NORTHRIDGE — Collin Smith has great timing. The Cal State Northridge outside hitter picked up the level of his game toward the end of the regular season, just in time to lead the Matadors in the playoffs.
And Northridge (16-11) can use the extra help. Next up for the Matadors is second-ranked UCLA (22-5), whom they will meet tonight in the semifinals of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament at the University of Hawaii's Special Events Center in Honolulu.
Smith, a junior, has always been a solid player. Last season he led Northridge with 197 digs. As a freshman in '94 he set a school season record for dig average, with 2.7 per game.
Both seasons he ranked among the team's best hitters, recording 280 kills as a sophomore and 260 as a freshman.
In the past few weeks Smith has taken his performance on offense even higher, starting when he was selected to the all-tournament team at the UCLA tournament.
"I could tell he had a good future, which is why we wanted him pretty bad out of high school," said Loyola Marymount Coach Rick McLaughlin, whose team lost to the Matadors in a UCLA tournament semifinal. "He's definitely improved and gotten better every year."
Smith is blessed with an important combination that is rare among most of the sport's big players, McLaughlin says.
"Here you have a guy with real good size who has good ball-control skills," McLaughlin said. "His passing is good and not a lot of guys that size can pass well."
But lately his forte has been hitting. Smith, 6 feet 3, 190 pounds, leads Northridge with 450 kills and is second on the team with 218 digs.
He had a team-high 26 kills in the Matadors' upset in four games of then-No. 2 Long Beach State in a first-round MPSF playoff match at the Pyramid last week.
Smith was chosen MPSF player of the week for the performance, making him the only Northridge player to earn that distinction this season.
"You could see in his preparation that Collin was really ready to play Long Beach," Northridge Coach John Price said. "The way he played, with a narrow focus, was incredible. He usually gets knocked off track easily."
Smith said the victory gave the team a confidence boost, something the Matadors desperately needed after ending the regular season with back-to-back losses to Pepperdine and UC Santa Barbara.
"Just the fact that we went over there and wore them down and we battled and didn't quit was incredible," Smith said. "We felt pretty good."
The victory improved Northridge's national ranking from seventh to fifth and it marked the first time since 1993 that the Matadors had advanced past the first round of the playoffs.
In '93, the Matadors were swept by UCLA in the NCAA championship match at Pauley Pavilion.
History is definitely with the Bruins. Northridge is 2-33-1 against UCLA and has lost 10 in a row to the Bruins, including two this season in straight games. Northridge's last victory over UCLA was a four-game decision in 1992.
"It's very frustrating," Price said. "We just seem to go in the tank when we play UCLA, even when we have good years."
But Price likes Northridge's chances if his hitters--especially Smith--play the way they did against Long Beach.
For Smith, 20, hard work seems to be paying dividends. He spent the off-season working out in his hometown of Santa Cruz with a personal trainer.
"I worked hard all summer on my stamina," Smith said. "I'm not one of those players with lots of natural talent and quickness and jumping ability, so I had to do it. Now I don't feel as tired late in matches and I feel a lot stronger all around."
At Soquel High in Santa Cruz Smith played basketball, volleyball and water polo. He was a three-time All-Santa Cruz Coast pick in volleyball and was his team's most valuable player as a senior.
Smith made Volleyball magazine's Fabulous 50 Freshmen list, which annually includes the nation's top college recruits.
Long Beach, Santa Barbara and Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne were among the schools that recruited Smith.
He picked Northridge after watching the Matadors play in the NCAA championship match at Pauley Pavilion in front of thousands of rowdy fans.
Now he will face the Bruins in front of 10,000 spectators in Hawaii for a shot at the Final Four. If the Matadors beat UCLA they will meet the winner of the Hawaii-Santa Barbara match in Saturday's final.
Hawaii (26-1) is the nation's top-ranked team and Santa Barbara (17-7) is No. 3.
The MPSF champion advances to the four-team NCAA championship tournament at UCLA, May 2-4. Midwest Regional champion Lewis (Ill.) College and East Regional winner Penn State have already earned berths. The fourth team likely also will come from the 14-member MPSF, the nation's toughest conference.
"We don't have anything to lose," Smith said. "UCLA is not going to expect a good match from us, but they're going to get it."
And the Bruins will see a much-improved Collin Smith in the front row.
"He's better than the last time they played UCLA," McLaughlin said. "I know he'll probably be on in that match."
Smith says you can count on that. He knows when it's time to peak.