Sydney Smith showcased elite volleyball talent on the court last year at Loudon High School, but her journey to fulfill a lifelong dream of playing college took a major turn in the offseason.
Before the start of the 2019 season, Smith moved to Loudon from Michigan where she helped lead Lake Orion High School to a state championship in 2018 and was an All-State selection.
In just one season as a Lady Redskin, Smith made an immediate impact. The senior team captain led the team with 398 kills, 156 digs, 77 aces and 20 blocks en route to a Region 3-2A appearance and was named the All-County Player of the Year and District 5-2A Most Valuable Player.
“It was a great season, we went 19-6, we got to regionals and progressed as a team,” Smith said. “It was great, and I had one of my best seasons. I had a great hitting percentage, dig percentage, serve percentage, all my stats were up, I got MVP of the league and there were lots of highlights and great moments with the team. All in all, it was just a really good season.”
Smith received interest from several Division 1 and 2 schools in Georgia, Illinois and South Carolina, but the COVID-19 pandemic halted the recruiting process.
That’s when she turned her attention to Roane State Community College’s newly established volleyball program.
“Where my head was at was thinking about financially wise I’d have two free years of school, plus I’m on a scholarship here,” she said. “In addition with COVID happening, all D1 schools’ scholarships ... all seniors lost their scholarships and everything. We got to keep ours because all D1, D2 and even D3 schools, all of their seasons are canceled and our’s is still ongoing. It’s such a shame, but I have this opportunity where I can still play and increase my volleyball knowledge where a lot of girls are losing that opportunity.”
Smith continued to push during the pandemic but admits it was a challenge.
“COVID cut our travels and cut my last travel season completely short,” she said. “My travel season got cut off in January when it was supposed to go all the way to June, so I missed that time and I missed my last travel season that I can ever play in my life. The gyms weren’t open, so we had to do at-home workouts instead of being together as a team for college. Our personal trainer had to send us at-home ab workouts. At home, I don’t have any weights so I couldn’t weight train and had to do more cardio and light weights. I couldn’t lift so it definitely had a major effect, but I just pushed through and focused on what I could.”
First-year head coach Steve Dallman is taking the reins of the program and boasts 25 years of coaching experience, including head coaching stints at the University of Louisville and University of Southern Mississippi. He first heard about Smith during a K2 tournament and was immediately hooked.
He believes Smith is already the best player on the team as a freshman.
“My boss saw her and said I needed to get that kid for Roane State and said, ‘She’s really good’,” Dallman said. “I talked to her, had her out a week later on a visit and signed her. She played one of our club teams down at K2 in our 18s because she came in the club a little bit later. She ended up at the end of the year in the last tournament playing with me down in Gatlinburg and played phenomenal.”
Dallman said Smith’s work ethic and natural abilities separate her from many athletes competing at the National Junior College Athletic Association level.
“She’s super, super focused and hits the ball really hard,” he said. “I’ve got her now as an outside hitter, which she hasn’t really played that being on the right side as a lefty. At some of the other colleges I’ve coached at, I’ve had lefties on the outside and they’re really hard to stop. She’d become a primary passer that way and she would play all six rotations, so that’s why I wanted to move her out there. She’s done really well and works extremely hard in the weight room. She’s about as athletic and buff as you could get, and she’s done really, really well with that.”
The Lady Raiders have competed in several exhibition matches and will start the regular season Feb. 2 at home against Walters State Community College.
“Our official practices start Jan. 11, and right now we’re in our fall season,” Smith said. “Right now we have 60 consecutive days to practice and we do have scrimmages, but no fans are allowed yet. We just had a scrimmage with Bryan College and won so that was good. Being at Roane, it’s super nice and we have a completely brand new locker room. It’s better than some of the D1 colleges you can go to. This is Roane’s very first volleyball program, and we all built it up so the school paid a lot of money to set this program up.”
Smith’s main goals this season are to accumulate a winning record, win a conference championship and be selected as an All-American.
“I want to be an All-American hitter,” she said. “My goal is to get over 500 kills this season, and I also want to increase my volleyball IQ, my volleyball toolbox — not just hitting it every time. I want to work on my craft and my craftiness, work on my defense on the back row. I’ve gotten a lot better at defense and want to keep improving. I’m also working on my service-ace rate.”
Dallman strongly believes Smith has what it takes to become a solid Division 1 athlete.
“I’ve coached Division 1 for 14 years, and I think she has a chance of making a mid-level Division 1 school after playing for us,” he said. “That’s my goal, and I’ve got a lot of contacts so I’ll definitely try to get her there. I would say her only weakness is sometimes just staying focused on just volleyball. She works out in Tellico Village, and she’s very popular at school. She’s a good kid overall, and I think the future for her is going to be very, very bright for her. I think by the time we’ll actually start the season, she’s going to be even better.”