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A.J. Smith's unconventional journey

Posted: April 14, 2014 10:24 p.m.
Updated: April 14, 2014 10:24 p.m.

West Ranch senior A.J. Smith is a third-year varsity player who is playing as a middle blocker for the first time.

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The best part about it for A.J. Smith is seeing the looks on people’s faces.

It’s a look that says, “Did he really just do that?”

The answer is yes. A 5-foot, 9-inch tall volleyball player just sprang into the air, rose above the net and blasted the ball down as if he was a foot taller.

“At first it was different and I was super intimidated because I’m 5-7, 5-8 going against guys that are 6 feet and over. But it’s been fun actually,” Smith says.

Smith is a senior at West Ranch High officially listed at 5-foot-9 (though that might be a little generous), and he plays a middle blocker position usually reserved for the 6-foot-3-or-taller crowd.

But the 18-year-old possesses a lot of other important traits that make him extremely valuable as a hitter and blocker in the front row.

For one thing, he has a 38-inch vertical leap, which means he can get nearly his entire head above the net.

He’s also got the kind of toughness, fearlessness and resilience needed to play with the big boys up front, as evidenced by his ability to bounce back after a rash of injuries through the years.

“What he lacks in size he completely makes up for with heart and athleticism and just doing everything he can to win,” says West Ranch head coach Nate Sparks.

In the past, Smith has always played as a back-row defensive player or a libero. He did that last year for West Ranch and he’s done it throughout his club volleyball career.

Now he plays both roles, which is a nearly unheard-of combination on the court.

But in reality, it doesn’t make much different what Smith is asked to do. He’ll find a way to master it.

As the third of five kids in the family, Smith has picked up a lot of different activities on the side.

He used to go dirt biking with his dad, he was a sponsored skateboarder, and he still snowboards, wakeboards and surfs when he can.

“Pretty much whatever he does, he does well,” says his dad, Bryan. “He just picks it up.”

Four years ago, he decided to “pick up” volleyball, following his older brother Kendall, who played the sport at Hart High.

Just like with everything else A.J. ever tried, he became infatuated with it right away and wanted to perfect it. It’s his latest obsession.

“He’s what I call a natural-born volleyball player,” says senior teammate Andrew Dieterle. “He just literally always wants to play volleyball any chance he can.”

And that includes playing through pain.

It’s become part of A.J.’s routine to apply pain-relieving ointment and take an ibuprofen before every match.

Both of his knees constantly bother him and he’s dealing with a recent injury to his shoulder.

“After the game, it’s to the point where I have to go home and lay down,” A.J. says. “It just kills. It’s constant throbbing.”

Two years ago, A.J. had surgery done on his left knee to repair a torn meniscus which dated back to his dirt-biking from a few years prior.

Less than a year later, he tore his ACL in the same knee and required a second surgery.

The injuries caused him to miss the end of his sophomore season at West Ranch and all of the club season in the summer.

Last season as a junior, the knee continued to bother him and, due to a surplus of tall seniors on the team, he was only a part-time player.

It was a tough stretch for a guy who loves to stay active and tries to live and breathe volleyball.

“It’s like a roller coaster,” A.J. says. “It will be wonderful and awesome and then something shuts me down and I have to come right back up. It’s an adventure.”

And although the pain has not gone away, A.J. made the decision that he’ll play through anything this year.

Given his height, he knows this will be his last season playing as a hitter, which puts extra strain on knees and shoulders.

“That’s going to leave a mark,” his dad thinks to himself while watching A.J. play. “And it does, but he gets up and keeps going.”

And going, and going.

And he won’t stop until he’s mastered it.

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