By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Brielle Smith already is one of the best goalies in the Cape-Atlantic League despite being just a sophomore at Oakcrest and having only played a few years of club soccer. This past spring, she picked up a javelin for the first time, and less than three months later was a sectional champion and had one of the best marks in state history for a freshman.
Then, this summer, all she did was go out and win a javelin title at the AAU Junior Olympics. No big deal.
Smith was born to play sports. Her father, Frank, had her throwing a ball when she was just a toddler. She grew up in Pleasantville, and since there was no softball in town, she simply played baseball with the boys. She grew up playing basketball against older boys, and at age 9 she was training in mixed martial arts against grown men at Bullpen Vale Tudo, run by Jose Tabora — a former mixed martial arts competitor whose son, also named Jose, was a football and wrestling star at St. Augustine Prep.
Smith’s arrival to the Oakcrest soccer team last summer as a freshman made the Falcons an instant playoff contender. The Falcons recorded 11 wins and earned a berth in the South Jersey Group 2 tournament, but where eliminated in the first round by Manchester in a game that went to a PK shootout.
“She doesn’t do a whole lot besides sports because she’s always doing some kind of sport. But, at home, she’s a great young lady. She’s helpful around the house, she’s a humble kid. She’s really great. I can’t say too much bad about her. She doesn’t have much of a social life because she’s always playing sports. When she’s not in school playing she’s playing on teams outside of school,” said Brielle’s mom, Veronica. “Brielle, as far as sports are concerned, she’s always played up (in age). Any team she’s ever played on, she normally played up. As a freshman she played on varsity, and the position she plays, goalie, you have to kind of control the field. She’s a quick learner, so everything was always moved up. I’m so proud of everything she does. She excels at whatever she does. She just has this natural talent. She has heart, strength, mental drive.”
“I’ve been blessed with some quality goalkeepers in the past, but they developed as sophomores and juniors and took the starting role in their junior year, or even senior year. When I saw Brielle as an eighth-grader, I knew she was as ready as an incoming freshman could be,” said Oakcrest girls soccer coach Jason Hearn. “When she came in for the preseason training sessions, I knew she was not only physically able to hold the position, she was also mentally able to. And that’s critical for a goalkeeper because they take so much pressure on themselves if they let up a goal. So for her to be mentally strong enough to take the position as a freshman, you could tell she put in the work. The other coaches who had her before me did what they had to do to get her prepared for the high school level. She’s done nothing but get better, every day.”
While adults around her saw she was ready to be a starting varsity player as a freshman, Brielle admitted there was some trepidation coming in as a 14-year-old goalie to a team mostly made up of 17- and 18-year-olds.
“I’ve always had pressure on me, but coming into high school, I tried not to think about it being harder. My coaches have always been grown men, and they would always tell me, ‘there’s no girl your age who is going to kick it harder than me.’ So I always kept that in mind. I was scared because as a goalie you’re supposed to be able to command the field, and having all these seniors and juniors — I knew it would be hard telling them what to do because they had been here for years. I’m not one of those people who knows soccer 100 percent. I know what works and what doesn’t work and I know where I want them to be, but I don’t know all the specific things. So, that kind of freaked me out, not knowing all the things they did and not knowing this level,” Smith said. “(Varsity players) are a lot rougher, so I was a little bit apprehensive. But coach Hearn told the team in preseason to not take it easy on me. And I wanted them to go hard. I have to give (my teammates) a lot of credit for caring enough to want me to get better. I put a lot of pressure on myself and in the preseason I would get down on myself if I let up a goal. But after the Stockton tournament I felt like we molded as a team.”
Smith grew up mostly playing basketball, and despite being one of the top keepers in the Cape-Atlantic League already, she’s somewhat inexperienced as a soccer player. She’s only been playing the game for a couple of years, but her natural athleticism makes up for a lot of the intricate details about the goalie position that she’s yet to learn.
“She’s amazing. Nothing gets by her. If she let’s up a goal, it has to be an amazing shot. I knew she was good, but then when I saw her play, it was crazy. I knew about her before she came here, but I was even more impressed once I saw her,” said senior defender Abby Silver. “She’s so athletic. She’s the Junior Olympic champion in the javelin, she’s good at basketball. I think she’ll be even more amazing by the time she’s a senior.”
“I wasn’t very good at soccer when I first started. But then they gave me some gloves and put in me in goal, and that’s how it all started,” Smith said. “They had me running around with girls who had been playing soccer since they were 4 years old and I didn’t even know how to kick the ball. But basketball and playing goalie go hand-in-hand. I’ve always been a kid who didn’t mind getting dirty, so I kind of fell in love with it.”
Smith credits William Davies Middle School coach Ed Aleszczyk with turning her into the goalkeeper she is today, and she still works with him every day.
“Coach Aleszczyk, I still train with him now. He was the one who really taught me a lot of techniques,” Smith said. “We still train today and I’m focusing on becoming a more complete goalkeeper — being able to use my feet, my hands, bring the ball down and play it out. I’m definitely looking forward to getting better with that.”
Whatever it takes to become a better goalkeeper, Smith is up for the challenge. Her mom said that no matter what sport she’s playing at a particular time of year, she’s completely focused on getting better, and helping her team succeed.
