COLUMBIA — Coming out of Hermann High School in 2003, Lindsay Smith was in a situation most high school athletes would dream of being in.
An All-State athlete in volleyball and girls basketball, Smith had scholarship offers in both sports from schools in the Big 12.
But when Smith weighed her options at the end of her high school career, she chose none of the above.
“I think at that point, I was just worn out with sports,” she said. “I was trying to focus on school.”
After turning down Oklahoma State’s basketball offer and MU’s volleyball offer, Smith decided on attending MU as a regular student, planning to get her degree in nursing and move on with her life after athletics.
As it turns out, she’s not ready to move on just yet.
More than four years after turning down MU’s offer, Smith made her volleyball debut on the Hearnes Center floor in the Tigers’ first match of the season against Notre Dame, truly taking the long way to becoming a college athlete.
“I missed it, and I missed playing,” she said. “I played for the club team, but it wasn’t that competitive, so I was ready to get back into competitive (volleyball) for a little bit.”
Her return might never have occurred if not for roster problems caused by two players leaving the team near the end of the season last fall, causing MU coach Wayne Kreklow to look for anyone who could help the team.
“We were short on back row players, and we had a need for another person,” Kreklow said. “We knew Lindsay from high school, and knew Lindsay was here playing on the club team, so we came and watched a couple of practices and approached her to see whether or not she would be interested.”
For Smith, the change was welcome.
“The club team was just for fun, which it’s supposed to be,” she said. “Sometimes that upset me, because I wanted to play more serious, and I would get upset when people weren’t taking it that serious, so I just figured this would be a good step for me.”
It’s been a big step to go from playing for fun to competing in one of the nation’s best volleyball conferences.
“It’s always a challenge, because there’s a huge difference between high school ball and this level of college ball,” Kreklow said. “The hard part for Lindsay has been all the little things. It does take a while, and it’s taken that first fall. She was quite a bit behind, but she’s caught on fast, and she’s improved tremendously in the time that she’s been here.”
Smith improved to the point where she was in the starting lineup at defensive specialist for the Tigers against Notre Dame. She said Aug. 31 was a night of immense personal satisfaction.
“It was fun, it was exhilarating,” she said. “That was my goal. Every practice, every game, that’s what I pushed for.”
But it’s clear that despite becoming an important member of the team, Smith still wonders what could have been had she not waited until now to return to the sport she says “comes second nature to me.”
“I feel like I could have been a lot better,” she said. “My potential is there, (but) I’m always playing catch-up like Wayne says, and probably by the time I get to where I need to be, I’ll be gone.”
But she says she has no regrets with how things have turned out, despite losing a scholarship.
“A lot of the decisions I made and a lot of the people I met along the way wouldn’t have happened, so I don’t regret it,” she said.
Her situation is created by the NCAA’s eligibility time frame. When a student enters college, the NCAA places a five-year clock on the student to use up four years of eligibility, whether they actually compete or not. Having already completed four years of college, this would be Smith’s last year of eligibility even if she was not on track to graduate in May with her nursing degree.
Kreklow said though a situation like Smith’s seems odd, it’s actually not that rare.
“There’s a lot of times that you’re looking at players, there’s a lot of them out there and there’s not a lot of spots for them,” he said. “What often happens is that we just don’t have a spot.”
With that being the case, Smith knew that she didn’t want to regret turning down the opportunity when it came a second time.
“It was a decision I made (in 2003) that I was afraid I’d regret in the future,” she said. “That’s why I decided to play again last year.”