The first three years of O’Fallon outside hitter Elise Smith’s high school volleyball career have produced far more accomplishments than disappointments.
A key member of Panthers teams that have won at least 29 matches each of the past three seasons, the 5-foot-10 Smith has earned all-Southwestern Conference honors and was a first-team, large-school, all-area selection a year ago when she led O’Fallon with 266 kills.
Personal accolades and wins during the regular are fine by her, but what most motivates Smith is one thing she hasn’t accomplished: a trip to the Class 4A State Volleyball Tournament in Normal in early November.
“Every year I’ve been here, we’ve had a great team, and we go really far in the postseason. I’m just hoping that this is the year we go to state,” Smith said. “This could be one of the best teams I’ve played on at O’Fallon. We all get along so well. In the past, there has been some drama on the team, which I think has held us back.
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“This year is different. We’ve all been together for two and three years, and we all have the same goal, which is to get to state.”
The Panthers (14-2-1) are off to a good start after outlasting Belleville West in a tight three-set match Tuesday.
Just 4-2 after a loss to Bloomington at the Edwardsville tournament earlier this month, O’Fallon was 9-0-1 in its past 10 matches heading into a Southwestern Conference showdown with the Maroons.
Smith, whose 148 kills rank her eighth in the St. Louis area in kills per match as of Tuesday afternoon, has had help in the early going. Juniors Lauren Lepere (108 kills) and Kenzee Simmers (83), and setters Abby Braswell (248 assists) and Madeline James (147) have all played key roles.
But the Panthers offense goes through Smith. Closing in on 1,000 kills for her career, Smith prepared for her senior year by playing on a club volleyball team over the summer. Her teammates included Kaylee Hanger, of Belleville West, and Louise Comerford, of Althoff. She then played her first season of organized sand volleyball.
Smith and her Illinois High Performance club team also played in the national tournament.
“I played sand volleyball in a recreational league last summer. I like it and decided to play doubles this year,” she said. “About a month after saying I would play, I decided ask Kaylee (Hanger) to be my doubles partner. She plays outside hitter for her high school team and libero in club (volleyball). She can do everything you need to be successful in sand. We had a lot of fun.
“Playing sand volleyball helped me become a better player. I can see more of the court now, and I can use more of my shots. I also think it helped my vertical a bit and with my quickness. You have to be able to get to the net in the sand.”
O’Fallon coach Melissa Massey agrees that playing sand volleyball has made Smith a better player.
One of a few athletes in recent O’Fallon Township High School volleyball history to be a four-year varsity starter, Smith began her career as a right side hitter.
“Elise has worked on her defense, and I really think playing sand volleyball has helped her in that area,” Massey said. “She started out on the right side, then moved to the outside spot. Her ability to move around has not only helped her at the high school level, but it will in college as well — like a good utility player.
“I’m very proud of the way she’s played throughout her high school career. She’s really developed as a player, but also as a leader for this volleyball program.”
Smith will play college volleyball at Caldwell University in Caldwell, N.J. The desire to make an immediate impact was a factor in her choosing the NCAA Division II school.
“It’s a great school, and I really wanted to be close to New York City,” Smith said. “Plus, I wanted to go someplace where I can play right away as a freshman. Because of my height, I didn’t know if I could play at the D-I level. I don’t want to wait.”
But as of now, Smith’s focus is on savoring her senior season at O’Fallon and trying to lead the Panthers to the state finals.
“I love being a senior and a leader on this volleyball team. We’ve got a few underclass players, and it’s my responsibility to show them the way and to help pick them up when they get down, and encourage them when they need it,” Smith said.
“We made it to the sectional title match last year, where we lost to Edwardsville. Like I said, I think this is one of our best teams. This is my senior year, and I really want to get to state. I know how to get there.”