Over the last year, two of Todd and Melissa Smith's children were trying to decide their college future, Andrew, a senior at Leo, and Brooke, who was a freshman.
A freshman deciding her college future — and potentially her life's path — even before taking driver's education classes? How does that make sense?
While Andrew was deciding to attend Purdue and study athletic training, his little sister was putting a lot more thought into her decision, partly because she had so many options. Though currently a sophomore, Brooke is one of the country's top volleyball prospects as a Leo High School outside hitter and is one of the state's top players, not only in her class.
She has an amazing story, and not just a recruiting one. Partly because she was tall, Smith was predominately a basketball player until she started to play volleyball in the seventh grade — or less than four years ago. She liked volleyball but was still concentrating on basketball until Empowered Sports Club owner and coach Will Robbins asked her to consider playing on his club team. Then he wanted to make a big change, moving Smith from middle hitter to outside hitter.
"With every young athlete, especially girls with height, the biggest mistake is coaches are too short-sighted," Robbins said. "They think they need tall girls to play middle so they can win some games right now. I'm always looking long-term, how high can she go and where can her height and athletic ability take her? For being a tall, lanky kid, she was agile, she had great lateral movement."
And then a month later, one of the team's outside hitters moved away, meaning Smith had to play her new position almost immediately. She loved it, and her play improved dramatically every week. Along with being very intelligent and coachable, it turned out she was a natural who also had an incredible work ethic and hunger to get better. As Will's wife and Leo coach Ashlee Robbins said, it's hard not to notice Smith on the court, and everybody did.
Then during her eighth grade year, the first college coach reached out to express an interest. Within months, a dozen others had sent letters or given Empowered coaches business cards to start conversations. Within a year, there were sometimes up to 40 coaches watching her play in junior tournament matches.
It wasn't that odd to see some coaches turn off their video recordings during warm-ups because they had already seen enough of Smith's gifts to know she was legitimate and a potential college star.
After her freshman season at Leo last year, the college coaches' efforts really increased, even though they are not permitted to call her themselves until the start of her junior season. To get around that, Smith would email the coaches to suggest a time, and they would respond to Bishop Luers coach Jae Hampton who also serves as Empowered's recruiting coordinator to let Smith know if the time was acceptable. Smith started making two or three calls per night.
To keep track of whom she was talking to and when, Melissa Smith suggested her daughter keep a three-ring binder with a sheet for each school, noting when they talked, whom she talked to, a few notes and when she was supposed to call again. That might not sound like much, but there were eventually 50 schools involved, and Brooke Smith made more than 250 calls starting in December.
"That's how we tried to keep it under control so it didn't overwhelm her," Melissa said. "My husband and I were nervous, but almost every coach she talked to complimented her on how well she handled it. We never dreamed this would grow as big as it did."
Why was it so intense so quickly? She received her first offer in March, and the colleges were hoping to wrap up a commitment from Smith by May, or the end of her freshman high school year.
"Your top teams in the Big Ten, ACC, SEC, a lot of them are starting as early as the seventh or eighth grade," Ashlee Robbins said. "That's just the way the system works in volleyball."
Smith was hearing from most of the better programs East of the Mississippi, including Purdue, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Louisville, Kentucky, Duke, Florida, Notre Dame and Tennessee, and even UCLA from the West Coast. They all wanted the 6-foot-2 kid with the smooth swing who could pass and was still improving. Her height on the outside was a huge advantage.
Several schools said they'd give her an offer if she'd just schedule an on-campus visit. Smith eventually narrowed her top five to Purdue, Kentucky, Missouri, Dayton and Louisville, but her gut was already telling her she loved everything about Louisville — the team, the facilities, the academics and especially coach Annie Kordes.
But then the system tossed Smith a rotten set to swing at as Kordes resigned after Louisville finished 12-18. The Cardinals quickly named Nebraska assistant Dani Busboom Kelly as the new coach a few days later. After a couple months to evaluate all the recruits, Louisville contacted Smith in January to say they were still highly interested. They made her a scholarship offer in March and hoped to hear an answer by May.
Smith eventually said she needed a little more time, but after a fourth visit to Louisville made a verbal commitment to the Cardinals on July 13. Her parents were as convinced as she was that Louisville was the right program.
"I've never regretted it once," said Smith who wants to study for a potential medical career. "I just fell in love with Louisville, and I knew that's where I wanted to go."
After making her decision, she called to inform the other schools, but a couple coaches asked if she was too young to make such a commitment. They obviously didn't see the irony that they were asking her to do the same thing.
Finally, Smith could concentrate on her high school sophomore season.
For more on local sports, follow Blake Sebring on Twitter at @blakesebring and on Facebook at Blake Sebring.