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Napa Valley Prep Football: Smith improved after ‘nicest lineman’ quip
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Napa Valley Prep Football: Smith improved after ‘nicest lineman’ quip

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Football head coaches in the county are asked each year to nominate a senior lineman and a senior back for the National Football Foundation-College Hall of Fame’s Napa County Scholar Athlete award, and Vintage's Dylan Leach couldn’t write enough about offensive lineman Connor Smith.

The award recognizes the whole student-athlete — not only their performance on the field and in the classroom, but also their involvement in extracurricular activities such as student government and clubs and organizations out in the community.

Smith was selected as the lineman and Napa High's Brock Bowers as the back for Napa County by county media members. Each of the 24 winners from the 12 counties in the Northern California Chapter banquet will receive a $1,000 scholarship to help pay for college. The chapter's annual banquet in San Francisco honoring the winners was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Smith, a team captain Leach said was also voted to the “Leadership Council” by the coaching staff, was a key component of a line that paved the way for Vintage to net 483 yards a game — 355 rushing and 128 passing — and outscore its six Vine Valley Athletic League opponents by an average of 53.5 to 4.5 points per night.

He recorded 19 pancake blocks in helping the 6-0 Crushers finish undefeated for the first time since 1980. They didn't get to play preseason or postseason games due to the pandemic, but a 14-0 season with a normal schedule might not have been out of the question for the talent-rich squad.

Smith received Vintage's Most Outstanding Lineman Award, Coach’s Lineman Award, Golden Helmet Award, the Character and Integrity Award, and Captain’s Award.

“Connor was the heart and soul of our football program,” Leach wrote. “As our vocal captain, he was in charge of all of our non-coach activities, such as warm-ups, captain’s practice, etc. He also led by example by having the highest program percentage in attendance for all weight room, practice, and community service detail over his four years — 99%.

“Connor was without a doubt the most improved and transitioned athlete I have ever seen go through a four-year period throughout my 21 years of coaching. His work ethic has put him in the position he’s in today, the highest-graded lineman all-time at Vintage. As a two-sport star, he found time to never miss workouts and was awarded Vintage’s highest award, the Iron Man Award. He is the most coachable lineman I have ever coached and was a one-time learner with not only assignments but with his feet, hand and eye placements, and he never missed an assignment.”

Smith’s sport growing up was baseball. His dad, Billy Smith, coached both high school and summer baseball before coaching football each fall. He was Vintage’s varsity football head coach from 2007 to 2010, guiding the Crushers to the playoffs the first year. But Connor was in kindergarten and elementary school during those years, perhaps too young to absorb Dad’s love of the gridiron.

Connor finally tried football in his first year of high school, partly because his dad was the head coach of the freshman squad and he liked being around Dad. He had to work extra hard to keep up with his more experienced teammates, but Coach knew just how to motivate his son.

“My dad called me the ‘nicest lineman in the league,’” Connor recalled.

He knew his dad meant he was soft, and nobody as competitive as Connor wanted that on his football resume.

“I was small and weak and didn’t know much about football,” Smith admitted, “but I found my place in the weight room between my freshman and sophomore seasons. I learned to love football and working out that summer. Sophomore year, I was a starter on JV. My junior year, I was in some packages and went in only when Leach needed me.

“But I started to make big strides and see results in my strength and skill during COVID,” he said of an offseason extended by seventh months because of the pandemic. “I was finally confident by my senior season.”

The VVAL decided not to have all-league honors this spring, but Leach is certain to have nominated Smith for Lineman of the Year.

“Connor was in charge, as a guard, to call out the defensive fronts and make our line calls and adjustments for the five hogs up front,” the coach wrote. “He was extremely versatile, starting at all five positions on the offensive line over the course of his junior and senior years. He’s the major factor and reason we finished the 2021 spring season leading the state in points, touchdowns and total yards and third in rushing yards.”

Smith was the class treasurer from his freshman year to junior year and served as Associated Student Body Director of Student Activities as a senior. He was the leader of the "Crushers in the Community" program, organizing youth football and baseball camps, reading to local elementary school students, and volunteering for community service to clean up local cemeteries and community gardens.

Smith also helped with elementary school fairs, serving Thanksgiving dinners to senior citizens, helping at the Napa Valley Marathon, assisting with his father’s annual American Legion youth baseball camp each summer. When the baseball camp was canceled last summer, Connor created a camp of his own, helping a small group of kids safely be active with baseball and football drills.

“Coach Leach gave us many community service opportunities and I always tried to take part,” Smith said. “I pride myself on community service and representing Vintage High School and my family. I make sure that everything I do sets a good example for others and that I represent Vintage and my family in a positive way.”

He enjoyed being involved in student government under the tutelage of Activities Director Hannah Housley.

