Smrek joining Wisconsin Badgers in January
When you’re an athletic, 6-foot-8 volleyball player, the world is your oyster.
By the start of her Grade 10 school year at Notre Dame, the scholarship offers had started to pour in for Anna Smrek.
“There were a lot of teams from the Pac-12 Conference and all the teams in the Big 10 Conference,” the 17-year-old Welland native said.
By the end of Grade 10, Smrek has verbally committed to Wisconsin.
“There was no pressure at all. I had had some previous offers and stuff but I was taking my time. I didn’t want to rush anything because that is not something you should automatically be able to make a decision on unless your heart is really set on it.”
The Madison, Wis., school quickly became near and dear to her heart after first visiting the school with her parents, Mike and Sonya, and later going on an official visit.
“That kind of confirmed things even more how much I loved the school,” she said. “It was everything. The academics were amazing, the coaches were amazing and I loved the whole family aspect. I felt at home there and that is honestly the most important thing when you are moving away for the next four years.”
And it didn’t hurt that the Wisconsin program is one of the best in the country.
“They came second at the national championships last year and there’s a whole style to the coaches and the team that I love. It’s the gym dynamic of always having a competition.”
Smrek is planning to study kinesiology with a possible end game of becoming a physical therapist.
“I have always been interested in that, especially when I retire. I do want to play pro when I am done university but being able to stay involved with sports and other athletes is something that I have always found intriguing.”
The former Niagara Rapids and current Defensa Volleyball Club travel player signed her letter of intent on Nov. 11 and then celebrated the signing Thursday at Notre Dame.
“Once you sign those papers, that’s when all the planning starts, you are officially in and part of the team.”
Smrek is part of a recruiting class that includes Lauren Jardine, a 2020 Under Armour First-Team All-American, and, Julia Orzoł, a member of the Polish national youth team.
Smrek also boasts an International pedigree. She represented Canada at the U18 NORCECA (The North, Central America and Caribbean Volleyball Confederation) Girls Continental Championships) in 2018 and helped Canada to a 14th-place finish at the world championships in Egypt in 2019.
“It’s obviously not how we wanted to do but if you think of how many countries were there, it’s pretty good considering it was the first time Canada had been at the championships in a long time.”
Wisconsin head coach head coach Kelly Sheffield was delighted to sign the middle blocker, who was named the best blocker at the 2020 Washington Capitol Hill Tournament.
“Anna has the potential to be one of the next great middles that have come through here. At just over 6-foot-8 and touching close to 11 feet, it’s certainly a combination that is intriguing and exciting,” Jardine said, in a release on Wisconsin’s website. “She is good off of one foot or two, and can get on the ball in a hurry. She puts up a really big block, and goes and gets the ball. I love her eagerness to learn and get better.”
Smrek will be started at the school this January but won’t be eligible to play until next fall. She is looking forward to beginning the next chapter in her life.
“I will finally get to be around all the girls that I have met before, schooling will be different and I will be one my own separated from my parents for a long time for the first time,” she said. “Being in that new environment, I am excited to adjust and adapt to it.”
Training for several months before playing will help her get used to that new setting.
“It’s a great way to adjust and to learn from the seniors who won’t be there in the fall.”
She has big goals for her rookie season.
“There is Freshman of the Year and that would be a big accomplishment, but it’s obviously being the best that I can, putting all the effort forward and seeing if that will result in good things. When you get there, you have a role to play.”
Smrek isn’t worried about heading to the States where the COVID-19 pandemic is surging.
“Everyone on the team knows going into it that if we want to have a season and do our best, we all have to be conscious of our surroundings by staying within the team and not venturing out because we all want the same thing,” she said. “It’s to play and if you let things get out of hand, then you can’t,”
Smrek feels her game has been improving each year as she heads to Wisconsin.
“It’s probably a lit bit of everything. At practice, we work on everything and constantly progressing. There is always that need for improvement because no one is ever going to be that perfect athlete on the court. It’s always striving to get better one step at a time.”
She already knows the next step she needs to take in her progression.
“I have to work on my blocking when I get there and that will help me be a big asset. I will be playing against larger hitters who are much stronger than I am currently and that will challenge me to push myself to get where I need to be.”
Smrek has great sports genetics in her immediate and extended families. Her father was part of the 1987 and 1988 Los Angeles Lakers championship teams that featured Hall of Fame athletes Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy and he also played for the Chicago Bulls, San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers. Her brother, Luke, was a scholarship tennis player at Marquette and was the Big East Freshman of the Year and a two-time First Team All-Big East honouree. On her mother’s side, an uncle played basketball and her grandfather was coach of the Greek national water polo team.
Although it was her mom and grandfather, Mile Nakic, who convinced her to switch to volleyball from competitive dance when she was in Grade 8, her dad has been her most valuable sports information resource.
“He would give us advice, especially about the mental aspect and told us that once things get started, it won’t be easy but to just push yourself and everything will work out.”
He was also invaluable during the recruiting process.
“He helped me to keep in mind that it is also a business and you have to think of that during the recruiting process,” she said. “He told me that it was up to me and I shouldn’t let anyone else influence my decision because, at the end of the day, it is where you are going and how you are going to be living your life.”