Let's get the end of this story out of the way first, because it's so rare. Kelci Smesko is preparing for her final season as a member of the Ridgewood High School girls lacrosse team, the two-time defending State Tournament of Champion winners, before heading off to play for Duke University, one of the most prestigious womens lacrosse programs in the country.
It's the beginning of the story that is so common. A tale that plays out in thousands of Bergen County households. For some it starts with a ball, a puck, a glove or a skate. For Kelci, it was a stick – a deBeer Triax. She got it in fourth grade from the lacrosse store near her house. That stick and the ones that would replace it over the next eight years are never far from her hands.
And that stick would shape the direction a family would take – what they did after school and on weekends, where they went on vacation, how much time they spent together.
Kelci's dad, Ray Smesko, was a three-sport athlete in high school, but lacrosse wasn't one of them. So when Kelci came home with that first stick, he did what most other dads would do – he improvised.
"I had an old glove from baseball in the house," Ray says. "She would use her stick to throw, and I'd catch it with the glove."
And when Ray wasn't around, Kelci would play catch with the wall. And the more time she devoted to the sport, the more she wanted to play.
"I just knew that's what I wanted to do," she says.
And play she did. First with the in-town youth league. Then as she got older and better, she joined club teams and played in middle school. All the while, she also played soccer and basketball and took piano lessons.
"She was always a very athletic and aware kid," Ray says. "And we were all for it."
And soon the entire family was involved. Her sister Katie, a sophomore at Ridgewood High School, will soon begin her second season as her sister's teammate on the varsity lacrosse squad. And the youngest sister, seventh-grader Claire, also plays.
Like so many North Jersey families, sports became the focal point of their lives.
"It just turned into the foundation of the family," Ray says.
Whether it was lacrosse or basketball, sports defined how Ray, his wife, Trish, and the three girls spent their time.
"Summer vacations are going to lacrosse tournaments," he says. "We all stay in the hotel room together."
What makes Kelci's story special – what's enabled her to rise so high in her sport – is that she was able to match her passion and dedication with an enormous amount of talent and skill. In her first three years at Ridgewood, Kelci had already established the school record with 212 career goals, including a school-record 92 as a junior, and she is only 47 total points away from the school's career-points record of 347. She was named The Record's North Jersey Player of the Year last spring as well as a U.S. All-American and Academic All-American. She has also been named the No. 4 senior in the nation by Inside Lacrosse magazine and the No. 10 player by ESPNHS.
And in January she became the 10th Ridgewood girls basketball player to score 1,000 career points.
Kelci also has given back to lacrosse, helping out with clinics and providing private instruction.
"I just love playing so much," she says. "It's such an awesome feeling when I have a stick in my hands."
Ray remembers one of thefirst times he realized Kelci's passion for lacrosse might lead to something bigger.
"It was when she was in the seventh grade and we went to watch a high school game," Ray says. "At one point, she turns to me and says, 'I think I could play right now.' She was serious. And she was right."
It was when she was in eighth grade and playing for the STEPS Elite club out of Mendham that it really began to sink in. And now Kelci is just a few months and one final scholastic lacrosse season from graduation. In September, she'll head to Durham, N.C., and a full scholarship to play at Duke, which made last spring's NCAA Final Four.
"It's not something you expect," Ray says. "It's certainly not something we could have dreamed of when she first started playing eight years ago."
"It was the last thing I was thinking about," Kelci says. "I just always wanted to play."
As a father of three athletes, Ray Smesko shares some lessons he's learned along the way:
• It's not about you: It's about your kid. "The kid has to love it. I see some kids who don't want to be there."
• Be supportive: Let the coach do their job. Your role is to encourage and help.
• It's just a game: "Not everyone has to score 25 goals. It's about being part of a team and playing with friends."
Some tips from Kelci Smesko for beginning lacrosse players:
• Practice, practice, practice: It's basic advice, but really there's no substitute. Catch and throw whenever possible. If you don't have a partner, use a wall.
• Stick to it: "Have your hands on your stick as much as possible – stick skills are the most important."
• Variety is the best exercise: Don't limit yourself to one sport. Playing basketball has helped Kelci get in lacrosse shape by working different muscles.
• Left, right, right, left: Learn how to use both hands. "Work on your non-dominant hand. Being able to use both makes it difficult for the opposition."
• Have fun: Play because you want to. And it's a great way to make new friends.