To Alexa Smith, Colorado is home.
And for the big hitting junior, who’s in her second season with the Colorado Buffaloes, getting the chance to play in her own backyard is an opportunity not lost on her.
Smith was born in California but grew up in Monument, Colo., a small town just a little over an hour south of Boulder. There, she played on the club circuit for the Colorado Juniors while blossoming into one of the most sought after recruits out of Lewis Palmer High School.
Among her accolades, she was named as a member of the USA Volleyball junior national team in 2013 and 2014, as well as the 2014 Max Preps National Player of the Year.
With in-state schools vying to keep her close to home, Smith chose to attend Purdue University, where her mom was an alumna and former member of the Boilermakers club volleyball team.
“When I was first being recruited, I thought I always wanted to go out of state,” Smith said. “In the back of my mind, I kind of had a few in-state schools in there, but I was always like, ‘I wanna go out of state.’”
During her first year in West Lafayette, Ind., Smith helped guide Purdue to the NCAA tournament before falling in the second round to eventual national runner-up Texas.
Despite her success on the court, she felt the tug from home and decided it was in her best interest to transfer.
And this time, she only wanted to go in-state.
In December of 2015, Jesse Mahoney had just been hired to become the fifth head volleyball coach for Colorado. A Colorado native himself, he was a graduate of CU before becoming an assistant at Colorado State and head coach at Denver.
Once he arrived in Boulder, he knew what his first move was.
“As soon as I was offered the job and I accepted it, that was the first phone call that I made was calling Lex and talking to her about our program,” Mahoney said.
“We were actually in a dead period, so we could speak on the phone but we couldn’t speak face-to-face. She could come to campus but I couldn’t be here to talk to her, which is also kind of strange. So she actually committed to come to Colorado without meeting face-to-face.”
In the end, Smith had narrowed her choice between the Buffs and rival Colorado State. But ultimately, the opportunity to remain in a power conference was too great to pass up.
Teaming up with some familiar faces helped as well.
While playing with the Colorado Juniors, Smith was teammates with former Buffs righ-side hitter/setter Gabby Simpson. Simpson, who has since transferred to Kansas, was playing with her sister Cierra at Colorado and helped Smith transition into the program.
By the time Smith arrived on campus, which happened to be the same day as Mahoney, she felt she was on level footing.
“It did really help having his first day be my first day as well,” Smith said. “Everyone else having a new coaching staff as well kind of made the transition a lot easier because they didn’t know what to expect out of the coaching staff either.”
During her first season with the Buffs, Colorado picked up statement wins over powerhouses Penn State, Illinois, UCLA and Utah. Smith herself had a coming out party, as she led the team in kills and aces, while finishing second in digs.
“She’s what we call a six-rotation outside hitter. So she’s the type of kid that can pass, defend, attack, serve, and can block,” Mahoney said. “She has all of the tools and is probably our most well-rounded player that we have on our roster. And certainly a focal point for what we do both offensively and defensively.”
But while Smith was able to put together a complete season, CU struggled down the stretch, losing nine of its last 11 games to finish with a losing record of 14-16.
Leading up to this season, Mahoney discussed relying on Smith a bit too much in 2016, and how the Buffs had to become a good team without her taking too many swings.
Early returns may not be exactly what he wants, but as long as the Buffs keep winning, he’ll take it.
“She’s still taking a lot of swings for us because she’s helping us win,” Mahoney said with a laugh. “We’re looking to help other players emerge and I think [Frankie] Shebby our other outside has done a fantastic job. Our middles have had some success. [Joslyn] Hayes our opposite has done well. But when it’s crunch time, Lex is getting the ball.”
The Buffs (10-3, 0-2 Pac-12), raced out to a strong non-conference start before going winless last weekend to begin conference play, which included dropping a five-set match to the defending champions Stanford. Smith, who again is leading the team in kills with 4.19 per set, says they’ve learned from the weekend and are determined to not let 2017 repeat 2016.
“It comes down to little points here and there, and I think we made a few more errors than we should have and that’s what it came down to,” Smith said. “So especially playing against those top ranked opponents, you really have to control what you can control on your side of the net and let them play on the other side.”
As for what Smith herself can improve upon: continuing to elevate her game while becoming more vocal on and off the floor.
“I’m not the kid that touches the highest on the team or can hit the hardest, but I am that kid that plays all the way around,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t say I’m one of the most vocal leaders, but, especially being an upperclassman now, that is a role I’m trying to take over and set an example on the court and off the court for my teammates.”
“The thing with Lex is that she doesn’t say a whole lot but when she does it’s really important stuff so we listen to what she has to say,” Mahoney said. “There’s not a lot of white noise when she talks.”
This weekend, Colorado will be welcoming Oregon State and Oregon to town in what will be a big test as the team tries to put last week behind them. Smith’s family will surely be watching, and she is excited at the opportunity to help her Buffs earn another key win in their own building.
After all, there’s no place like home.