Athlete of the Week: Smalls coming up big for Panthers

cfvolley-smallCarolina Forest senior standout Ellissa Smalls may feel more at home playing beach volleyball in the sand, but the Lady Panthers standout has shown she can also dominate on the hardwood.

As the team captain and middle blocker, Smalls has helped her team to an 11-1 start to earn the Mammy’s Kitchen Athlete of the Week award for her play on the volleyball court, but that’s not where she got her start.

“I didn’t start playing (indoor volleyball) until the eighth grade except for playing around on the beach,” said Smalls, who played in pick-up games with family and friends who are actively involved in the local volleyball scene. “Everybody was making fun of me because I was diving on the floor like it was sand.”

It was that fearless nature that helped Smalls become a dominate digger and blocker, but she credits her involvement in Grand Strand Juniors and the Carolina Forest program for helping her bring a complete game to the table. This season she is serving at a 93 percent clip with 34 aces and 117 points, along with 129 kills, 85 digs and 18 blocks.

After starting the season a perfect 10-0, the Lady Panthers suffered their first loss of the season to North Myrtle Beach in a five-set tiebreaker. They got back on course with a sweep over South Florence on Tuesday, and Smalls believes the narrow defeat may have been just what the team needed to sharpen their focus.

“We were talking about that after the game and Coach (Brittany Drew) was saying it might have been the best thing for us because we were starting to take winning for granted,” Smalls said. “We never want to lose, but it was good for us to have to fight so hard because we have gotten used to winning. That really got our attention.”

A good loss isn’t an option Thursday when Carolina Forest travels to face rival Socastee, a match that will decide the frontrunner for the Region 6-4A title. The Lady Panthers have a proud history of six straight regular-season championships, but they have yet to win in the first round of the playoffs. Smalls hopes to change that in her final season.

“We know Socastee is our main competition and right now all of our focus is on them,” said Smalls, who has several close friends and GSJ teammates playing for the Lady Braves. “But we know we haven’t made it past the first round of the playoffs and that has sort of become a running trend. I’m super-determined that’s not going to happen this year.”

Smalls hopes to go on to play volleyball in college, although she says her 5-foot-7 height might make it difficult for her to get a chance to play at the top level. If she continues to have the solid season she is so far, those opportunities may come. But for now her attention is on taking the Lady Panthers as far as  they can go.

Photo by Prep Stars Media

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