Elizabeth Smorol didn’t think much of it at first, the fact that she was the female coach of a boys varsity sport at Lockport High School.
She wasn't the first. That was Marion Singleton, the coach of the boys and girls bowling teams for the past seven seasons. But female coaches in male sports are still few and far between.
After 15 years as the head of the girls volleyball program, Smorol stepped down in 2013 so that she didn’t have to miss watching her son, Sean Denniston, as he started his scholastic career.
“I’ve taught in the district for 22 years,” Smorol said, “so watching him grow up I knew it was time for me to stop coaching girls because I didn’t want to miss him play.”
Smorol wasn’t out of the coaching seat for long. She got an opportunity to stay close to her son by switching over to the boys side as the junior varsity coach in 2014 for one season before moving up to her current post in 2015, when program founder Joe Whalen retired two years after winning the school’s first Section VI title.
As far as Smorol was concerned, she was just the next coach. But the more people started bringing it to her attention, the more she embraced that she was a part of history.
“There have obviously been tons of guys that have coached women’s sports but not so much the other way around,” Smorol said, “so I think it is a pretty big deal when you think about the history of the school and the sport.”
Smorol never won a sectional title with the Lady Lions, but her teams were regular contenders in the always-competitive Niagara Frontier League.
Last year she guided a young Lockport squad to the Division I sectional final, where they were swept by a strong Clarence crew led by current Penn State freshman Henry Payne.
Her credentials go as far back as her playing days at Medina High School. From there she went on to a small D-I school for a couple years before finishing up as an All-SUNY Athletic Conference player at the College at Brockport in 1995.
“That’s what it all comes down to,” Smorol said. “If you’re experienced enough you should have the opportunity to coach no matter the sport or gender.”
Yet there are times when Smorol can spend half a day at a tournament before some coaches acknowledge her.
If they don’t notice her, opposing coaches have certainly paid attention to her team when it hits the court.
The Lions only graduated two seniors from last season and have been voted as the unanimous No. 1 team in Western New York in all four polls released this year.
It’s a title Lockport took from Canisius after beating the Crusaders in the third set of the best-of-three final at the Clarence Tournament, the annual early-season gathering of the best teams.
The Lions proved it wasn’t just a fluke two weeks later with a runner-up finish at the Eden Tournament. They lost in the third set to Rochester power Penfield, the defending state champ in D-I. In fact, Lockport was the only school from Western New York to reach the gold bracket semifinals.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Smorol said about her team’s start to the season.
Senior co-captains Jesse Donorovich, a middle hitter, and Marc Bixby, the setter, are big reasons why. As are juniors Zach Schneider and Smorol’s son, Sean, who are both versatile hitters.
“We all knew when I had them as JV players,” Smorol said, “if they kept playing in the offseason and kept learning and we stayed together, that this year was going to be our year.”
In all reality, Smorol has known this group of kids much longer than just the past four years.
Of the nine players listed on the varsity roster, she has coached the older siblings of six of them.
“It’s just a generational thing, that this whole pocket of kids are the last of the families that we all grew up together with,” Smorol said. “We all get along. We’re all over each other’s houses. ... It’s not forced at all. Each and every one of them I consider my son. They’re all like my kids. It’s just like one big family.”
That, in turn, has helped develop a level of complete trust within the team. If Smorol tells the team to do something, they don’t question it. They just do it.
“I’ve also grown up with everybody on the team so we’ve known each other since we were kids,” Denniston said. “We’ve played with each other since we were kids, so nothing’s really new for us. Our team chemistry was already built up from day one, so it was easier to play with each other.”
“She definitely had a lot more knowledge about the sport of volleyball because she’s been coaching for 15 years,” Bixby said. “It’s girls volleyball that she coached, but the fundamentals are still the same. She definitely concentrated more on defensive positioning, where my other coach was more about having a better hitting team than a defensive team.
“Defense wins championships, even in volleyball.”
Lockport found that out the hard way in last year’s sectional final.
“We took the reasons why we lost, which is mostly not being where we were supposed to be positioning-wise, and we’ve taken more time focusing on that instead of the other things that we already know we can do,” Denniston said.
“Last year we were kind of, I don’t want to say cocky, but we knew we were a good team,” Bixby said. “We kind of underestimated Clarence a little bit coming in. We thought it was going to be closer and we ended up getting beat in three. This year we know we have one of the strongest teams in Western New York, but we’re just trying to stay humble and really focus on not just trying to be good but be the best.”
The Lions are the best for the time being, but Smorol knows eventually it will all come to an end and she will have to start anew.
“It’s just a unique group of kids, and when this group is gone it’s just going to be starting from scratch trying to build,” Smorol said. “The trust thing will still be there, but the tight-knit community and family we developed won’t be there anymore.”
That’s a worry for another day. In the meantime, Smorol and her kids are focused on one thing: winning the second Section VI title in school history on Tuesday night, Nov. 7, at Lackawanna High School.
“It is still a long ways away but we have our eyes on the prize,” Bixby said. “I want to win states, so I’m going to keep practicing as hard as I can with the rest of the team. We’ve got a long ways to go, so we’re just going to take it one game at a time.”