Coe-Brown’s Smith makes an impact on the court even though she’s not eligible to play

  • Niki Smith practicing with team at Coe Brown Academy on October 1st, 2020. ALLIE ST PETER—Monitor Staff

  • Niki Smith practicing with team at Coe Brown Academy on October 1st, 2020. ALLIE ST PETER—Monitor Staff

  • Senior Niki Smith practices with the Coe-Brown volleyball team last week. Smith, who was homeschooled most of her academic career, attended Coe-Brown as a junior last year but she was still considered a senior making it her last year of sports eligibility. She still practices with the team and helps mentor other players. ALLIE ST PETER—Monitor Staff

Monitor staff
Published: 10/8/2020 5:24:12 PM

Niki Smith had to be prodded into volleyball. Now, you can’t get her away from the sport, even if she’s not allowed to play.

“My mom kind of forced me to go to tryouts to see if I liked it or not. I was really reluctant,” Smith said. “Turned out I loved it, much to her delight.”

That was Smith’s eighth-grade year as a homeschooler living in the Concord School District, and the volleyball team she tried out for was at Rundlett Middle School. Then she played three years at Concord High before her family moved to Strafford, which put them in a district for Coe-Brown Northwood Academy. That’s when Smith decided to give public school a shot.

Even though she would have been in 12th grade as a homeschooler, Smith entered Coe-Brown as a junior to make up for any academic discrepancies. She was still a senior in terms of athletics, however, so last year was her final year of high school volleyball eligibility.

Smith made the most of it. She helped Coe-Brown reach the Division II final, just the second championship game appearance in program history. And she received individual recognition from opposing coaches when she was selected to the D-II First Team.

That may have been the end of her high school playing days, but Smith refused to let it be the end of her connection to Coe-Brown volleyball. She’s back in school as a senior this fall and she’s back with the team. She’s practicing to prepare for what she hopes is a college volleyball career, but she’s also mentoring, role-modeling and serving as an extra assistant for head coach Renee Zobel, who described Smith as, “the heart of the team.”

“Niki is one of the kindest people that I’ve ever met. She is the first one to loop in the quiet ones, the shy ones, the new ones, and she has done a beautiful job of that this year,” Zobel said. “She is also the type of player who is just consistently positive and intense in practice, and that makes every single practice better because everyone knows, ‘Oh, if Niki is going to give it her all we have to step it up a notch.’ And this year, when she has no opportunity to play in matches in high school, she’s still doing it because she cares about working hard and getting better and contributing to the team.”

She also doesn’t know what else she would be doing this fall.

“I think a huge part of it is because I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything different,” Smith said. “I wanted to still be part of the team and the family that coach Renee makes. And a selfish part of me still wants to be in good shape for when I eventually do start to play volleyball again.”

Smith can play multiple positions, a versatility that is one of the reasons Zobel believes Smith can play college volleyball, but she was primarily a middle blocker for Coe-Brown last year. So this season she has been mentor to middles in general and sophomore Alexis Cowan, who is new to the varsity level, in particular.

“Niki has done a really nice job being an extra coach to Alexis and sharing the knowledge that she has, and it’s so much better received from another player,” Zobel said. “I mean, I have a great relationship with my team and my girls, but coming from a peer it’s just so effective. And you can watch Alexis light up when she does something that Niki told her about, and it’s just really neat to see that.”

Smith’s leadership extends beyond Cowan and the middles. It impacts the whole team and its expanding quickly, something that Zobel has seen in just two matches this season.

“In the first match she was really encouraging the players who are on the sidelines because they aren’t used to being there, they’re used to playing on JV and not varsity where they might not play,” Zobel said. “And then in the second match she was coaching blockers and hitters from the sideline on what she’s seeing and how it can help them do a better job, and it was incredible to watch. We talked about it a little bit, but a lot of that was self initiated. And everyone respects her, so it was well-received, and that’s exactly what we want from the sideline players.”

Watching from the bench has helped Smith gain knowledge at the same time she’s passing it on. It’s also reinforced her future with the sport.

“In the first few games, actually, I’ve started to notice different things about the play and how to watch the game in a different way, for sure,” said Smith, who added that, “I have thought about coaching before, but this year it’s brought it into a different light for me. I think watching Renee in a different way this year is really helpful, and in the end I do think coaching is in the future for me.”

Who knows, maybe she’ll even end up coaching at a public high school after her positive student-athlete experience at Coe-Brown.

“It’s been amazing,” Smith said. “The social aspect alone was super appealing to me because I’m a social butterfly, but volleyball has been great, of course, and the teachers here are amazing, too.”

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