It would be easy to look at Anna Smrek and see the second coming of Dana Rettke.
It would be more accurate, however, to see the first Anna Smrek.
Sure, the two University of Wisconsin volleyball team middle blockers share some similar traits, the most obvious being their rare height — Rettke at 6-foot-8 and Smrek at 6-9 are believed to be the two tallest players in college volleyball this season.
Beyond that, they share equally uncommon agility and athleticism, at least partially attributable to a youth spent in dance training. Each also got an unusually late start in volleyball, Rettke as a high school freshman and Smrek between her seventh and eighth grade years.
And perhaps most importantly, they share a quest for greatness. That’s a level already reached by Rettke, now in her fifth season as a Badger, as evidenced by her four first-team All-American honors.
For Smrek, whose career is in its infancy, greatness is more a matter of aspiration.
“I always like to set high goals for myself,” said Smrek, a freshman from Welland, Ontario. “Everyone always talks about potential but it’s what you make of it. So it’s just going into the gym every day and working hard just to get better because that’s the only way we’re going to achieve those goals.”
It is that mindset that bolsters UW coach Kelly Sheffield’s belief that Smrek will attain those goals.
“That kid is just so hungry to learn,” Sheffield said. “Every single day it’s this quest to learn. This kid is really, really driven. I don’t think she has an off switch. She’s ready to go every day. She’s great in the classroom, a very responsible kid. She makes good decisions outside the gym so that she’s good in it.”
Smrek graduated from high school early so that she could come to UW in January to get a head start on her college preparation. The idea was to get her ready to take over for Rettke this season, but that plan changed when Rettke decided to take the NCAA up on its offer of a bonus season and return for one last go-round.
But rather than disappointed at the delay in her starting status, Smrek said she’s grateful for the opportunity to train with Rettke and fellow fifth-year middle Danielle Hart for an extra season.
“Nothing was guaranteed,” she said. “It’s still competing, fighting in the gym, practicing the same way I would. Just getting another semester to work with them is great. It’s great competition for everyone.”
Barring injury, Smrek’s role figures to be limited for the No. 2 Badgers this season. She played briefly in the opener against TCU and played two sets Friday against Dayton, recording four kills and one block.
Sheffield said redshirting her was never an option.
“She’s got the ability to help us out this year,” he said. “A goal of mine isn’t to hold her here as long as humanly possible. The kid wants to play. She’s also going to have a long professional career. She’s got the ability to help us this year and she needs to get some match experience.
“She’s excited about learning from both of those guys. But she’s also clear that she wants to get on the court. In order for her to get on the court she’s got to get better and pass somebody. She’s looking at that as a challenge. She’s got really big dreams. The better the talent is that she’s got to beat out, the more that’s going to pull out of her.”
Dance came first
While most top volleyball players get started in the sport during their elementary school years, Smrek didn’t take it up until after seventh grade. That happened at the suggestion of her maternal grandfather, who coached the national water polo team in Croatia.
“I tried it out and I really liked it,” Smrek said. “Up until then I was a competitive dancer, ever since I was like 3 years old. Dance was my life.
“It was really hard to leave dance because I’d been doing it since I was really little. I had my family there. I was in the studio for hours on end right after school. But once I got into volleyball I started building that new family.
“Dance is something that I’ll always have. It will always be a hobby. You never lose your ability to dance. Once you hear a song, you can do that. But when I thought about the future and career and different goals that I have, volleyball was calling my name.”
One sport that never called her name was basketball. That might seem odd, considering that her dad, Mike, played six seasons in the NBA. As a rookie in 1985, the 7-foot center was a teammate of Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls and he spent the next two seasons as the backup to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with the Los Angeles Lakers, picking up two championship rings in the process.
But Anna said her dad never pushed her or her older brother Luke to follow in his footsteps. Luke took up tennis and was an All-Big East player at Marquette and now is a graduate assistant at Ball State.
“It was really important for him to allow us to find our own thing,” Smrek said. “He won’t even talk about basketball that much. He wanted us to find our passions. He just enjoyed watching us play what we love to do.”
Mike Smrek’s basketball career ended in 1997, about five years before Anna was born. A retired high school teacher, he now works with a friend custom building guitars.
“It wasn’t really a huge part of growing up,” Smrek said of her dad’s basketball days. “It wasn’t really talked about in the house. My dad is a really humble person so you won’t see anything basketball in our house.
“If someone brought it up, he loved sharing stories. Sometimes he’ll go, I remember when … It’s really cool to hear. I enjoy it because every time he tells a story there’s a big smile on his face. I can tell he enjoys talking about it. That is part of his past and he loved it back then.”
One advantage of having a 7-foot dad is that it makes it a little easier for an unusually tall young girl to learn to feel comfortable with her rapidly elongating frame.
She said she long ago got used to people staring up at her.
“It happens all the time,” she said. “Growing up, walking around with my dad helped a lot. He said walk tall, stand up confidently. Knowing those eyes are going to be on you, look strong. That’s just who you are. Don’t make yourself short, don’t feel like you have to be anyone else. Walk with pride. That’s always what I did. In school and dance. Yes, I could see that I was taller than everyone else, but no one made an effort to point that out in my life. So that was never really an issue for me.”
One side benefit of her combination of height and athleticism is that she has recorded an otherworldly jump reach of 11-foot-2, an increase of several inches from when she arrived at UW. Anything much over 10 feet is considered excellent.
“A lot of that comes from getting in the weight room,” said Smrek, who plans to major in kinesiology. “I’ve definitely gotten a lot stronger since I got here. I thought I was strong coming in here but just over the course of eight months I’ve seen a big difference in myself.”
Given all that, Sheffield is understandably eager to see just what kind of player Smrek becomes over the next few years.
“I think she’s got a great career in front of her,” he said. “She’s really gifted. She’s athletic, she moves really well, she’s strong. For her to be as coordinated and as strong — in her core, especially — for her size and her age, that’s got to be as unique as her height.
“I know she’s studied Dana and watched her. But she’s not trying to be her. She’d like to be at that level. It drives her to be one of the best players in the world at this game, but she also recognizes how far she has to go to get there.”