By France Griggs Sloat
Aubree Smith remembers the day her family got the frightening news about her older sister Alex. The sophomore volleyball player at Xavier was suffering extreme pain from a severe back injury, and the family feared the worst—that an old spinal injury had resurfaced and she could be paralyzed.
“I was a senior in high school,” says Aubree. “I was at lunch and I started crying.”
Luckily, the injury turned out to be a herniated disc—painful, but not career-ending. Alex had surgery in October 2010 and spent the rest of the season recuperating. When she was ready to start training again, though, she turned to the one person she knew was good enough to push her and get her back into shape—her sister.
Aubree had already committed to playing volleyball at Xavier. She did that when she was 14. So, shortly after graduating from a suburban St. Louis high school, she was on the road to Xavier with two missions—kickstart her college career and get her older sister back in shape.
It turned out to be a grand reunion. Aubree and Alex have played on the same volleyball team since they were in grade school. They played together on select club teams and on their high school team. So it seemed fitting that they should carry that forward to Xavier.
“They are two of our best players,” says coach Michael Johnson. “With any set of teammates who have played together a long time, they develop an awareness, an unspoken understanding of where the other is on the court. With Aubree being the setter, it helps us that she and Alex have had that chemistry of connecting with each other for a long time.”
It’s not often that coaches get sibling players, and when they do, it isn’t guaranteed to work. Siblings can bring, well, sibling rivalry onto the court, where it can damage team chemistry. But in the case of Aubree and Alex, Johnson learned quickly he had nothing to fear.
That’s because these two sisters are close. Very close. Almost like twins. They’ve shared the same bedroom since birth, gone to the same schools and have the same friends. They finish each other’s sentences. They like the same things. They understand each other deeply, and they respect each other even more.
And it shows on the court. Aubree, a setter, puts the ball in just the right spot for Alex, a hitter, to slam it across the net. It’s like a duet. And it’s intuitive. Aubree is the one who signals how the play will go. It’s unspoken, maybe a head tilt or a shift of the eyes.
“Aubree will set the ball knowing where I will be,” Alex says. “Aubree trusts me to be there.”
That word, “trust,” is the key to their relationship and their play.
“I can see where she is and can see if she’s ready. I’ll set her on a perfect pass to hit the ball,” Aubree says. “I know where the other girls are going to be, too, but it’s unique with Alex.”
Alex and Aubree believe their relationship with each other and ability to talk openly about issues has helped bring the whole team closer together.
Johnson says the team prides itself on being a family, and “Alex and Aubree have a lot of sisters on the team besides each other.”
“I know if she’s in a funk,” Aubree says. “Maybe the team sees how open we are, and it opens the door for them.”
“They see how they can be close with each other,” says Alex. “With volleyball, it’s about team chemistry. If you’re angry with each other, you won’t want to play. But volleyball is such a fun sport, and it’s more fun when you’re playing with each other.”
That’s not to say the sisters don’t ever get mad at each other. In high school they would carry grudges, but in college, they’ve learned to drop it, to not say what they might have said a few years ago. “We won’t be mad at each other on the court,” Alex says.
That commitment to each other helped bring Alex back to form the summer after her surgery. Aubree took a freshman English class that summer and began training early with Alex. Aubree needed to learn the team’s offensive strategy. Alex needed to get back in shape.
“I hadn’t had any reps or hitting, and if I wanted to be a starter again, I had to get better quickly,” Alex says. “I needed her here.”
It worked. By the time the season got started, Alex was ready, and Aubree proved herself more than capable as a starting setter. She earned Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year, made the All-Rookie Team and was a seven-time Rookie of the Week—an A-10 record.
Alex was named to the First Team All-Conference and holds the school record for hitting percentage.
With an additional year of eligibility because of her back injury, Alex is looking forward to another season on the team—and another year playing with her sister. It will be their last. Together. But it will be good. Aubree setting it up high so Alex can slam it home.