Don't get Taylor Smith wrong: Volleyball is, without doubt, her greatest passion.
It's just that Smith's ultimate goals for herself include far more than being defined by athletics.
The Pewamo-Westphalia senior, named the first Lansing-area winner of the state’s Miss Volleyball Award, said her work in a variety of areas outside of volleyball is as equally rewarding as excelling on the court.
"I just want to be known as an all-around good person," Smith said. "That's what makes me feel real good. If you work hard at something, that's what makes you feel good about yourself."
In addition to becoming the 20th Miss Volleyball, Smith is a three-time all-stater and the foundation of an outstanding Pirates program which has won three league titles over the last four years, four Districts and Regionals, the Division 3 championship a year ago and finished with a 53-2 record this season.
The remarkable team success aside, it comes as no surprise to P-W coach Jon Thelen that his star setter wants to be known for more than athletics. Smith works in special needs and peer mentoring programs within the school district. She carries a 3.98 grade point average and will continue her volleyball career next season at Eastern Michigan.
"She's the type of kid who just wants to give of herself," Thelen said. "She works her butt off on everything she does. She'll be one of those kids that you'll want to hire as an adult. She's a driven kid who has been a blessing to coach."
Smith's journey from fledging sixth-grade volleyball player to receiving the Michigan Interscholastic Volleyball Coaches Association's highest honor is a bit unconventional.
She began her volleyball career as an 11-year-old, moved on to the December-to-July club volleyball season where Smith estimates she's played in 50 tournaments over her career, and finally became the cornerstone of the P-W program.
A four-time all-conference and three-time volleyball all-stater, Smith said she gave up a moderate interest in basketball to throw herself into volleyball. She was a varsity starter as a freshman, began gaining notice from college coaches as a sophomore, and committed to Eastern Michigan in April of her junior season. She also considered Gannon University (Pa.) and Wright State among others.
Smith is the first to admit she was no immediate volleyball sensation. Smith believes her game has improved in increments since the sixth grade. The last two facets of her game to fall in place were improvements in attacking and location in setting the ball. Those finishing touches transformed Smith from an excellent high school player to one capable of playing at the Division I college level.
A connection can easily be made, Smith said, from her love of the game to the sport providing a sense of community pride.
"Volleyball means everything to me," she said. "But it's not just playing volleyball, it's the sense of school and community I have from playing. I think that's helped my life in general. Overall, volleyball is fun and I love playing. But there is also that connection you have with community. That's important to me, too."
Smith said she began thinking playing volleyball at the next level would be possible after her freshman year of high school, That's when word began spreading that a school of 300 students possessed a 6-foot-1 setter who could help a college roster. But when Smith completed her own self-evaluations as a high school player, college seemed only a sketchy possibility lurking just over the horizon.
"Only because people told me I had a chance," Smith said of a college scholarship. "My game definitely needed work, and it wasn't just one thing. There were a lot of little things that came together for me."
The work has paid dividends. Smith's 165 points in the Miss Volleyball voting were 22 more than runner-up Zoey Dodd of Grandville. Smith said she considered herself a longshot in winning an award that recently has been dominated by Metro Detroit honorees. The last four played for Division 1 contenders.
This season’s Miss Volleyball ballot was filled mostly by candidates from the Grand Rapids area and also included representatives from Oakland County and the Thumb.
"I'm not kidding you; I didn't really think I had a chance. I was just happy to be in the top 10," she said. "When you see the (nominations), you see that there are a lot of good volleyball players in the state. I'm in a state of shock that I won."
Thelen said Smith winning the award is a statement about what players from smaller schools can accomplish. It's not about bigger always being better, he said.
"The neat thing is someone from a smaller school won it," Thelen said. "I think now those kids can go, 'I can do this.' You don't need to be at a bigger school to be represented on the big stage."
PHOTOS (Top) Taylor Smith (11) sets to her teammates during Pewamo-Westphalia’s 2022 Division 3 championship win at Kellogg Arena. (Middle) Smith accepts her medal.
Sarah Bradley ♦ Clarkston Everest Collegiate
Junior ♦ Volleyball
The 6-0 outside hitter had 31 kills – tied for sixth-most in an MHSAA Final – with a .419 hitting percentage and 18 digs as Everest Collegiate came back from a two-set deficit to defeat No. 4-ranked Leland in five in Saturday’s Division 4 championship match at Kellogg Arena. The first Finals title in program history capped a tournament run that saw the Mountaineers also win their first Regional title. Everest entered the postseason ranked No. 10 in Division 4 and finished 32-4-2.
Bradley finished the season with 420 kills, adding 15 in a Quarterfinal win over No. 6 Marlette and 25 in a five-set Semifinal victory over top-ranked Adrian Lenawee Christian during which Everest also came back after losing the first two sets. Bradley was named to the Division 4 all-state first team after earning an honorable mention as a sophomore. She also plays basketball, softball and soccer for the Mountaineers and is interested in pursuing a career in the medical field as she begins contemplating her college possibilities.
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Past 2023-24 Honorees
Nov. 17: Kalieb Osborne, Waterford Mott football - Report
Nov. 10: Tekalegn Vlasma, Muskegon Western Michigan Christian soccer - Report
Nov. 3: Colton Kinnie, Birmingham Seaholm football - Report
Oct. 27: Lauren Timpf, Macomb Lutheran North golf - Report
Oct. 20: Alena Li, Okemos golf - Report
Oct. 13: Seth Norder, Grand Haven cross country - Report
Oct. 5: Paige Anderson, Muskegon Reeths-Puffer golf - Report
Sept. 29: MacKenzie Bisballe, Lake City volleyball - Report
Sept. 22: Jhace Massey, Gladwin football - Report
Sept. 15: Kaylee Draper, Sturgis swimming - Report
Sept. 8: Owen Jackson, Traverse City St. Francis tennis - Report
Sept. 1: Rachel Forsyth, Ann Arbor Pioneer cross country - Report
(Photos courtesy of the Clarkston Everest Collegiate athletic department.)