By Lee Davis
Some athletes measure their success by the number of trophies that are on the mantel at home.
Mountain Brook’s Julia Smith values trophies as well. But Smith’s favorite trophies aren’t made of metal–they come from flesh and blood.
As the outstanding senior setter for the Lady Spartan volleyball team, Smith is tasked with keeping the ball in play, almost regardless of the physical cost. And that means doing a lot of diving–often right onto a hard gymnasium floor.
“I’ve gotten a concussion from hitting my head on the ground,” Smith said. “I’ve busted my eyebrow open and had to get stitches, and I always have a gym burn or a bruise somewhere.”
She also has a permanent scar on her right leg just below the kneecap.
So how does Smith feel about the toll on her body?
“I absolutely love it,” she said, laughing. “The floor has done some damage, no doubt. But there’s no better feeling than diving and getting the ball back up in the air to set up our offense.”
Smith’s defensive prowess is a big reason why Mountain Brook, fresh off a 42-15 record and a surprising finish in the Class 6A Elite Eight last season, is ranked among the state’s top teams in 2014.
Her efforts were rewarded with individual honors as well, as Smith was named the Metro Birmingham Player of the Year by at least one organization. She led her team with 522 digs and 84 aces.
“Last season was great, and it’s definitely a building block for this year,” Smith said. “But we can’t sit back and expect to win just because of what happened in the past. It’s important that we improve and get better every match.”
Fortunately for the Lady Spartans, they are far from a one-girl team. Senior Abby Garrett returns upfront as a middle blocker. Also in the starting lineup are outside hitter Sara Carr and setter Sara Chandler Mitchell, both juniors. Each earned all-star honors following last season.
Other members of the varsity roster include Emma Abele, Kendall Crumbaugh, Caroline Davies, Libby Grace Gann, Ellie Gorman, Lacey Jeffcoat, Emmy Kilgore, Victoria Morris and Payton Selman.
“We definitely have talent and experience,” Smith said. “We’re expected to win–but what’s most important is what we expect from ourselves. If the team gets cocky or loses its chemistry, it will not be a good thing.”
As Mountain Brook entered mid-September with a 4-3 record prior to reaching the meat of its region schedule, Smith saw plenty of room for improvement.
“To be honest, at times we haven’t played our best early this year,” she said. “We have to work together and hold one another accountable. If we do that, everything will be fine.”
Spectators at the Spartans’ games find Smith-watching to be entertaining. Her dives, leaps and reaches for the ball from virtually anywhere on the court are reminiscent of baseball legend Pete Rose diving headfirst toward second base in the 1970s. If Rose was nicknamed “Charlie Hustle,” surely there’s a moniker just as appropriate for Smith.
“The thing is, I just can’t let the ball hit the ground,” Smith said. “If we’re going to win, we’ve got to be able to keep the ball off the floor. That’s my job.”
Smith became an athlete about the time she entered first grade. She played basketball and softball and even gave swimming, diving (into water) and soccer a try.
Finally, Smith added volleyball to her repertoire, and it was a case of love at first sight.
“My sister had played volleyball and really enjoyed it,” she said. “And I liked it, too. Soon, the only sports I was playing were volleyball and basketball.”
By her freshman year at Mountain Brook, Smith decided to play volleyball exclusively. She’s quick to add that her basketball experiences helped her on the volleyball court.
“I played point guard in basketball, and that helped me learn how to see everything happening on the court,” she said. “That’s carried over to volleyball. It helps a lot to have a broad range of vision and know where the ball is going.”
Smith’s career at Mountain Brook has flown by quickly, so she is determined to savor every moment of her senior season.
“Being a senior means being a leader,” she said. “I don’t want to be the kind of leader that yells and screams. I want to lead by showing composure and calm at all times, regardless of what’s happening in the match. If I show confidence, hopefully that will influence the other girls to show we can get the job done.”
Mountain Brook players and fans can have the confidence of knowing that if a ball is about to hit the floor, there’s a great chance Julia Smith will reach it in time.
She has the honors–and the scars–to prove the point.