“She’s a team player. She works so hard and any sport she plays, she gives her all. She’s a great teammate because it’s never about her,” Veronica Smith said. “She’s very competitive, so she wants to do her best for the team. She’s a great kid and she has the ability to excel at anything she does. We’re very proud of her.”
Hearn said that while there is still plenty to work on in terms of technique and understanding the game, Smith has the type of athleticism and instincts that can’t be taught, and that’s what separates her from most other underclassmen.
“Right away she made an impact on other coaches. Other coaches would make comments to me and ask what grade she was in, and they were shocked when I said she’s a freshman. Even though we had some studs, she made a name for herself quickly among the coaches,” Hearn said. “She knows positioning, she knows her body, she knows where she needs to be. Her reactions are almost impeccable. Her timing — when to come out, when to stay on her line, when to go up for a punch, when to go up for a catch — She doesn’t hesitate. I know from playing keeper myself as a teenager, there are times when you need that second to react, but she doesn’t hesitate. It’s instinctive for her. I don’t think I could count on one hand how many times I saw her second-guess herself as a freshman.”
Smith had the luxury of coming onto a team that included some outstanding seniors. Jenna Sayers graduated this spring after becoming the school’s all-time leading scorer, and she’s taking her talents to Rutgers University. And players such as Ashlee Conover and Jamie Hutter were some of the top players in the league last fall. Having those types of seniors to guide her along was huge, Smith said.
“I loved seeing the way Jenna and Ashlee ran the team and I internalized that and used that as something to get better and learn how to talk to my team. I didn’t feel like I had to carry the team because we had players like Jenna, Ashlee and Jamie,” Smith said.
“She just had to get comfortable with the upperclassmen and find her voice. You can’t have a quiet keeper. You have to have somebody who is able to talk to the defense and control the defense,” Hearn said. “And to come in with seniors on defense, that’s rough. To find your voice with seniors who had been there for three or four years was tough, but she adjusted really well and so did the other girls. Her maturity and work ethic showed those upperclassmen that she wasn’t here to mess around.”
Smith’s work ethic is one thing that will never be questioned. She shows up to soccer practice an hour early for goalkeeper training. Then, after a nearly three-hour practice in 90-degree heat, she’ll jog over to the weight room for another hour of lifting. She’s gets after her schoolwork with the same determination, carrying a 4.4 grade-point average — which is straight As in honors classes. Her athleticism gives her confidence, her mom said, and there’s nothing Smith won’t try when it comes to athletics. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that she’s a budding javelin prodigy despite having picked up the sport less than six months ago.
“She has natural talent she’s been blessed with, so anything she has interest in she will do it well. She always wanted to play football, but I didn’t want her to do that. I wanted her to get into cheer and dance — you know, the girlie stuff — but every time we were at the field she would ask if she could play football. She has to do well in school. I’m one of those moms that if you don’t do well in school, we’re going to have a big problem. But I’m her No. 1 fan. I push her to stay on the right track,” Veronica said. “She came home one day and said, ‘mom, I want to try the javelin.’ I said, ‘the javelin? Is that the spear kind of thing?’ So she went to (recently graduated track star) Terrence Smith and he showed her the basics, and she took it from there. She was at about 110 feet when the season started, but by the end of the season she was throwing 135. It’s amazing to watch her go from one sport to another and get right into the mindset (for that sport).”
“I think she’s going to turn heads this year. I’ve had keepers who have gone Division I, and whatever it is a keeper needs, she’s got it. She just has to continue to do what she’s been doing, continue to work as hard as she does. We end practice, and she stays to lift. She comes in an hour early for goalie training. I think that will prepare her for the next level. And I encourage her with the track and basketball. I don’t want her to burn out (on soccer),” Hearn said. “I’m excited to see what she can do, and what this team can do. Last year, I think we ended our season earlier than we should have. But I think this year we have just as much potential even though we lost some of our big guns just because of the younger kids stepping up — and Brielle is right at the front of that. This is a good group of girls.”
Perhaps the biggest downside of being a three-sport athlete who also has a demanding workload at school is that Smith doesn’t have a whole lot of time for a social life. But, she said her friends understand her busy schedule, and if they don’t, well, they need to go find new friends. She’s not about to sacrifice a potential college scholarship and the aspirations she has so she can be more popular in school.
“Thankfully, I have friends who understand. I make sure I’m friends with people who do the same types of things as me — people who do sports and know they need their own time just like I need my own time,” Smith said. “It’s been a lot to sacrifice, socially, but that’s not something I’m worried about. If I lose friends over what I’m trying to do to be successful, that’s fine by me. It will hurt, but I’m still going to do what I have to do.”
Smith is mature beyond her years, and she sees the bigger picture. She knows she’s athletic enough to play one or more sports in college, and being a college athlete is definitely on her to-do list. But she’s got a long list of things she wants to accomplish in her remaining years at Oakcrest — a school she has been fond of since the first day she started walking its hallways.
“I love Oakcrest. I didn’t know where I was going toward the end of eighth grade because of the magnet programs. I didn’t know if I was going to go to Cedar Creek or ACIT, but when I came here, I definitely felt like I was at home,” Smith said. “Being able to give my school a better name than it already has feels really good. I want everybody to know this is my school and my community, and we’re better than you think we are. I like to wear Oakcrest across my chest. It means a lot to me.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN