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Servite Just Keeps on Kicking With Smith : Water polo: Junior standout has his own way of doing things, clashing with the coach at times, but he gets the job done.


ANAHEIM — Servite water polo standout Jerry Smith could use a rest, but this wasn't what he was looking for.

As Marina cut into Servite's lead in the semifinals of the Southern Section Division II playoffs Saturday, Smith stood on the pool deck in a T-shirt and jeans.

Smith, the team's leading scorer, was serving a one-game suspension after being called for a major ejection in a game Wednesday.

"I told them to not let it get close," Smith said.

As it turned out, second-seeded Servite won, 17-14, and advanced to the final against Esperanza on Wednesday at Belmont Plaza in Long Beach.

This time you can be sure, Smith won't be left high and dry.

Smith, a 16-year-old junior, has started for Servite since he was a freshman. He has spent nearly every day in the pool--including workouts on Christmas and New Year's Day--for more than a year, and it was wrenching for him to think the season might end with him out of the pool.

And that seemed quite possible against Los Alamitos in the quarterfinals Wednesday. With Servite leading, 10-6, the Friars got the ball and Smith tried to break away on the counterattack.

Near mid-pool, Smith said, a Los Alamitos player grabbed his foot.

"I tried to kick free," Smith said, "not to try and hurt him, just to try to get him off me. It wasn't blatant. If I kicked him in the face, it was completely accidental."

The referee saw it differently, awarding Los Alamitos a penalty shot and ejecting Smith from the game. Los Alamitos eventually tied the score, 10-10, before Servite scored the final five goals of the game to win.

Servite Coach Jim Sprague tried to appeal the major ejection on the grounds that it wasn't flagrant. But Sprague said he wasn't able to reach the referee, and without the referee an appeal couldn't be processed by the Southern Section.

Sprague said Smith isn't the type to retaliate.

"You can pound on him all day long, and you can cheap-shot him all day long and it doesn't bother him," Sprague said. "He's almost impervious to it."

Fortunately for Servite, the rest of the Friars were too much to handle. But now Sprague has to figure out how to get his team ready for top-seeded Esperanza, which beat the Friars, 11-9, in the regular-season finale.

Sprague, in his 26th season as a high school coach, watches hours of videotape, trying to find weaknesses.

This season, he is spending more time psychoanalyzing his own team.

"If we are able to pull this off, I'm going to be awarded honorary doctorates in psychology and psychiatry," Sprague said. "This team is the most bizarre thing I've ever experienced. The only thing is I'm better able to handle it."

With Smith, Brian Heifferon and Rob Mattivi, all members of the U.S. youth national team, Sprague frets his best players sometimes are more interested in their performances.

Therefore, the Friars are inconsistent. Before the season, Sprague hoped they would be able to challenge the best Division I teams, but they closed out the regular season with disappointing losses to Riverside Poly, Whittier La Serna and Esperanza.

"People ask me how we're going to do, and I tell them I don't know who is going to show up," Sprague said.

Smith agrees there is a problem and that the internal competition has been unhealthy for the team. Still, Smith said: "The season's not a disappointment, especially if we can come away with the championship."

Smith, a 6-foot-3 1/2, 200-pound two-meter man, could have a lot to do with that. Heifferon and Mattivi, both seniors, have scored 85 goals and 70 goals, Smith has 114 goals and 30 assists.

Sprague marvels at Smith's offensive potential. "He goes on spurts that are just amazing," Sprague said. For instance, Smith scored 13 goals in a victory over North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake, a strong Division I team.

Smith is an accurate shooter--he has never missed a four-meter penalty shot in a high school game--but Sprague believes Smith too often uses his skill to try to make a play look more spectacular than it needs to be.

"I have a definite opinion how two-meter man should be played," Sprague said. "He violates an awful lot of my rules and I think that decreases his productivity.

"It's kind of painful to watch someone with so much talent who won't do the right thing. He might score but he doesn't always do it in the right fashion."

Smith, the youngest player to make a trip to Mexico City with the U.S. junior national team last May, hears and respects Sprague.

"He gives me more than a hard time," Smith said. "He just has such a different approach to the game that sometimes people, myself included for sure, would doubt him."

No doubt Sprague, who will be coaching in his 14th section title game Wednesday, will have the last word.

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