“Leadership and student government is one of the only classes on campus where you are in a room and class with all grade levels,” he said. “Mrs. Housley creates a very close, tight-knit community in her class. You create friendships with all sorts of personalities and people. She taught us life skills like collaboration, organization, leadership, time management, kindness, and so much more.”

It all helped him get through a trying year and a half that began with his junior season of baseball getting canceled by COVID after a promising 5-1 start, and not having football or baseball playoffs as a senior. Being unable to see friends and teachers in person during his senior year because of pandemic restrictions gave him every reason to slack off, but he finished with a weighted GPA of 4.56 (3.97 unweighted) and was accepted into San Diego State University.

“COVID was a gut punch, uncharted territory, and I knew that no one knew what to do,” he said. “School was hard. There was no personal interaction, no motivation, no due dates and no letter grades, which gave us the opportunity to stop and disconnect. But the whole time I was worried about getting stronger, and COVID gave me time to get ready for the season.”

He said offensive line coaches Dennis Raines, Andrew Hall and Leach made sure the guys up front knew they were as important as the ones scoring touchdowns.

“Coaches Raines, Hall and Leach made being a lineman an honor. They cherished us and had our backs at all times, no matter what was happening,” he said. “The line as a whole knew that without linemen our team couldn’t get anywhere or do anything. We knew we weren’t going to have our name in the paper, touch the ball or get our name called on the loudspeaker, but our brotherhood meant more. We made sure to high-five, congratulate each other, and check in after every drive, big play or touchdown during practice and games. The relationships I created with this group of linemen and coaches I will have forever.

"I want to thank Coach (Ray) Sisemore and Coach (Chris) Meza for introducing me to being a lineman and helping me grow in my first two years of football. They helped me build a foundation and showed me what it is like to be a lineman and football player. Coach (Chris) Yepson created who I am in the weight room, he pushed me and cared for me and my health in the weight room, on the field, and in life. These coaches didn’t only coach me in the sport of football. They also taught me so much about life and being a good person.”

He said being the son of a coach was an advantage, especially when he played freshman football.

“Being new to the game and learning things at practice, I was able to come home and ask him about plays, skills and blocking assignments,” he said. “I think my sophomore year he wanted to watch me and not coach me because he wanted to see me grow and not hear about the coach's son's excuses. That was my first year with him not as my coach or part of the coaching staff of any sport I played, except soccer.

"It was a lot of responsibility to be the son of a teacher and a coach. When people around were doing something that they shouldn't be doing, I couldn’t join in because everyone knew who I was and held me to a different standard. But being early and setting a good example is something I take pride in.”

He’s never regretted being the son of Terri and Billy Smith.

“My parents let me participate in any athletic event or activity that I wanted to. They sacrificed many things for my athletics, whether it was Sundays to go throw to me in the cages, weekends having tournaments in other cities, or the midday runs to get me lunch on game days,” he said. “They taught me to be a great teammate, leader and captain. They taught me what was wrong and what was right. I can’t thank them enough for what they have done for me and how they made me the man I am today.”

He had another blue-collar role of sorts in baseball, coming in to pitch only the last inning or two if the game was close, and getting only a handful of at-bats.

“I like high-intensity close games. I live for the moments where nerves are high. The guy who is the most confident and wants it the most usually wins it,” he said. “I don’t really fit the stereotype of a closer, a fast-throwing guy who is hard to hit. I am a strike-thrower who lets guys hit the ball and trust my defense to make plays behind me.

"Having my dad as the head coach this year was awesome. Seeing his first-year nerves and knowing how nervous he was whenever I would come into a close game was fun.”

Rich Anderson, who was Vintage's varsity baseball head coach for 26 of the previous 29 seasons and now assists Billy Smith, sounded in his nomination letter like he wished he had a whole team of Connor Smiths.

"He is what I would call a 'glue guy.' He shows up early. He works incredibly hard. He is cerebral. Most importantly, he performs," Anderson said. "Despite all of these qualities, he does not get the limelight nor does he seek it. I do not feel people like Connor ever get proper recognition. They just quietly help things become great.

"He always seems to make the right decisions. He has a strong moral compass and follows his gut. He may be a soft-spoken young man right now, but I see him taking leadership positions throughout his life."

Smith is playing for his dad’s American Legion baseball team this summer before transitioning from student-athlete to a student only so he can master the tough curriculum of a kinesiology major.

“It is going to be very different not having organized sports to worry about, but I will stay involved in athletics,” Smith said. “I look forward to attending athletic events at school and will be looking for a job, earning a position to help a team or working with the event staff at the games.

"I plan on playing intramural sports, maybe joining a club team, and playing a lot of golf. I also see myself down at the beaches and working out.”

Napa High's Cole Lex was the only other lineman candidate. Bowers and the other back nominees will be featured in Sunday's edition.

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