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Steel Valley standout Ajan Smith has tough end to high school career

| Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, 1:11 a.m.
Ronald Vezzani Jr. | For the Daily News
Steel Valley's Ajan Smith drives to the hoop between Elizabeth Forward's Austin Matta (3) and Jalan French on Friday, January 17, 2014 at Steel Valley.
Ronald Vezzani Jr. | For the Daily News
Steel Valley's Ajan Smith avoids the defensive play of Thomas Jefferson's Chase Winovich on Friday, January 10, 2014, at TJ.

In a section loaded with talented boys basketball programs, Ajan Smith played with a brute force for the highest-scoring team.

Most times, the Steel Valley senior was unstoppable.

“Nobody has an answer for Ajan Smith,” Mars coach Rob Carmody said after the Planets escaped with an overtime victory over Steel Valley on Tuesday in the first round of the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs.

It was an abrupt ending to an exciting time for Smith and the Ironmen. Nobody at Steel Valley — certainly not Smith — was ready to call it a season. But the 6-foot-4 swingman who averaged 16 points and nine rebounds managed to find some peace in spite of it.

“It was a good experience playing on this team,” he said. “Every practice, we got the best out of everyone on the team. Everyone came to work. We just fell short of some expectations.”

Steel Valley coach Shawn McCallister continually referred to Smith as his “go-to guy” on a team where other players were impressive as well.

Steel Valley (15-5, 8-4), the third-place team in Section 4 behind Thomas Jefferson and Elizabeth Forward, ranked third among WPIAL Class AAA teams with an average of 73.4 points prior to Friday night's playoff games.

Only Chartiers Valley (74.2) and Uniontown (73.7), both of whom were still playing, were averaging more. Smith, who scored 26 points in his final high school game — a 67-61 overtime loss Tuesday to Mars — largely was behind the Ironmen's surge, though he didn't necessarily want to agree.

“Without my teammates, I wouldn't get up half the shots that I do,” Smith said.

McCallister usually doesn't talk about Smith without emphasizing his impressive work ethic, which the coach said took on a notable level of intensity before this season.

And not just on the basketball court. Smith's favorite subject is chemistry, with an eye toward studying chemical or mechanical engineering.

You want work ethic? McCallister said Smith will show you how it's done.

“He doesn't miss much,” McCallister said. “By his sheer presence, he's a great leader, very dedicated.”

Smith seems to have mastered a coveted combination of aggression and humbleness, something that resonated Steel Valley's year-round workouts.

“We have young guys on the team who wanted to step up in practice. They said they wanted to guard Ajan,” Smith said. “I love that they wanted to push me to be a better player. Coach McCallister has helped me mature, also. He had me sit down and watch film on myself from year to year, game to game. One of my goals has always been to get better every game and every practice.”

Smith said that after he fouled out in overtime of Tuesday's playoff loss, he was confronted by one of his former coaches.

“He told me just how much I've improved from when I was a freshman,” Smith said. “I want to go to college and learn and make something of myself, and I hope to be able to play basketball at the same time.”

But there hasn't been a lot of attention from college coaches so far. Division II Pitt-Johnstown, Division III Thiel and Penn State-New Kensington of the United States Collegiate Athletic Association have been showing the most interest, McCallister said.

Meanwhile, Smith faltered at the free-throw line this year, and it was more of the same trend in the loss to Mars. He tried to laugh about it in the aftermath, remembering the seven misses in 14 attempts.

He acknowledged that a better showing likely would have made a difference in the outcome of the game and would have helped him challenge his high school-best of 32 points in a game, which he scored twice during his three varsity seasons.

No matter that rare deficiency, Smith's passion can't be denied.

“Since his 10th-grade year, Ajan has really grown into a mature guy, a go-to guy,” McCallister said. “Each year, he's improved. One thing about Ajan, he listens, he pays attention. And when we asked him to play in different spots, because that's what we needed, he said, ‘Whatever you need, coach.' That speaks well for his character.”

Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dmackall@tribweb.com.

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