LINCOLN — Was this a good news hug or a bad news hug? Brooke Smith couldn’t tell. What she did know was the ensuing conversation was going to be a big one. If only Jamie Vaughn would get to the point.
After some pleasantries, Vaughn, Nebraska’s executive associate athletic director for compliance, delivered the words that spread a smile across Smith’s face. Her NCAA appeal had come through, and she would get the senior season she’d hoped for during all those miles driving up and down Highway 77.
That conversation last Friday ended a couple of weeks of emotional whiplash for Smith, a setter from Weatherford, Texas, who transferred to Kansas State after the 2016 season, but returned to Lincoln this summer for one final year with the people whose relationships she ultimately judged to be indispensable.
“It’s nice to wear my Husker uniform again,” Smith said. “It’s just nice being back with the girls and the staff and everyone involved with Nebraska athletics.”
Just three weeks earlier, Smith was part of a very different conversation. The day of the Huskers’ season opener against Florida, she sat in Vaughn’s office, nodding numbly as he broke the news the NCAA had denied her waiver to be eligible to play at Nebraska.
“At first I was in shock,” she said. “I didn’t want to believe my senior season was going to be taken away. I didn’t really know what to feel. I was just confused. That was my first real emotion.”
Players in sports like volleyball are, in most cases, allowed one transfer in which they can play at their new school without having to sit out a season. Smith played in 101 sets for Kansas State in 2017, helping set the Wildcats’ 6-2 offense.
This would be her second transfer. To be immediately eligible at yet another stop, “a student-athlete must be facing extraordinary circumstances that required the second transfer,” according to Michelle Hosick, an NCAA public relations associate director, in an Aug. 28 email to The World-Herald.
Smith felt her situation met that standard of extraordinary circumstances, though she declined a chance to elaborate in a Wednesday interview, saying “it was just kind of personal.”
It appeared Smith’s senior year was over just hours before it was set to start. For pregame introductions before NU’s opener with Florida, Smith stood on the court dressed in sweats and a warmup jacket. If she was ineligible to play, she couldn’t even wear a Husker uniform.
“I did get a little teary-eyed,” she said. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is really the fate of all of this.’”
All of this included a departure from Lincoln just after the Huskers reached their second straight final four in 2016. Smith played in 18 matches as a serving substitute her first two seasons in Lincoln, but was looking for a bigger role. She wanted to prove to herself she could be more than a well-liked teammate with a serve that could befuddle passers.
But while she played regularly in Manhattan, Smith stayed in touch with her former NU teammates. Texts and FaceTime calls were frequent. She put miles on her 2002 Mercury Mountaineer making trips back and forth to Lincoln to go to lunch with friends whenever her schedule allowed.
“You can just tell when you’re having a conversation with Brooke that she’s always into the conversation,” said Nebraska libero Kenzie Maloney, one of Smith’s close friends. “Her eyes are always directed right at you. She’s just so intense. It’s something that we really love to have in the gym.”
Smith quickly made peace with the sacrifice that would come with a return to NU. Coach John Cook made it clear freshman Nicklin Hames would run the Huskers’ offense, but Smith accepted a more limited on-court role and embraced what she could bring as one of three seniors — positive energy, experience and a tenacity on the Huskers’ B side to push the starters to get better in practice.
“With this young group, she’s huge in that every day,” Cook said. “She brings a mindset of working really hard every day, getting after it, competing, and bringing a lot of energy.”
When her eligibility claim was first denied, NU compliance officials laid out Smith’s options to appeal, but didn’t make any guarantee of success. Cook said the issue was like “a dark cloud hanging over our team.” But a ray of hope appeared when the NCAA requested additional documentation on Smith’s case. Her mother helped line up some more paperwork, and it was submitted to the NCAA last week.
The announcement came Friday afternoon. After giving Vaughn a grateful hug, Smith bumped into freshman Callie Schwarzenbach on the way to lunch, giving the rookie middle blocker the scoop. By the time she’d reached practice that afternoon, Smith had called her parents and several more teammates reliving the good news one phone call at a time.
“I was excited for her, obviously, because this was something she really wanted,” Maloney said. “That’s why she came back, to be part of it this year and not wait a year. I was really excited she got to come back and contribute.”
That contribution was cemented late in the Huskers’ sweep of Iowa State on Sunday. Smith entered the match late in the third set as part of a double substitution and on her first rally fed Mikaela Foecke for a kill to put Nebraska at match point.
It was the 74th point the Huskers won that day, but the first one that ended with Smith in the huddle, exchanging hugs that needed no explanation. The news was only good.
“These are some people that I’ve made lifelong friends here,” Smith said. “I really missed the team chemistry that the girls bring into the gym and off the court every single day. The academic staff here. The coaching staff here. I think everyone involved in Nebraska athletics genuinely cares about you and your well-being, your health and your performance.”
Central Michigan at Nebraska
When: 11:30 a.m. Friday
Where: Bob Devaney Sports Center, Lincoln
Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM