Destinee Smith toes the line between effectively aggressive and overly antagonistic with her physical play.
Platte County’s brutish junior forward seems to move in straight lines toward the opponent’s goal, determined to score at all costs. In many ways, her play embodies the spirit of her father.
“You play like your daddy, girl,” Willie Smith, Sr. used to tell his eldest daughter.
Willie Smith, Sr. died in November of 2015.
The legacy he left behind in his children can currently best be viewed through watching Destinee Smith on the soccer field. She’s not always the fastest or most skilled.
Destinee Smith carves out a path and leaves defenders crumpled along her path when necessary.
“I don’t really know,” Destinee Smith said. “I just kind of developed it when I started playing soccer. (My dad) definitely taught me not to let other people push me around on the field and to stay tough.
“He taught me to knock other girls out when necessary.”
Willie Smith, Sr. was never the strongest or quickest and certainly not the tallest. He often times looked like the toughest player on the football field.
A 1996 graduate of Platte County High School, Willie Smith, Sr. started for three years in football and excelled as a catcher in baseball. He was an undersized defensive tackle at 5 feet, 8 inches tall but made the most of his abilities through determination and effort.
Willie Smith, Sr. even earned All-KCI Conference honors as a junior in 1994 when Platte County advanced to the Class 3A quarterfinals.
Only mean during competition and generally flashing a bright smile off of it, Willie Smith, Sr. played like a runaway bowling ball for Platte County on the same field — only with natural grass and fewer surrounding amenities — that Destinee Smith currently patrols for the Pirates.
Soccer wasn’t a sport offered when he was in school, but he supported his daughter’s passion.
“He used to hype himself up — a bit,” Destinee Smith said. “He used to think he was a beast. He would tell me stories all the time about how he would take guys out on the football field. He told me I should do that in soccer, but you can’t really just tackle girls in soccer.
“He loved seeing me play.”
Destinee Smith fought to earn her spot with a method that made dad proud.
Now the leading scorer for a second straight year, Smith started in youth as a defender — probably no surprise based on her current physicality. She moved to forward ahead of high school but didn’t earn a varsity spot as a freshman, maybe just as much to do with a stubbornness as still-developing skills.
“She has to be a tough player,” Platte County coach Ashyln Brantley said. “We knew she had it in her. Freshman year, it was the attitude and just the effort that she wasn’t putting into it. Each year, she’s gotten better at that and put more into it.”
The potential was always evident.
Destinee Smith moved to the top of the formation as a sophomore and immediately became the top target of Platte County’s offense. She managed to outscore senior all-state performer Brooke Zenner, who served as facilitator to the developing sophomore.
In the Class 3 District 16 final, Destinee Smith scored the tying goal late in regulation and the winner in overtime to help the Pirates end a string of five straight losses to Smithville in that same round.
The successes — individually with a team-high 24 goals and team-wise with a sectional berth — inspired Destinee Smith in the offseason. The ornery junior-to-be even started showing up to most club practices with a little push from her aunt.
“I wasn’t about it, but I had to,” Destinee Smith said.
Off the field, Destinee Smith endured struggles much bigger than a penchant for missing practice. Her grades were slipping and focus on school suffered in the wake of tragedy.
Willie Smith, Jr. — then a senior — and a younger sister were home from school sick on a Nov. 10, 2015. A family member unexpectedly came and pulled Destinee Smith out of class that day without explanation.
Inside, Destinee Smith said she knew the reason and realized when they pulled up to the family home that her father was dead. Willie Smith, Sr. suffered from heart problems, and on that particular day, his heart stopped beating.
Destinee Smith carries his memory with her, but there’s no special ritual before games, no special celebration after goals dedicated to him. She carries her burden silently while often giving off a faux sense of invincibility.
“Destinee at her core is a very sensitive person and like me isn’t good at showing true emotion,” said Willie Smith, Jr., a 2016 Platte County graduate who had just finished his senior year of football when Willie Smith, Sr. died.
Destinee Smith’s freckled nose crinkles up when she’s making a joke, often displaying an entertaining silliness to her teammates in practices and after games.
On the field, the demeanor changes. Destinee Smith draws the attention of defenders through her knack for scoring goals. She agitates referees with her often outspoken antics and borderline abusive treatment of defenders who dare try to frustrate her.
Platte County coaches and teammates try to keep Destinee Smith reined in, limit her yellow cards and take advantage of her unique skill set. So far this season, she has tallied 24 goals with teammates occasionally in awe of her ability to create a scoring chance out of sheer will.
“She makes you say, ‘Dang,’” Platte County senior midfielder Kianna Castro said of Destinee Smith. “Some balls I give to her, I don’t know what she’s going to do with them but then it ends up in the goal. We’re blessed to have her. She fights for every single ball, and we’re lucky to have that.”
Destinee Smith still struggles at times to focus on schoolwork. She wants to do better, and soccer can occasionally serve as the motivation, knowing the sport can earn her college opportunities.
Willie Smith, Sr. never left Platte City but became known as a hard-worker. He drove a tow truck and serviced cars but also spent time coaching and helping with youth sports.
Destinee Smith knows what her dad would want her to do. She can’t stop being who she is on the soccer field but maybe she can turn around her performance in the classroom.
“I know he’d be disappointed,” Smith said. “I just gave up on school as a whole last year, and I know I need to start caring again. (My performance in soccer) opened my eyes. There’s no changing my play now. I’ve made it this far.”