As a high school player at Wesleyan, Betsy Smith was a volleyball star like Gwinnett County had never seen in its young history with the sport.
She led her Wolves to Gwinnett's first volleyball state championships, earning Gatorade state player of the year honors twice. She was a prep All-American and signed with powerhouse Florida, a rarity for an area in the fledgling stages of volleyball.
But when she arrived in Gainesville, she was one of a large group of high-level players. The superstar took a redshirt season, then played sparingly in 2009 and 2010.
"It has been a struggle, year after year and not playing much, but I knew it would pay off," Smith said.
The payoff time has arrived.
Smith is having a banner junior season with the Gators (17-4, 10-2 SEC), becoming one of the conference's top middle blockers. She ranks first on her team and third in the SEC with 1.04 blocks/set and has started 19 of Florida's 21 matches.
The 6-foot-2 Smith's 1.48 kills/set have come on a sterling .416 hitting percentage, also best on the team.
Not bad for someone who played in only 23 matches her first two college seasons while sitting behind star players. She had only eight blocks and 14 kills as a freshman and sophomore.
"In high school everything was pretty easy for me," Smith said. "This proves that you do have to work really hard to get to where you want to be."
Smith said her strength and speed, courtesy of extra summer work with Florida's strength and conditioning coach, has improved greatly since high school. It took that kind of effort to crack the Gators' star-studded lineup.
Now that she's played her way into that rotation, she hasn't given it up. She had a highlight showing recently on ESPNU with a career-high 10 kills on 11 swings in a straight-set win at South Carolina.
"Betsy may not be the best jumper in the league, or the fastest player, or the tallest middle in the league, but there are very few who have a higher volleyball IQ," Florida head coach Mary Wise told the Independent Florida Alligator. "I'd put her work ethic up against anybody."
Smith has been working off the court, too.
She is majoring in business and political science, while pursuing a minor in mass communications. She also serves as president of Florida's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.
And she has another season-plus of college volleyball.
"It's such a great opportunity for me here in Gainesville," Smith said. "I've got the best teammates in the country, definitely the best coaching staff in the country. I'm glad I've got one more year left here."
Parkview teammates share Peach Belt's top player award
The Peach Belt Conference released its postseason honors Thursday night with a three-way tie for the league's player of the year, and two of those players are Parkview grads.
Former Panther teammates Kristina Pascutti of Armstrong Atlantic and Kansas Bayly of Columbus State shared the Peach Belt's top honor with North Georgia's Emily Dover. Pascutti scored 12 goals during the regular season and Bayly scored six times despite playing on defense. Bayly was the conference's defender of the week three times this season.
Pascutti and Bayly were joined on the All-Peach Belt first team by North Georgia's Kelly Penston (North Gwinnett) and Armstrong's Morgan Mitchell (Parkview). Penston had six goals and two assists this season and Mitchell had eight goals and two assists.
Brookwood grads Megan Morrow and Natalie Douglass, both of North Georgia, made the second team. Douglass had four goals and three assists and Morrow started every game of her freshman season in the central defense.
Sabina, Edwards part of historic VSU honors
Gwinnett grads Arielle Sabina and Abbi Edwards, big contributors in Valdosta State's inaugural soccer season this fall, earned the Blazers' first Gulf South Conference honors this week.
Sabina, a Central Gwinnett grad, was named to the first team after anchoring the team's defense all season. The junior also scored a pair of goals, one a game-winner.
Edwards, a North Gwinnett grad, sparked the Valdosta State attack from the central midfield, earning the Gulf South freshman of the year award as well as second team All-GSC honors. She had a game-winning goal and four assists during the Blazers' 11-5-1 regular season.
Jarrett named freshman All-SEC
Parkview product Cherrelle Jarrett, a midfielder at Vanderbilt, was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team this week.
Jarrett played 60 minutes in the Commodores' first game of the season, then started the rest of the season and played 1,527 minutes, second-most on the team. A defensive midfielder, she also scored two goals when pushing forward.
Au, Gamecocks win title
North Gwinnett's Danielle Au scored the second goal, the game-winner just 22 minutes into the match, as South Carolina defeated Florida to win the SEC regular-season title last weekend.
Buford grad Maria Petroni also starts for the Gamecocks, who were upset in the first round of the SEC tourney this week.
Thomas named SoCon player of the week
Elon forward Chris Thomas, a Greater Atlanta Christian grad, earned his second Southern Conference player of the week honor on Thursday after scoring back-to-back goals in a tie with Duke.
Thomas scored both Elon goals, the second of which put the Phoenix up 2-1 in an eventual 2-2 tie in Durham, N.C. The junior is the reigning SoCon player of the year.
Locals power UGA runners to high finish
With the help of Gwinnett runners, the Georgia men finished third, their best showing since 2004, at the SEC Cross Country Championships in Maryville, Tenn.
Parkview grads Brett Richardson and Brian Detweiler led the way among locals, finishing 15th and 18th. Richardson's 8K time was 24 minutes, 49 seconds and Detweiler ran the course in 24:52.
Teammate Brendan Hoban, a Duluth resident who went to St. Pius, placed 41st (25:37) to earn All-SEC Freshman honors.
Russ shines for LaGrange
LaGrange sophomore quarterback Ed Russ was named his team's offensive player of the week after last Saturday's 36-8 win over the Apprentice School.
He carried 22 times for a game-high 116 yards, the highest rushing total in school history for a quarterback, and a touchdown, in addition to throwing for two scores. He has rushed for a team-high 569 yards this season.
Gwinnett Grads is a column that runs on Saturdays spotlighting achievements of past Gwinnett standouts. Coaches and parents are urged to send suggestions via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.