Second opinion gives Smith second chance

Ray Maloney, Sports

Lake Region State College coach Duane Schwab is resting much more comfortably now. But, his relief is nothing like that being felt by freshman standout Mariah Smith.

For nearly one month Smith had no clue as to whether she would ever step foot on a basketball court again. It was a time of uncertainty that left the talented Smith with a kaleidescope of emotions as her collegiate career appeared to be over after barely beginning.

A knee injury suffered early in the summer prior to her senior year at Maple Valley High School got progressively worse and forced Smith to miss the postseason in her final prep season. She chose to end her prep career a bit prematurely in order to have surgey done on the troublesome knee.

“I knew (college) athletics were in store after high school,” said the former homecoming queen.

After seeing significant playing time in each of the first eight games of her career at Lake Region, troubles flared again and forced her to the bench, where she has remained while awaiting the results of two examinations. Both examinations revealed far differing results.

The first, according to Smith and Schwab, indicated surgery was needed and that her basketball career just might be over.

"The first appointment crushed me," Smith said.

She and Schwab sought a second opinion. And the wait began ... and drug on.

 "It was the longest two weeks of my life," said Smith of the time between examinations.

But, another examination just before Christmas, revealed no further damage and doctors gave Smith the go-ahead to resume practice with the Lady Royals.

It’s a welcome return for all concerned.

“It is a huge loss,” said Schwab when the first prognosis was received. “(Smith) is a shooter and she does all the other things extremely well.”

Smith played in each of the first eight games for the Lady Royals this season and was a major contributor to the team as LRSC began 6-2.

She was averaging eight points and better than two rebounds per game before being sidelined for the past seven games. With her on the bench the Lady Royals have posted a 4-3 record. They resume their season Tuesday night when LRSC travels to Thief River Falls, Minn. to take on Northland Community College.

Her return should bolster Lake Region, which dives back into Mon-Dak Conference play Jan. 12 in Wahpeton against North Dakota State College of Science.

A smooth-shooting guard, the five-foot, eight-inch newcomer was one of the top shooters on the team in the early portion of the season. She had connected on 20 of 49 field goals, including three of 10 from 3-point range. Her .408 shooting percentage still ranks among the team leaders this season.

Equally dangerous from the foul line, Smith is shooting at a .714 clip (15-21) and that kind of accuracy will be crucial for the Lady Royals down the stretch as they try to advance to the region tournament that narrowly eluded them last season when they were downed by Williston State.

Smith was a three-time all-district performer for the Raiders and was selected as the senior athlete of the year in Region 2 last season, despite her team losing 19 of 22 games on the year. She helped her team to the Region 1 tournament each of her first two seasons with the Raiders, which fell in the first round during her freshman season before rebounding to move on to the district title game as a sophomore.

The final two years of her prep career were not nearly as successful. Maple Valley was unable to repeat the success of the previous two seasons in an otherwise stellar career.

But, something more important may have happened along the way. At least as far as Smith is concerned.

It was before the start of her freshman season that Smith and Shelby Krueger met. The two began as rivals, with Krueger competing for Finley-Sharon-Hope-Page. It led to the tandem competing alongside one another during summer basketball and culminated in an unbreakable friendship.

"I think (Krueger) has been taking this harder than I have been," said Smith of her recent injury that forced her to miss seven games this season.

"She has such an ability to get to the basket with the ball," said Krueger, who, after years of being Smith's rival in District 2, is now a teammate at Lake Region. They are two of Schwab's highly-touted freshman class this season. All have helped the Lady Royals get off to a quick start this season and establish LRSC as one of the top teams in the Mon-Dak.

Smith said the adjustment to the college game has gone smoother than expected — bum knee aside — and she has simply resorted to her strengths to make that transition to a new style of play.

She said she has long considered one her many strengths to be her uncanny ability to get to the basket with the ball, which Kreuger testifies to.

“I like getting others involved in what we are doing,” Smith said. “It’s great to be able to make that pass that gets our team some points.

“In high school we played a lot of 2-3 (zone),” added Smith, one of the best defenders on the team. “But (Schwab) is more of a man (defense) coach ... I have been able to adapt to that pretty well.”

With a sense of relief in resuming her basketball career, Smith figures to also become stronger at rebounding, another area that should benefit the Lady Royals.

“(Schwab) is big on rebounding,” Smith said, “ ... it’s one thing that makes him happy.”

A versatile athlete, Smith competed in volleyball in each of her first two years at Maple Valley. “I found it wasn’t for me,” said Smith, a state placewinner in track while competing for the Raiders.

She placed seventh in the triple jump as a freshman and followed that up with a third-place finish as a sophomore, while also finishing seventh in the long jump that same season. Smith also competed in cross country for Valley City High School.