There are 15-20 [scouts'] cars in our parking lot," Yeager said. "I think we should have charged admission and opened the concession stand for batting practice."

With the boom-or-bust nature of the baseball draft, teams want to know everything they can about a player before handing out a seven-figure signing bonus. It's understandable -- no team wants the next Matt Bush. The No. 1 pick of the 2004 draft (one slot ahead of Justin Verlander), Bush has been arrested multiple times on alcohol-related charges (including just two weeks after being drafted) and never produced as a pitching prospect in the minors.

Yeager has been asked countless questions about Hawkins' character -- "Does he party?" "What's his family like?" Scouts talked to his guidance counselor, his teachers, his friends. At least one team even hired a private investigator, who called Yeager looking for information.

And that's just the beginning. Interviews via Skype with psychologists. In-depth eye tests with 3-D glasses. Questionnaires with analogies, word-association games and logic problems that seem more SAT than MLB.

"Those tests were the crazy things," Hawkins said.

"One of the questions was, 'Are you a cat or a dog?'" added Mike Dahl, father of first-round prospect David Dahl of Oak Mountain (Birmingham, Ala.). "How do you even respond to that?"

It sounds like enough to make even the toughest kid crack. But elite athletes are wired differently. Barbe (Lake Charles, La.) shortstop and likely first-round pick Gavin Cecchini loved the attention, saying it fuels his competitive nature.

"One game, there were 70 scouts," the shortstop said. "But it doesn't faze me. I love seeing all the scouts there. It fires me up because I'm trying to prove I'm a first-rounder. They're trying to pick something wrong about me. I love proving people wrong."

Hawkins certainly doesn't shrink from the spotlight, either. He's a confident kid with the game to back it up.

"I actually enjoy it," Hawkins said. "It just makes me work harder to produce."

For a time, though, that was the problem.

"He felt like he had to carry our team and do everything," Yeager said. He was trying to hit five home runs in one at-bat."

Apparently, he got things straightened out pretty quickly. Hawkins, who was named the Gatorade state player of the year, entered the regional finals hitting .412 with 11 homers, 38 RBIs and 17 stolen bases. He also pitched for the Tigers, going 4-2 with a 0.92 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 30 1/3 innings.

So while things got stressful at times for Hawkins and Dahl, at least they've been able to play and work out for scouts.

Matt Smoral hasn't been so lucky. One of the draft's biggest wild cards, he's a powerful 6-foot-8 lefty out of Solon (Ohio) with a mid-90s fastball and nasty slider. It's an arsenal that, coupled with his size, should make him an easy top-10 pick. There's only one problem: Smoral hasn't pitched since early March, when he suffered a stress fracture in his right foot.

Keith Law's latest mock draft has Smoral going No. 21 overall. Others think he's a borderline first-rounder. If he slips too far, college ball is a strong option. A North Carolina signee, he could go to Chapel Hill, then re-enter the draft in 2015. It's a path that worked well for Gerrit Cole, who turned down the Yankees in 2008 to go to UCLA, where he developed into the top pick of the 2011 draft.

It will be the toughest decision of Smoral's life to this point.

"One day, I'm really strong one way, then the next day I'm going the other way," he said.

College or the pros? Take the money now or gamble that you'll be worth more after three years? These are the kind of tough questions the top high school prospects will wrestle with after hearing their names called Monday night.

Of course, compared to "Are you a cat or a dog?" all the other questions seem easy.