FAIRFIELD — Casey Smith sighed.
They were appropriate responses as she recalled the past three years of her basketball career.
“I’ve gone through everything that a college player really could,” Smith said.
That is quite a statement considering the 6-2 center on the Fairfield University women’s basketball team has yet to complete her first full season.
But not inaccurate.
As a senior at Danbury High School, Smith tore her ACL in an FCIAC semifinal win. She missed playing in the final, the first of the Hatters’ three straight league titles.
Smith attended St. Joseph, but was forced to redshirt as she waited for her knee to completely heal.
Then, with her grandfather in failing health, Smith decided to transfer closer to home, ending up at Fairfield. Smith’s petition to waive having to sit out a year, per NCAA rules, was denied.
Smith was going to have to both miss a second season and lose a year of eligibility.
“I was devastated when I got the call saying I couldn’t play,” Smith recalled. “It was really hard.”
It will come as no surprise to those who remember Smith playing for the Hatters that her work ethic and versatlity have allowed her to overcome her absence and make an immediate impact this winter for the Stags. Smith, who blends a post player’s inside tenacity with a guard’s shooting range, leads the team in scoring with a 12.3 average, is second in rebounding (4.8) and third in assists.
It is the kind of performance one would have hoped for without the long hiatus.
“She’s really exceeded what I thought she could do,” Fairfield coach Joe Frager said. “She’s been really, really outstanding for us. We really tried to temper the expectations. We knew what she had done in practice. It is one thing to do it in practice and another when the lights are on and you’re being scouted.”
Smith is thrilled that her emotional roller coaster has finally ended and she has had a chance to exhibit her talents. Just playing in games that count again provide a level of satisfaction most take for granted.
“I’m a little surprised by how I am doing,” Smith said. “I think it’s a big transition. It’s my first year of college basketball, even though I’ve been practicing for about a year and half. It’s more a mental thing than a physical thing. The hard thing was just zoning out everything around you. Usually I tuned out everything and only heard what the coaches were saying. It took five games not to hear the cheerleaders and the music. I feel a lot more in control.”
Smith has had to contend with a number of tear-jerking curveballs. Missing time. Having her waiver denied. Watching games in a sweatsuit on the bench.
But the biggest came as a freshman at St. Joseph, with her grandfather’s illness. Smith said that was the impetus for leaving the school.
“I really had a great time at St. Joseph,” Smith said. “My teammates were really great, my coaches were great. But my grandpa was sick and I wanted him to be able to come see me play.”
St. Joseph released Smith, who reached out to schools only in Connecticut.
Frager, who had recruited Smith when she was at Danbury, was thrilled the day he got a call from her high school coach, Jackie DiNardo.
“She asked if we were still interested in Casey and I was like, Yeah, we are,” Frager said. “Obviously we knew from the first time she was a really talented player, but we were really impressed with her as a kid. She handled the recruiting process well. We were psyched that we had a second shot at her.”
Frager said it was obvious that Smith struggled having to sit out last season.
“It was not easy for her and I give her a lot of credit,” he said. “She handled it very well and used the year to get her legs back.”
When this preseason began, Smith was confident in her game but reticent whether she could contribute right away.
“I was very nervous,” she said. “My first scrimmage with Stony Brook, even with no fans, it felt very strange. The year before I really tried to simulate a game in practice, which is totally different. I was just trying to get ready for this year because I knew I could play a big role.”
Smith’s versatility was perhaps most evident in a 77-66 win over Iona on Jan. 29. She finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds and showed her unselfishness with 6 assists.
Frager said those kind of numbers could soon be delivered on a consistent basis.
“She is just starting to scratch the surface,” Frager said. “She’s really, really gifted. How high is her ceiling? That’s up to Casey. She can get even better. I think she’s hungry enough to get better as a player and not settle for what her skill set is now, which is significant. She’s going to continue to add to her game. She’s comfortable from 15 to 17 feet. I think she has the potential to be comfortable from 20 feet.”
For now, Smith is happy with her current position, including a mental toughness forced upon her that has complemented her game.
“I think it has been a long road,” Smith said. “It just makes it so much better to be playing. Every time on the court I try to play like it’s my last game because you never know what could happen. I wish I had the extra year, but it is what it is. It took me a while to find where I needed to be, but I found it. I just finally became the player that I wanted to be.”