By Scott Ball (This feature appeared in the Sept. 14 Ohio State-Cal football game program)
BERKELEY - In his mind, Collin Smith’s water polo and academic career at Cal has had its share of ups and downs, but for the Golden Bear senior caption and 2012 first-team All-American from Carlsbad, he wouldn’t necessarily have it any other way.
“I have learned a lot from my journey here at Cal, and it has helped me grow as an individual,” explained Smith. “Part of the college experience is learning how to be successful and how to be a better person, and in my three years in Berkeley I believe I have done that. Ultimately my goal is to leave the program better than when I came in.”
There is little doubt the majority of Smith’s collegiate water polo experience has been positive and he has already made the Bears’ program better entering his senior season, not only by providing his team with a chance to win a national title in 2013, but by also perpetuating its tradition of athletic and academic excellence. He is coach Kirk Everist’s most highly decorated player entering the 2013 campaign after leading Cal in scoring with 61 goals last year, while also taking on a demanding major at the nation’s No. 1 public institution – integrative biology.
More than just a proficient scorer in water polo, Smith also had a team-high 31 assists, with 31 steals, 10 field blocks and 11 ejections earned last year as he helped the Bears (17-8) win seven of their last eight matches, including upending No. 2-ranked UCLA in the semifinals of the MPSF Tournament. Smith was twice named MPSF Player of the Week during the regular season, including scoring six goals in a 14-6 Big Splash victory over Stanford. Entering his senior year, the 6-1, 188-pounder has scored 103 goals in 73 career matches.
“Collin is a dynamic player…his quickness and speed is really unmatched in NCAA water polo,” said Everist. “He is not the biggest player, but he makes up for it with his explosiveness. He is a lot like former Cal star football wide receiver DeSean Jackson, if you can catch him he is not hard to bring down, but not too many people can catch Collin in the water.”
Water polo statistics and accolades only tell part of Smith’s story at Cal. Not only has he been a main contributor for Everist’s squad ever since his freshman year and was elected by the squad to be the 2013 team captain, he is on track to graduate in four years with a demanding major.
“Majoring in integrative biology has been extremely tough, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Smith, whose girlfriend is former Golden Bear swimmer and Olympic bronze medalist Caitlin Leverenz, and whose sister, Meagan, is a redshirt freshman on the Bears’ women’s water polo team. “Competing in the classroom at Cal is just like competing in the pool. I learn something new about myself every semester. My major has absolutely challenged me to manage my time. I have learned how to handle things when they haven’t necessarily gone my way. The goal is to make all the pieces fit together in four years.”
In water polo, Smith immediately showed he had all the pieces of his game together as his speed and savvy enabled him to play in all 28 matches as a freshman. Now, he and fellow senior Giacomo Cupido are the only members of the current Bear squad to have played in the 2010 NCAA title match – a heartbreaking 12-10 overtime defeat to USC at Cal’s Spieker Aquatics Complex.
“That loss to USC in the championship match my freshman year has been motivating and frustrating at the same time,” said Smith. “The fact we haven’t been back to the title match has been tough. We now have great players in every position and have outstanding depth. We only lost two seniors from last year’s squad, so most of the team has played together the past two to three years. We have great team chemistry and have had time to work out the kinks. The motivation is very high…we are a driven group.”
Out of the pool, Smith’s goal once he completes his undergraduate degree and concludes his water polo career (he is a potential 2016 Olympian, currently vying for a spot on the U.S. National Team), is to earn a Master’s degree in biomechanics or kinesiology. Smith, who is interested in the benefits of water therapy for injuries involving non-aquatic sports, feels getting an advance degree in either of those areas would allow him to stay involved in athletics while continuing to help his fellow athlete.
“The toughest thing at Cal has been blending the two – school and water polo – together,” said Smith. “But, it has been a great learning experience that will help me for the rest of my life. Obviously, I want to leave Cal with a championship ring, but if that doesn’t happen, I still believe I will have been successful.”