Line up Emmanuel Smith in a regular high school or club volleyball rotation and he’ll definitely thrive.
But turn the Evanston junior loose like the Wildkits did Saturday at the Warren Invitational tournament in a free-lance situation and would-be blockers better run for cover.
Smith, a 6-foot outside hitter, powered down a total of 25 kills on Saturday and led Evanston to a fourth place finish at the tournament with an overall record of 3-2.
Taken out of their “system” by the fact that half of the squad was missing Saturday due to ACT testing and a college trip, the Wildkits adjusted well enough to defeat Loyola Academy (25-18, 20-25, 16-14) before bowing to both Riverside-Brookfield (25-23, 15-25, 10-15) and Deerfield (23-25, 13-25).
The Kits, now 5-4 overall, opened tourney play Friday with pool play triumphs over Palatine (37-35, 25-23) and Highland Park (25-15, 26-24). But missing 3 starters on the second day of competition, ETHS head coach Mike McDermott had to promote a pair of freshmen, Darius Hunt and Chyne Temple, to the varsity level to share a spot at outside hitter.
Evanston only had 8 players dressed for Saturday’s matches. Only Smith and setter Shan Waterloo played their normal spots in the rotation, as senior Chris Dimitru assumed the libero responsibilities for the first time in his high school career; 6-foot-6 junior Caleb Steege took a regular turn in the back row and at the service line; and senior Bernard Mason moved out of the middle to become the squad’s primary passer.
“It was difficult to hold things together with that alternate rotation today,” said McDermott. “But I’m happy with the results. We didn’t have a designated middle hitter on the court, but it was fun for us to try this. We were able to move our outside hitters around in the front row a lot, and that freed Emmanuel up on offense. He was very difficult for the other team’s defense to keep track of.
“A system like that taxes you mentally and I think we were just done by that 3rd place match (against Deerfield) because of mental fatigue. You can’t just play in a system like that, you have to stop and think about what you’re doing and where you should be a lot. We actually had to practice two different systems this week, and I’m really impressed with the way they were able to step in and wrap their heads around all that free-lancing.”
Both Smith and Waterloo were selected to the all-tournament team. Evanston, which bowed to New Trier in the championship match at the tourney last year, earned a top four finish again for the first time in back-to-back years.
Smith’s ability to adjust to the unusual attack should come as no surprise. He spent last year trying to master the middle hitter position as the North Shore’s smallest middle, but his explosive jumping ability and a return to a position that’s more comfortable has brought out the best this spring in the guy his teammates call “E-man.”
“He’s always had the ability, and now he has the confidence to go with it,” McDermott explained. “He’s athletic and explosive enough so that he can pretty much do anything on the court. You won’t hear him yell or scream out there. He’s our silent, but deadly guy. He has such explosiveness and hang time, and he has the arm swing to go with it. You don’t see that combination very often.
“He beat Palatine singlehanded last night and he did the same thing to Loyola when we played them a couple of weeks ago. And this year when he makes a mistake, he’s able to recover from it well. He’s become a go-to guy and he has the green light to swing from anywhere on the court.”
Smith actually began his high school career at Loyola, but transferred in the middle of his freshman year. So making adjustments is nothing new for the junior standout.
“The lineup we had today was truly confusing,” Smith said. “No one really knew how it would work, and it was really funny seeing how confused Loyola was when we played them this morning. They didn’t understand what we were doing, not at all, and things really opened up for me in the front row. It felt so good to beat them. I always go 100 percent against them.
“It was tough for me trying to play the middle last year, because I was one of the shortest guys out there and my timing was off. But my consistency has changed a lot and I truly feel like I’ve stepped up since last year. I’ve got the confidence boost to bring all that I have now, and I feel good about being the go-to guy and knowing that my teammates trust me like that.”
Saturday morning, the Kits defeated Loyola for the second time this season (and the fifth time in a row over the past 2 years) behind Smith’s 9 kills. Leading 20-19, they couldn’t close out the second set as the Ramblers rallied to notch the last 6 points of that set.
But in the decisive third set, ETHS used a 6-0 spurt to take command as Smith and Hunt combined on a block for a point, and Waterloo and Smith each accounted for a kill. Loyola did pull back into a 14-14 tie, but a clutch kill by senior Wally Waterloo and Smith’s put-away of a free ball sent the Kits to the Final Four.
Smith also delivered 8 kills against R-B and 8 versus Deerfield, but the Kits couldn’t maintain the momentum they had grabbed earlier in the day. But communication problems were few and far between even with a radically different lineup and considering that the two freshmen were making their varsity debuts.
Temple moved up from the JV squad while Hunt has emerged as a leading passer and playmaker for the freshman A team. Despite the unusual circumstances, McDermott did his best to make sure the two first-year players weren’t overwhelmed on Saturday.
“I thought both of them did a great job,” said the ETHS coach. “Darius had a number of digs for us, and Chyne even had a couple of kills. They both got experience at what it’s like at the varsity level and I think that will be huge for their confidence. It was a great opportunity for both of them, and now maybe they can contribute (on the varsity) for us at the end of the season.
“I thought Chris’ passing was amazing after he had to step into Zach Gayle’s shoes at libero. I think you can see that we can be amazing when everyone’s back and things are clicking again.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.