Lady Cat senior Aleksei Smith had a bit of a different journey onto the team than some of her teammates.
Smith said she always knew she wanted to play basketball at College of the Ozarks. She wasn’t recruited, instead she went through the normal admission process. Once she was admitted, she began reaching out to Lady Cat head coach Becky Mullis.
“I initiated all the conversations,” Smith said. “She kind of turned me down for a while.”
Mullis kept telling Smith there was nothing for her, but she finally gave in and allowed her to come for a practice. Smith practiced with the team for a week, then met with Mullis for dinner.
Mullis decided to allow her to practice with the team for the rest of the season.
“I said ‘well I’ll let you practice with us this year, and if it works out, we’ll see what can happen the next year,’” Mullis said.
Smith traveled with the Lady Cats to Nationals in the 2015-2016 season, where she acted as a manager. At the end of the season, Mullis asked her if she wanted to be a part of the team.
“Of course I said yes,” Smith said. “I basically red-shirted my freshman year since I didn’t have a jersey, so 2016-2017 was my first year playing.”
In her first season as a Lady Cat, she scored what would be a career high 18 points. She went on to play 128 games where she put up 720 points, averaged 5.6 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.9 assists a game.
She averaged 4.21 rebounds, the second most on the team, and led the team with 2.79 assists this season.
Mullis said she’s proud of how far Smith had come since she first reached out to her, adding that she is a very tough and passionate person.
“It didn’t matter what drill we were doing, she just gave it her all,” Mullis said. “She routinely guarded the other team’s best player. Sometimes they were way bigger than her, she didn’t care, she just guarded them. (She is) one of the toughest, hardest working kids I’ve coached.”
Smith was a two-year starter, was all-conference and the Lady Cats’ champion of character.
Like others, Smith is disappointed with how the season had to come to a close.
She felt like the team really had an opportunity to win this year. The Lady Cats were seeded a No. 2 in their bracket and just hours away from playing their first game of the tournament before the NAIA canceled all championship games.
“I think we could have had a really good shot at winning it this year,” Smith said. “You can’t do anything about it so it’s something you have to accept, but it’s just tough.”
Thankfully, Smith isn’t saying goodbye to sports just yet.
Smith graduates from C of O in May and has accepted a position as a middle school physical education teacher in Hollister, where she will also be coaching volleyball and basketball.
“I do have something to look forward to that still has sports in it,” Smith said. “That helps too.”
Mullis is excited for Smith’s next step.
“I know she’s passionate about teaching and coaching,” Mullis said. “I know she’s going to do a great job mentoring our youth. She’s tough and passionate and she wants to do well at everything that she does.”