Photo: PAUL MENSCH

By MITCH RODD

DIRT is much more plentiful in Sunraysia than sand, but that hasn’t stopped volleyballer Zoe Smith, PICTURED, from taking to it like a duck to water.

The 15-year-old recently competed in the Under 17 Girls division at the Australian Junior Beach Volleyball Championships in Bunbury, Western Australia, as a member of the Victorian squad.

Indoor volleyball is certainly more prevalent in Mildura, making the Sunraysia Volleyball Inc. (SVI) junior’s selection all the more impressive.

Zoe partnered with fellow country volleyballer, Bridie Williamson of Glenmaggie, in one of two pairs who represented the ‘Big V’ at the event.

After finishing third in their pool, Zoe and Bridie qualified for the first round of the play-offs. Unfortunately they weren’t able to advance any further.

Despite winning the first set 21 to 17, the Vics were beaten in the next two sets by Western Australians Amelle Warbuton and Lucy Tyler.

Queensland twins Kayla and Brianna Mears would go on to win the title.

It has already been a hectic year for Zoe, having debuted in the Premier Women’s division for Phantoms in the Victorian Volleyball League (VVL).

This week she also set off to tour Thailand with an Australian junior squad, that also contains fellow Mildura volleyballers Kade Zrna and Lachlan Scherger.

Beach volleyball is a slightly different path to State representation for a Sunraysia player, but Zoe said she has enjoyed the challenge after becoming accustomed to the changes.

“I’ve always been an indoor player so it was a big change,” she said.

“Most of the girls (who play beach volleyball) are obviously from the city. One of my friends from Melbourne did it and I thought why not give it a go.

“I attended State tryouts at St Kilda Beach and had three trials late last year. From those trials they picked a squad, which was eventually cut down to four girls, with two pairs.

“Obviously playing on the sand is the major difference, it makes everything 10 times harder. It makes it hard to cover the court. It’s also not fun having sand everywhere.

“Playing out in the open means the weather plays a real part.

“I’ve had to do lots of leg work and power training to get that explosiveness. For training we’ve headed to Melbourne and back 12 times, and five of those times have been for training that has gone across the whole weekend.

“I’ve gotten used to it a lot more. I work on gym programs as part of the Sunraysia Academy of Sport (SAS) volleyball program and the trainers have really helped me with that.”

Switching back to her indoor volleyball roots to tour Thailand, her first ever overseas trip, is a challenge Zoe is excited to tackle.

“Touring overseas with an Australian squad is something I never thought I would be doing,” she said.

“Especially for a lot of Mildura kids, this Thailand tour is a big goal when it comes to volleyball.

“I’ve been talking to a lot of the others who have gone before. They say the humidity is a big factor, once you get off the plane you basically start sweating. The culture is also very different.

“They have all loved it though and it’s something I’m really looking forward to.”

As one of a number of young players blooded into the top tier of VVL competition for Phantoms, Zoe has spent more time on court than she anticipated over the first two rounds of the season.

“It’s been really good. They brought up a couple of us younger girls and to be honest I didn’t think I’d get anywhere near as much court time as I have,” she said.

“Being able to play alongside girls with so much experience has been great.

“They have helped me with everything under the sun. My defence and attack has already proved by being around them.

“There are so many people who have supported me to take on these opportunities.

“My beach volleyball coach, Ella Tromp, and pathways coordinator, Scott Davidson, at Volleyball Victoria have allowed me to take on this exciting opportunity.

“My long-term volleyball coach, Chris Nunn, has helped me so much, as have SVI coaches Stephen Purcell, Chris Hermans, Andrew Zrna, Kim Kalms and Paul Freckleton. David Berry, the head women’s coach at Phantoms, has also been a great source of ongoing support.”