By Nate Ogle
For George Mason High School Class of 2010 graduate Nick Smirniotopoulos, juggling academics and varsity soccer at Virginia Tech was a difficult assignment. Heading into his senior year at Tech, the former Mason soccer star has persevered both on the field and in the classroom. Smirniotopoulos was recently awarded the 2013 Skelton Award for Academic Excellence in Athletics for his consistent academic performance.
“It was a challenge,” Smirniotopoulos said. “It wasn’t so much the time management, but more so the mental toughness; getting up at 5 a.m. every day for practice then having to go to class right after takes a lot of focus.”
Not only did he have to adjust to a new, more rigorous schedule, Smirniotopoulos also had to adapt to playing at the next level.
“College sports are different; I’m not the star [of the] team anymore,” Smirniotopoulos said. “I still have to work extremely hard, but I might not see the results I’m used to.”
Despite a transition that he admitted was “a little rough,” receiving the Skelton award confirmed not only his academic ability, but also his purpose.
“It was very rewarding to get some sort of affirmation, to know you’re doing something right,” Smirniotopoulos said.
The prestigious Skelton award, named for Bill and Peggy Skelton, is given to a male and female athlete who have played on a Virginia Tech Hokie sports team for at least two seasons and maintained at least a 3.4 cumulative grade-point average. The honorees each receive a $5,000 scholarship that can be applied the following year, or saved for graduate school. The female recipient, Courtney Dobbs of Glen Allen, is a redshirt sophomore who runs track and cross-country at Tech.
Part of what made the initial college transition so difficult for Smirniotopoulos was the change in his role on the soccer team. In high school at George Mason, Smirniotopoulos was a four-year starter and prolific goal-scorer. In his final two years at Mason, he led the soccer team to back-to-back state titles and was named State Player of the Year following his senior campaign, the fifth time a Mason player has won the award in the last 11 years.
In his freshman season at Virginia Tech, Smirniotopoulos saw time in only two games. He broke through as a sophomore, playing in seven games and starting three of them. However, in his junior campaign he only found the field in one game. The lack of playing time was a tough pill to swallow for the player who had been a star and perennial starter in high school. Despite his disappointment at not being able to contribute on the field, Smirniotopoulos has embraced his new role.
While it was Smirniotopoulos’ playing ability that prompted Mason Head Coach Frank Spinello to call him “the best player in Mason history,” his off the field gifts are what make him a valuable teammate.
Although Smirniotopoulos may not be getting the chance to show off his natural goal-scoring ability or field-vision (in his senior year at Mason, he scored 36 goals and assisted in 33, both single-season records) he is able to get the most out of his other attributes.
Spinello remembers Smirniotopoulos as a player who led by example.
“He showed people how to do things the right way and urged them to do the same,” Spinello said. “He led by example through how hard he worked; everyone knew he was going to show up and work hard every day.”
During a difficult freshman year Smirniotopoulos discovered the Christian faith, and says his positive outlook is the result of trust in the plan he believes God laid for him. He did not always have that trust, though.
Smirniotopoulos began to feel as if God had a plan for him during his trying junior season in which he struggled to find playing time. Smirniotopoulos has now come to understand that although he might not play next season, he has a role and is valued as a member of the team.
“That’s when it was very clear to me that I had an answer to prayer, that I was supposed to stay on the team, and that I had a role, although it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted,” Smirniotopoulos said.
As one of only six seniors on a young team, Smirniotopoulos is in a position he relishes. Not only is he a hard worker and model of consistency, Smirniotopoulos also brings a wide variety of experiences to the table.
“I’ve experienced every role; I’ve played, I’ve started, I’ve not played, and I know how hard transitioning to college life can be,” Smirniotopoulos said. “It’s been a struggle for me at times to accept my role on the team. Obviously I want to play, but I think God made it very clear I’m supposed to be on the team, I’m supposed to stay, and I’m there for a purpose.”
As Smirniotopoulos prepares for his final season of competitive soccer at Virginia Tech, he feels as if he has found his place both on and off of the field; receiving the Skelton award was just another indication that things are falling into place as he looks forward to his senior year. He expects to graduate in the spring with a communications-psychology double major, after which he will be going on a two-year mission experience abroad.
“The coolest part of the award was not so much the award itself but the confirmation that I’m supposed to be here,” he said.