Gael Smith, then a stranger, needed about five minutes to make an enduring impression on her new volleyball teammates. When Smith walked into Glenelg High's firstith wasted no time cluing them in.
"She's going up and crushing every ball," recalls setter Tracy Martin.
"We were sitting there in astonishment. She kind of blew us away."
Suddenly the Gladiators knew they'd been blessed with a special talent, not to mention a new team leader. And since that illuminating practice, Smith's reputation has grown steadily around the county.
Most of the talk centers around her exciting play in the front row, from where she delivers the league's most unreturnable spike, a hit that takes several forms. Smith spikes consistently harder than any player, but also combines a heavy hand with smarts and excellent court vision. She sends dinks to open spots on the floor as well as anyone.
Smith has been successful on 82 percent of her hit attempts and has collected 161 kills in 12 matches. She's led the team in kills for each of the last 10 matches.
The Gladiators had a 6-6 record going into Friday's Mount Hebron match and appeared headed for the Class 2A Region IV playoffs largely due to Smith, whose rave reviews don't stop with her play at the net. She has emerged as arguably the county's most well-rounded player.
The kid can serve, as her 38 aces and 85 percent success rate attest.
The kid can pass. Witness her six passing points per game. The kid can play defense, as her 11 point blocks help to reveal. And perhaps most impressively, with only 63 errors, the kid rarely makes mistakes.
On top of that, she has brought a gung-ho, team-first ebullience to the court that has made her acceptance at Glenelg that much easier. Smith is easy to spot on the floor. She's the one constantly clapping her hands, always barking encouragement -- to teammates, to herself -- but all the time chattering.
"She's the one who keeps everybody going. She's so optimistic," teammate Angie Beech says.
"What really makes me like her is she never takes full credit for anything.
She always puts the word 'we' in there."
Martin adds, "She makes my (setting) job a lot easier, and she congratulates me when I haven't even done anything."
Smith, who three months ago had never heard of Glenelg, responds to all the attention with a wide-eyed laugh, a thank-you and a blush.
"Everybody on the team is very friendly and laid back, and they have skills. I thought I could contribute," says Smith, who gained four years of volleyball experience playing for Cashmere High School in Christchurch, a New Zealand city of about 300,000. Cashmere finished fourth in last year's national tournament.
Smith is living with the family of teammate Kelly Legal. She'll return home at the end of the school year.
"A fresh person coming in gives people a different look at things," she adds. "They're learning from me and I'm learning from them. We're starting to put it together, as far as mentally believing we can do it."
The Gladiators started to believe when, behind Smith, they met Atholton for the first time last month and beat the Raiders in four games. Atholton coach Jon Peterson knew nothing about Smith before the match. He remembers getting concerned during pre-game warm-ups.
"I said 'Hey girls, they've got a player,' " he recalls. "She single-handedly beat us. She makes everybody on that team better. I think she's probably the best hitter in the county this year. She's not just a hard hitter, she's a smart one."
"She's a hustler. She's all over the place," adds coach Kalafos. "She's got great court sense. Her skills are obvious, but her mental toughness is what makes it happen."
Smith's toughness against Centennial 10 days ago will be difficult to top this year. In a performance Beech called "unbelievable," Smith recorded 17 kills, three aces, a point block, committed only five errors and was in the middle of seemingly every big play. The Gladiators rallied from a 2-1 deficit to hand Centennial its first loss since 1988.
"We were ripe for a loss and Gael was superb," says Centennial coach Bill Shook. "She's first-team All-County material."
"I remember thinking to myself, 'Oh my God, we're actually beating this team that hasn't lost in two years,' " Smith says. "We get up for tough competition."
At times, though, the Gladiators have stumbled. While they've beaten 9-3 Atholton and 11-1 Centennial, they've also failed to beat fourth-place Oakland Mills in two tries. Tuesday at Atholton they were without Martin, who sprained her ankle the day before in practice, and the Gladiators fell in four quick games in their Raiders rematch. They'll probably need to win two of their last three matches to get into the playoffs.
Smith wants a chance to help the Gladiators wind up the season the way she started it with them that day in August -- with a bang.
"We showed ourselves, the first time against Atholton and against Centennial, we could work as a team," she says. "I've got to get the team up, keep us moving. It comes down to determination."