A couple of times Saturday at the Warren Invitational boys volleyball tournament, Emmanuel Smith seemed confused as to just where he should be positioned on the court.
You can’t really blame the Evanston senior, who’s had to develop a bit of a split (volleyball) personality for one of the youngest Wildkit teams in years.
Switched to the setter spot this week for the first time in his high school career, but still also logging court time at outside hitter, Smith helped the Wildkits to a 12th place tournament finish overall with a 2-3 tourney mark.
Coach Mike McDermott’s team, now 4-5 overall, followed up a split of Friday’s pool play matches by defeating Metea Valley (20-25, 25-11, 25-19) and then suffering back-to-back losses to Riverside-Brookfield (25-16, 25-22) and Vernon Hills (25-17, 25-18).
Inconsistency at the vital setter position in practice and a couple of early season matches led McDermott to suggest the switch to Smith at the start of his final high school season. The 6-foot senior is still searching for consistency himself, but did lead the Wildkits with a total of 15 kills in Saturday’s matches.
His overall play, however, fell off just like that of his teammates in the last 2 matches of the day. McDermott knows the switch won’t be easy for Smith, and with a lineup that features more sophomores (4) than ever before in his coaching tenure, this season might be one where the Kits take one step forward, then two steps back at times against a difficult schedule.
Smith and middle hitter Fernando Ferrer are the only two returning Kits with much varsity experience and McDermott plans to lean on them heavily this year.
“Moving Emmanuel to setter seems like a natural move, because he can get to so many balls,” said the head coach. “He has good instincts and I think he’s athletic enough to get the job done. We’re still going to run a 6-2 (offense) because we still want him to get some swings. He doesn’t have to worry about passing (as the middle man of the attack) and I think last year it was hard for him to focus when all he thought about was taking swings. He told me he always wanted to try setting.
“It’s Emmanuel’s third year on the varsity and he understands the job of setter. He knows how things are supposed to be, and I think everyone really trusts him no matter where he plays. And our other two setters (senior Oscar Michel and junior Carson Sherwood) know they’ll have to work to get playing time, and I think the competition will be good for both of them. Oscar didn’t set a lot last year — he played more on the right side — but he did set for his club in the off-season. He needs to work on his consistency. And Carson set for our JV team last year and he’s still learning to be a leader on the court.”
“When coach asked me about setting I said sure, why not? I set a little in the fall for my club team (Adversity) and it feels like it clicked pretty easily for me, at least in practice,” Smith said. “I was a little confused a couple of times today, though. The biggest adjustment for me is making sure I put the ball in spots where the hitters want them. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out the perfect location.
“In club ball we worked at a faster tempo. I just asked one day if I could try setting for them and I did pretty well. This year, we have a lot of juniors and sophomores who really have the will and drive to succeed. The energy this year is much better than it was in the past. These guys always put in 110 percent.”
“What happened to us today was I think they’re just not used to playing that much volleyball in one day,” McDermott noted. “You could see that happening to some of the sophomores. I think mental focus will be a big key for us this year.
“I’m planning to keep Emmanuel at setter and on the right side, with the idea of developing some of the other right side hitters for the future. We want to give the young guys as many reps as we can. While I’m disappointed about the results today, I’m not surprised. Things will get progressively better for us as the season goes along.”
Sophomores Darius Hunt, Judel Vilus and Chyne Temple have already worked their way into the regular rotation for ETHS. Both Hunt and Temple were promoted to the varsity late last year and another sophomore to watch is Rohit Patel, a 5-foot-10 defensive specialist.
Seniors Abraham Syffray, Caleb Steege and Hakeem Quadri, along with juniors Nick Rosenfeld, Sean O’Hara, and freshman Sam Johnson round out the roster for the Kits.
“The three sophomores in the rotation have already brought us more energy than we had last year from all of the players combined,” McDermott praised. “Our team defense is much better because they expect to get to more balls. They play other sports (football, golf) and they’ve seen what it’s like to compete and have to hustle, so their expectations are higher. They don’t just want to get kills, they want to get digs, too.
“My expectations for this year are based more on their attitude and their mindset than anything else. I’m excited to see where we can go.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.