Back from a knee injury, Summit volleyball hitter still smiling

Haley Smith has helped the Storm to a No. 1 ranking in Class 5A

Haley Smith is always smiling, and she can’t help it.

Even resting on a trainer’s table while stretching out and heating her left knee, a daily ritual these days; even while feeling the bulky knee brace sliding down her leg during practices and matches, a constant and annoying reminder of her past; even while reflecting on one of the most difficult times in her life, Smith is beaming.

“I’m always having so much fun,” she says — smiling, of course. “I find myself happiest whenever I’m competing. … There’s no place I’d rather be than playing volleyball in a gym. It’s my absolute happy place.”

A Summit senior, Smith loves competition, and she loves life. And she wants the world to know it. Last year, though, Smith was heartbroken. A play she had made effortlessly countless times before became her downfall. Her junior season was derailed in the third match of the year by a torn ACL, lateral meniscus and medial meniscus in her left knee. And she found it difficult to smile through the anguish.

“Especially September last year, which was by far one of the worst months of my life,” Smith recalls. “Immediately when I was injured, I was absolutely devastated. I knew I had done something drastic and that it was going to take a long time for me to be able to recover.”

A year after being voted first-team all-state while helping Summit claim the Class 5A state championship in 2015, the 6-foot outside hitter placed high expectations on herself. She had been key in the Storm’s title win, blasting a match-high 18 kills in the final. Smith’s junior season, she had figured, should be special. But during Summit’s home match against Marist early last season, Smith moved laterally to her right and her left foot, she remembers, felt stuck to the floor. “I felt my knee almost explode.”

Smith’s season was over. And for Summit, it was the second outside hitter to be sidelined indefinitely, as standout senior Haydn Quatre had suffered a similar injury a week earlier.

“It was unbelievable,” recounts Lili Garcia, a senior setter on the current Summit team. “Right when it happened, everyone just went quiet. We had already lost Haydn, so losing Haley, one of our best players, at the same time was just devastating. … Losing Haley was kind of like losing someone in your family.”

“I was crushed,” adds 11th-year Storm coach Jill Waskom. “We had just lost Haydn … I was just thinking, ‘Oh, no. It can’t be happening again.’”

Heading into the 2016 season, the Storm were dead set on a second straight state title. The deck was stacked in Summit’s favor, but the injuries to Quatre and Smith changed that outlook. It was not that the Storm believed their chance at the crown was already shot, says Jade Waskom, a senior outside hitter for the current Storm, but the path to get there was riddled with obstacles. Jill Waskom, the coach, adds that at the time of Smith’s injury, “all of us felt like, ‘What are we going to do now?’” (Summit eventually reached the state tournament and took fourth.)

The sideline was a lonely place for Smith. In Summit’s first match after the injury, it took all her strength not to trot out onto the court, to dive after shots, to deliver a cannonball kill. She settled for focusing on what she WAS able to control: continuing allowable exercise regimens and cutting back on sugar, for example. “Doing whatever I could to maintain every bit of athleticism I had,” Smith says.

In the offseason, Smith was chosen to the top team with the Rimrock Volleyball Club despite not being healthy enough to try out. She made certain to attend every practice, participating in whatever drills she could with her still-mending knee. Smith was cleared to return to action in March, and she recalls that her first kill attempt may have been her worst in years — but it was the best feeling.

“It probably sailed 30 feet out of bounds,” Smith chortles. “But I was still so happy because it was the first time I had hit a ball in forever.”

Smith says she had to relearn how to dive for balls to her left. During the club season, she would hesitate, or she would shank a ball that took her to that side. Now, though, it is as if she never missed a practice, let alone an entire season. She skies for booming kills, dives and rolls to pick up digs, scrambles to save errant passes — all with that brace, which stretches from her lower thigh to her shin. The brace is difficult to ignore.

“It’s still not the same diving to my left versus my right,” Smith says, “and I’m still getting used to (the brace). But I’m pretty sure in the next few months it’s going to seem normal again.”

Smith, who says she has received a preferred walk-on offer to play at Oregon, has helped Summit reach the No. 1 ranking in 5A. Paced by their powerful outside hitter, the Storm, at 4-0 in Intermountain Conference play, are in the pole position for the conference title, already with wins over defending state champion Bend and rising IMC contender Ridgeview.

“It’s definitely very influential (having Smith back), not only skillwise but to have someone who has been in pressure situations,” Jade Waskom says. “It’s good to have her be a role model for all the younger kids. And knowing that you have someone there, it’s like your rock you can go to.”

“It’s very important to us now,” Garcia says. “Since we’ve had an example of what it’s like to be without Haley and have such a drastic change to the team, we realized that we needed to work hard. Now it’s putting it all together with Haley. It just amplifies everything, because we worked so hard last season just to GET to state.”

Smith spends 30 minutes on the training table before each game and 20 minutes leading up to practice. Scar tissue still prevents her from completely straightening her injured knee, but no matter. She is smiling now more than ever.

“I believe that I was injured for a reason,” says Smith, noting how, before the injury, she would frequently become frustrated with herself by not playing up to her own lofty expectations. “After getting injured, it basically gave me a new perspective, that I don’t have to be perfect every time I step on the court and that I can make mistakes, and as long as I have fun doing it, I’m going to improve as time goes on. Now that I’m finally able to play again, I’m never mad at myself during practices anymore.

“My attitude has completely changed.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0307,