Rugby sharpens skills of Leechburg's Smith

Leechburg running back Kris Smith during photo day on Friday, August 16, 2013.
Leechburg running back Kris Smith during photo day on Friday, August 16, 2013.
Photo by Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
| Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013, 10:30 p.m.

It wasn't a normal offseason for Leechburg senior Kris Smith.

Instead of playing basketball in the winter or running track in the spring, he played for the first-year Kiski Valley Rugby Club.

Smith played the eight-man position for the team and not only got to experience the first season, but reaped the benefits of a sport that doesn't veer far from football.

“It helped so much,” Smith said. “Just for starters, it helped me get lower on running and it made my form-tackling so much better. It made me more aggressive and it kept me in shape.”

He also credits rugby for helping him learn how to execute the rare drop kick.

Smith a 6-foot, 185-pound running back and linebacker, will be called upon to help replace the production left behind by graduate Jacob Iellimo. Smith returns as the leading rusher from last season, with 365 yards and one touchdown on 99 carries — despite the fact he played through two sprained ankles.

The injuries brought upon a different outlook as he trained in the weight room this offseason. He worked out every day at the start of the summer but eventually moved to three days in the weight room and three separate days outside doing running drills for conditioning.

“Last year, I bulked up a lot,” Smith said. “For this year I leaned out and focused on lifting heavy legs. It's helping me a lot. I can feel myself being faster. I don't have to wear my ankle braces anymore because I've strengthened them so much.”

Having the right mindset when tackling the task of replacing Iellimo is a must, and Smith has that locked down. He said he feels stronger and faster, and he has become a better runner. His pass-catching has improved, but most importantly, he feels he has a better all-around knowledge of the game.

“I believe he's the main star coming back in the backfield,” Leechburg third-year coach Mark George said. “He has the most experience, and that's a big plus. On defense, he started at linebacker all last season for us. We are hoping he can be a star for us on defense as well. His instincts have improved. We noticed that his reaction times are better, and he has better vision and is able to hit the hole quicker than last year.”

As a senior, motivation grows to an all-time high. Things are no different for Smith, who hopes to leave Leechburg having made a name for himself.

“I don't want to leave this year without people being familiar with what I did and how I helped the team,” he said. “I don't want to leave being an unknown. I want to have the upperclassmen see how hard work pays off.”

D.J. Vasil is a freelance writer.

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