KEARNEY, Neb. – Lindsey Smith is still in the middle of the action on the volleyball court.
The former Dakota Valley High School All-American setter is in her third season while playing for the University of Nebraska-Kearney.
Smith, a four-year starter at Dakota Valley, is in her third season as a starter for the Lopers and after sharing duties as a freshman, has been in control of the offensive attack the last two seasons.
Nebraska-Kearney is fresh off a Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association conference tournament championship and is in the NCAA Division II national tournament for the 19th straight season.
The sixth-ranked Lopers, the MIAA regular season champs as well, ran their impressive home court win streak to 55 with a four-set victory over Missouri Western in the tourney title game on Saturday at the Heath & Sports Center on the Kearney campus.
“My entire career here at UNK we have never lost at home,” said Smith. “It’s definitely a huge advantage, we have the best crowd in our conference, it makes it more intimate when we are able to host the conference tournament.”
Now the Lopers prepare for the regional tournament that begins on Thursday in Marshall, Minnesota on the campus of Southwest Minnesota State.
Playing in arguably the most difficult region in Division II, Kearney (33-3) opens with a first-round contest against Missouri Western, the teams fourth meeting of the season and third this month.
“We’re definitely surprised that the MIAA was well represented this year because last year we were the only team to make it,” said Smith. “So having three for us going was definitely a surprise.
“This will be the third time at regionals that we have played them within this month.”
Kearney, the third seed, dropped two matches in the MIAA this season to share the regular season title with Missouri Western, splitting a pair of matches with the Griffins and Central Oklahoma, the seventh seed.
The Lopers other loss this season is to fourth-ranked Lewis in an early season tournament in Hawaii.
The NCAA Central Regional includes five teams ranked in the top eight in the national rankings while four other ranked teams did not earn berths in the eight-team field.
Northern Sun Conference tournament champion Southwest Minnesota State is the top seed and is ranked second while defending national champion Concordia-St. Paul is the second seed and ranked third nationally.
Concordia-St. Paul has won eight of the last 10 national championships while Southwest Minnesota State was the 2015 national runner-up after opening regional play with a first-round win over Kearney.
Smith fully understands that for Kearney to realize its goal of reaching the Elite Eight in Pensacola, Florida, it will have to beat one if not two teams from the Northern Sun Conference.
“Our goal is definitely to make it past the first round and hopefully come out of regionals and make it to the Elite Eight,” said Smith.
Smith, a two-time first-team All-MIAA selection, ranked third in the league in assists per set at 11.23 while her 1,336 total assists in 119 sets ranked second behind Missouri Western’s Lauren Murphy, the other setter on the MIAA first-team.
Kearney has six different attackers with over 100 kills this season while Smith (103) is a seventh and another nine have at least one giving Smith plenty of options to distribute the ball too.
“It definitely is a different adjustment every year because we have so much depth, we have people come off the bench when others are struggling, lineups can chance every game,” Smith said. “Just a lot of my training before college and even during college has prepared me for that.”
Smith contributed 1,412 assists as a sophomore on a 35-2 team that dropped a five-set first-round regional contest to Augustana in a similar 3 vs. 6 matchup that the Loopers face this season.
Smith, who contributed 788 assists as a freshman, has seen her game progress as she gets older and more comfortable running the offense for Coach Rick Squires’ club.
“Progressing through college as a freshman I was just kind of focused on making sure I was getting my hitters in the right place,” Smith said. “I think every year I kind of build more on my game not only from the setting position but other aspects of the game from blocking to making sure I’m a threat on offense, like attacking and also my defense and serving.
“I think every year I have tried to build more on those skills, not just on my setting.”
Playing all six rotations is nothing new for the daughter of Kam and Melissa Smith, her mother a former volleyball player at Homer High School, but it was still and adjustment in college.
“Just having to kind of figure out where everyone else is at on the court, transition from playing defense to having to block,” she said. “Just making sure I’m in the right places and the right transitions plays and I’ve been doing that before college too, but it is definitely more difficult in college.”
The sports management major still keeps tabs on what Dakota Valley is up to and see how her high school upped the state tournament streak that she was part of the start of to six.
“I have been able to pay a little bit of attention,” she said. “I’ve played with some of the players, this is the last group or girls that I played with, that’s kind of crazy to think.
“I’ve tried to keep in touch with them.”
Coming from a successful program at Dakota Valley Smith entered an unknown in college having never heard of UNK before being recruited to go to school there, but understood what kind of volleyball program they had as well.
“It’s been really cool to be able to be part of all those teams and see other people come in and step up and take on those roles as well and just have that tradition continue through both levels,” said Smith. “When I came into UNK they were already really solid program so just having to rise to those expectations every year was definitely difficult, but something that all of us were willing to take on.”
Smith’s love for volleyball kicked up a gear when she began playing club volleyball, first for Cobra and then for the MVP program run by Rick Pruett.
Through it all she’s played in three state tournaments, winning a state title as a junior, and has been part of three NCAA tournament teams that have combined for a 97-12 record.
“It’s been a ton of fun just to be able to look back with everything that I have been able to do with all the different teams that I have been a part of,” she said. “It’s been really cool, it’s brought me closer to so many people. I’ve been able to go to a lot more places and experience so many things, so it’s just been a really fun ride.”
A ride that the two-time member of the MIAA Honor Roll hopes, even though she still has a full year left, isn’t done yet for this season