Marcos de Niza High School junior Priest Willis, 17, holding college football recruitment letters, Wednesday, April 4, 2012 at the school in Tempe, Ariz.[Angela Piazza/ Special to Tribune]

Angela Piazza

On one hand, Mitch Nay had done this thousands of times before.

On the other, it had never been quite like this.

Hamilton’s senior third baseman made his way into the batter’s box for the first day of baseball practice earlier this year.

The distance to the mound, the field dimensions, and the ball were all the same.

But the crowd was much more than just teammates and coaches.

Nearly two dozen scouts watched intently as Nay swung the bat, analyzing his every move.

“I had an idea there’d be people there, but I had no idea there would be that many,” Nay said. “It was a little overwhelming.”

Nay admits he tried too hard that day to impress everyone, and the mental part is something he and a select group of other star East Valley athletes must deal with.

A few months ago, these players stepped on the field in relative anonymity. Now, the spotlight is shining brightly.

“He’s got a lot of heat on him,” Hamilton baseball coach Mike Woods said. “If I was 18 and in that position, I’m sure I’d be feeling it a little bit, too. But he’s doing well. He’s getting used to it.”

Nay has committed to Arizona State, so it’s not like his ascension came out of nowhere. But he performed very well at the U.S. Olympic Trials this summer before a stress fracture in his shin sidelined him for months.

The showing made such an impression that ESPN scouting expert Keith Law listed Nay as the 28th best prospect for June’s Major League Baseball amateur draft.

“When those ESPN rankings came out and they saw me as a high prospect, it kind of hit me,” Nay said.

Kenny Lacy had a similar eye-opening moment.

The Mountain Pointe junior sat out his sophomore year of football after transferring from Cesar Chavez, but once this year’s game film began circulating to college coaches, his recruitment began to take off.

In early February, Nebraska sent him a scholarship offer, validating his place among some of the best linemen in the country.

“I wasn’t expecting it to happen like this,” Lacy said. “After I sat out as a sophomore, I was thinking I’d get interest from smaller schools — NAU, San Diego State, San Jose State, places like that. I don’t know how it happened. (The recruiting momentum) got started and I really didn’t expect it. When I got the Nebraska offer, I kind of knew. That’s big-time football.”

Marcos de Niza junior safety Priest Willis may be the most sought after senior-to-be in the state. He receives stacks of mail each day from powerhouse programs pleading with him to accept their full-ride scholarship.

It’s a far cry from just two years ago, when Willis had to battle just to make the varsity football team at St. Mary’s.

He didn’t have an offer until January, but now has nearly 30.

“One week, it was two offers a day,” Willis said. “I had 10 in one week. I got Oklahoma and Arkansas the same day. And later that night I got Oklahoma State. It was crazy.”

It can be a lot to handle for athletes who may one day reach the pinnacle of their sports, but for now are still in high school.

Lacy doesn’t like the attention it garners. If he receives a new scholarship offer, he doesn’t like to tell his teammates.

“I’m not a big fan of it,” he said. “I don’t want kids to get the idea I’m bragging.”

While Willis and Lacy can have their college destination settled before stepping on the gridiron next year if they so choose, Nay’s sport is the only one in season right now.

For Nay, these next few months may be crucial. If he shows the tools scouts love, it could have a massive effect on where he gets drafted, with the type of volatility that could make or lose him hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Last year, I didn’t have a lot of attention on me,” Nay said. “It was easy to go out and perform and just be in the moment. This year, in the beginning of the season it was a little bit tough. I felt like I was under a microscope. Every day I’m getting better and more comfortable with it.”

Willis seems to thrive on the attention. He enjoys talking to the coaches as he figures out where he will be playing college football after next season.

However, he promises this new surge of fame won’t change him or make him forget about the journey.

“I’ll always remember where I came from,” he said. “It really helped me having a bad start, because you learn from your falls. There are a lot of kids that play this sport, and a lot of kids don’t get this opportunity that I’m in right now. I just think about, if I was in their shoes, how bad would I want this? I’m never going to get big-headed, like I’m better than anyone else. This process, I’m just enjoying it and I just want to make the right decision when it’s time.”

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