By AJ MAZZOLINI
Outside, temperatures lingered above 50 degrees despite the calendar having just flipped to November. Inside the Hermiston High School gym, senior middle blocker Crystal Schmidt was catching fire at the net. The 6-foot-1 hitter landed nine of her 19 total kills in the clinching third set as the Hermiston Bulldogs ran over Milwaukie to reach the OSAA playoffs in Class 5A.
That celebratory moment ranked among countless memories Schmidt made with her teammates this season, a year in which Hermiston won a Columbia River Conference crown, and Schmidt the East Oregonian’s volleyball player of the year award. Schmidt was the most dominating player on one of the most dominating teams in the area this season, leading her team in kills, hitting percentage and blocks.
“Best volleyball season I’ve ever had,” Schmidt said with authority. “By far.”
But what makes the Hermiston girl a special force on the court is that when she says this, she isn’t talking about the 300-plus kills she laid on teams or the 98 demoralizing blocks that rebounded back in their faces. Those accolades are a long afterthought. The “best season” that Schmidt wants to talk about involves her Bulldogs running off 19 wins on the year, knocking off rival Pendleton four times and playing in the state tournament — as a team.
“My teammates made me better everyday,” she said, rattling off name after name as if reading straight from the roster. “Without them I wouldn’t have gotten the kills I got, the blocks I got or the digs. Any of that.”
The team dynamic that worked so well for the Bulldogs came from unity, head coach Becky Wadekamper said. Schmidt did a tremendous job of including her teammates in her success, largely because when the senior was successful at the net, the Hermiston team followed suit.
“Obviously, it’s critical in that sense but she understands that,” Wadekamper said. “That she doesn’t get that success without them.”
Beyond Schmidt’s penchant for modesty lies the heart of a fierce competitor. The oft-smiling teen turns stoic at first serve. That drive — which helped her overcome a back injury that sidelined her during much of the winter-sports season last year — becomes deadly for opponents when coupled with Schmidt’s skill set, Wadekamper said.
Not only does Schmidt want the ball to come her way, usually on a well-aimed pass from setter Maloree Moss, but she has the size to go up and light the fuse on one of her rocketing spikes.
“With a kid of that height, it’s not a given that you’re going to have quickness with it,” Wadekamper said. “That’s the pairing that’s made her successful. She’s one of the quickest kids on our team, if not the quickest. In league (matches) for example, she hit over a lot of blocks. And that’s quite defeating to the other side.”
Schmidt added a towering defensive presence on the season, leaving teams wondering which was worse: her spike or her block.
Schmidt’s overflowing athletic talent made her a three-sport star at Hermiston, with track and basketball making up the other legs of the tripod. She’ll sit out the basketball season this winter to focus on track in the spring, where she throws javelin and shows off her volleyball leaping techniques during the high jump and long jump events.
Track may be the future for Schmidt. She considers it her strongest sport — as do a few schools in the region. No commitments have been signed yet and Schmidt is still surveying the scene, choices that include schools out in Seattle and Eugene and ones a bit closer to home like Eastern Washington in Cheney, Wash., and Blue Mountain Community College.
“I have a lot of options at lots of schools right now, but I’m trying to keep my options open and find the best one for me,” Schmidt said.
But if an opportunity arises in which volleyball coaxes her back to the court, Schmidt said the middle blocker in her will definitely want to consider that.