The year is 2007, and Zach Smith, a 2013 graduate of Smethport Area High School, has a big decision to make. Should he really focus in on the game of basketball and play AAU travel basketball or not?
After Zach and his parents, Todd and Lori Smith sat down to look up more about travel basketball, the couple and Zach decided together it was a worthwhile venture for their son Zach to endure.
Smith began his travel basketball career not long after, and it was a true wake up call for the youngster from McKean County.
“It was a lot to wrap my head around at first,” Smith explained. “There were a lot of games, talent, and also lots of intensity. I remember how nervous I was to begin my first travel basketball game. I was not sure how good some of the players and teams would be, and truly I was shocked how much talent there was out there.”
This skill and size of the players Smith played against was helpful and instrumental for the next 10 years of his life. After his middle school days, Smith was called up to start on the varsity basketball team as a freshman.
After averaging 11 points per game as just a freshman and receiving a lot of mail from colleges, Smith began to understand that he was going to be a college basketball player at some level.
In his senior season, Smith averaged 23 points, 11 rebounds, and 5 assists to earn both All-District and All-State honors.
When decision time came on where to continue his education and basketball career, Smith considered Penn State Behrend and nearby Pitt-Bradford. After weighing his options and speaking with his family and coaches, he decided attending Pitt-Bradford was the best place for him to continue his career in basketball while also beginning studies in civil engineering like his older brother, Justin. He averaged 7.2 points and 4.1 rebounds in his freshman season while mostly coming off the bench. In his sophomore season, Smith was able to increase his averages to 11.1 points and 6.4 boards per game.
Smith was showing great improvement, but he stuck to his commitment to being a civil engineer. Many thought his basketball career was over, including Smith himself. Some of his family members, coaches, and friends had spoken to him about possibly walking on at the University of Pittsburgh and playing Division I basketball.
For a while, Smith laughed at the idea of pursuing Division I basketball. However, he decided the worst that could happen is the team tell him no and he focus on gaining his degree. With the help of his coaches, Smith compiled some game film to send to the Pitt. One day in the summer between his sophomore and junior years, Zach looked down at his cell phone and saw a Pittsburgh number calling him. His life was about to change forever.
After answering the phone call and saying hello, the voice on the other end told him it was Jamie Dixon, the former coach for the University of Pittsburgh who is now coaching at his alma mater, Texas Christian University.
“I actually did not believe him at first,” Smith said. “This was the guy I grew up rooting for and watching on Saturday afternoons. I just could not fathom he was trying to call me.”
In the exchange, coach Dixon offered Zach a preferred walk-on spot at Pitt. A dream was realized, and Zach’s hard work and dedication both in the classroom and on the floor was about to pay off.
The team decided to redshirt Zach for the 2015-2016 season, and it was a decision that allowed him to get in the weightroom and in the gym more to prepare his body for the intensity and demands of Division I basketball.
After sitting out the 2015-2016 season, Smith was ready to dress and contribute for the Panthers in the 2016-2017 season. While he began this season as a preferred walk-on once again, this storyline was about to change for the better once again.
While the Panthers lost their head coach Jamie Dixon to TCU, they brought in Kevin Stallings to Oakland to take over the program. Stallings was impressed with the amount of progress Smith had made along with the work ethic he showed in basketball and school.
“It was the end of a shootaround and we were shooting free throws like normal. Coach (Stallings) called on me and I was kind of worried what he was going to do. Stallings is a character and likes to joke around with his players,” Smith said. “I thought he was going to make me do something funny in front of the team, but he told me to shoot a free throw. I actually ended up missing the free throw, and all of the coaches started laughing at me.”
The coaches began to converse with each other and asked if they should give him another shot or not. After deciding to give him another chance to sink a foul shot, Smith responded by sinking the free throw. His reward was a full athletic scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh for a semester.
While Smith worked so hard to gain this scholarship, he was quick to mention his high school coach, Dan Ziegler, his family, and Coach Britt Moore for helping make his dream come true. He also is extremely grateful for coaches Jamie Dixon, Kevin Stallings, Dan Cage, and Matt Richardson for the belief they had in him and for working with him in a magnitude of ways to become a better player.
In two seasons as a Pitt Panther, Zach appeared in 16 games and made a start against the University of Virginia. He made appearances against some of the most well-known basketball teams in the country which is truly a special occurrence. These days, Smith resides in Texas, working as a civil engineer.