Torn between two loves. It’s a dilemma faced by many young athletes when trying to find the right sport that will help them attain their goals and dreams.
Emma Smith was fortunate that both passions included a volleyball. For nearly a decade, she has played matches with herself, beach on one side, indoor on the other.
Both sides would win, depending on the season and the court. Smith’s U13 Mizuno indoor club team was ranked No. 1 in the Southern California Volleyball Association, about the same time she earned her A rating on the beach … at age 12.
The accolades piled up along with the college offers when she was at Mira Costa High. When it came time to choose, Smith didn’t have to; Hawaii wanted her to play both.
“For me, being able to be on a beach team was important, but I wanted to play somewhere I could also win a national championship indoor,” the freshman defensive specialist for No. 17 Hawaii said. “This is such a good indoor program, has such history, and I’m getting coached by Dave (Shoji), a legend in the volleyball world.
“It’s always been my dream to play at a big Division I program, and the atmosphere here for home games is like nowhere I’ve ever seen. Since I wanted to also play beach at a high level, this was such a great option.”
Smith’s goal is to become the Rainbow Wahine’s first defensive option. The invited walk-on is playing behind junior libero Savanah Kahakai and is part of what has been called Hawaii’s “army of littles” — the defensive specialist list that includes senior Katiana Ponce, juniors Clare-Marie Anderson and Gianna Guinasso, and freshmen McKenna Ross (also a backup hitter) and Rika Okino (who is redshirting).
Smith has played sparingly in 13 of Hawaii’s 19 matches, including all eight sets of last week’s road trip. Shoji likes to rotate his defensive specialists for a trip and Smith made her first for the Cal State Northridge and Long Beach State series.
“It was a really big honor to get to travel,” said Smith, who had a combined six digs and an ace last week. “I know I have to keep working hard to prove myself, go in and make a difference when I have my opportunities.
“Making the transition from high school … the defense is faster, the balls come harder. But it’s fun playing at a high level and working to keep getting better.”
Unlike many shorter competitors who have played front-row positions in club and high school, the 5-foot-8 Smith has only been on the back row indoors. The two-year starting libero at Mira Costa was named the Bay League’s defensive player twice, the libero of the year by Daily Prep Talk as a junior, and the school’s athlete of the year and team MVP as a senior.
“She’s got one of the best passing platforms on our team,” said Jeff Hall, UH associate head indoor coach and head beach coach. “I love her mind-set. She’s been in championship moments in club and high school, and you can’t teach that.
“She had committed to the program before I started, but I watched her a lot, both indoor and beach, and thought, ‘She’s going to help us.’
“For the beach, she has that game savvy. The issue will be if she can get up (hitting) and score like Katie (Spieler).”
The 5-5 Spieler was a two-time All-American who led the SandBows to the inaugural Big West beach championship and a fourth-place finish at the NCAA championship in her final season last spring.
Senior opposite Nikki Taylor, Spieler’s beach partner as a freshmen, said she appreciates Smith’s game and attitude.
“She’s becoming such a big part of our defense,” Taylor said. “It’s been awesome to see her step into this role as a freshman.
“She’s really good at bouncing back, moving on after plays, thinking ‘next ball.’ Coming from a senior, it’s nice to have someone who has your same mentality, especially from a freshman.”
The two shared the disappointment of losing Saturday at Long Beach State, a match Hawaii led 11-7 in the fifth and lost 15-13.
“It was really tough in that it was our first conference loss,” Smith said. “We definitely had our opportunities.
“The good thing was we didn’t play half as good as we can — it was still so close.
“It’s a bummer to lose, but we have to bounce back. We can’t take a day off. Now we see if we don’t show for every game, we’ll lose. This is definitely motivation.”
Smith had that same competitive drive early when trying to find a sport she liked and at which she could excel.
“I played everything and I was just terrible,” said Smith, a business major thinking about a sports marketing career. “I came home from P.E. one day and said, ‘Mom, I was better than all the boys (in volleyball).
“She signed me up for a clinic. I was nine and I’ve been playing ever since.”
Her goal is to be the libero after Kahakai graduates.
“She’s helped me so much, is so steady,” Smith said. “I get better just by watching her.”