After year befitting a Titan, doors to D-I hoops reopen for Ashley Smith

03/05/2011 12:37

Exceptional ability and a relentless work ethic have always been the cornerstones of Ashley Smith’s success on the basketball court.

An athletic 6-feet-1 with a solid frame and smooth shooting touch, Smith thrives in the post, battling for layups and rebounds, while also possessing the ability to knock down three-pointers in transition.

So it didn’t come as a huge surprise when the Lane Community College women’s basketball sophomore ended the regular season last weekend as the leading scorer in the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges at 23.9 points per game, and second in rebounds at 10.9 — missing the top spot by merely two rebounds total over the course of the 26-game season.

“In my mind, she’s as good or better than any player we’ve ever had in this program,” Lane coach Greg Sheley said.

The Titans (21-5) will lean on Smith more than ever when they open play at the NWAACC tournament today at the Toyota Center in Kennewick, Wash., with a 10 a.m. game against Clark (13-11).

Injuries — including a season-ending knee injury to forward Victoria Nnoli on Saturday during the last game of the regular season — have left Sheley with just eight healthy players at his disposal as the Titans go for their fourth title in six years.

“I still think we have good talent and quality players, but four games in four days is tough,” said Sheley, whose team finished second in the Southern Region.

“I’m most worried about foul trouble, and we’ve already had to adjust some defensive strategies.”

One player he can count on is Smith, who has been a consistent performer from the moment she transferred to Lane from Idaho State last summer.

“The great coaches here are exactly what I needed, and the coaching style is what I respond to,” said Smith, 20, who made a name for herself at Willamette High School when she helped lead the Wolverines to state championships in 2007 and 2009 before accepting a scholarship to play for Idaho State, a Division-I school in Pocatello.

However, between the Bengals’ style of play, her limited role on the team and just being far from home, it didn’t take long for Smith to regret her decision to attend Idaho State.

“My mom pretty much had to push me through security to get me on the plane after I came home for Christmas,” Smith said. “There was nothing that made me want to go back.”

But she did, finishing out the season and then the school year before returning to Eugene in mid-July, and word quickly reached Sheley that Smith was back in town.

“She just wasn’t enjoying basketball at the time,” Sheley said. “I told her there were a couple things that we knew: First, she’d be playing a lot, so that would help with the enjoyment level; second, we think we’re going to be pretty good, so winning is always fun. I told her we could help change her attitude and make things more enjoyable.

“A week later she called and said, ‘I’m in,’ and ever since it’s been full bore. She’s a hard-working kid who is a blessing to coach. She’s not a prima donna.”

Smith, who grew up going to basketball camps run by Sheley and Titans assistant Kevin Grumbley, took a tour of Lane as a high school senior, a visit she said was more than just cursory for a pair of coaches she respected.

“I had definitely kept it in mind, being close to home,” Smith said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to go far away. I knew they were great coaches and this was a great team. It was a possibility, but I wanted to go D-I.”

It looks like she’ll get that chance again.

Smith has attracted many suitors with her play this season. Oregon coach Paul Westhead and assistant Dan Muscatell attended Lane’s home win against Southwestern Oregon Community College on Feb. 16, when Smith recorded 22 points and 12 rebounds.

An Oregon State assistant has also watched her practice and the Beavers have requested film from Sheley on five different occasions.

“The last I heard was that they wanted her to play on the perimeter and they weren’t sure she could play on the perimeter at that level,” Sheley said of Oregon State’s interest. “That’s their job and something they need to decide. I just know two weeks ago they wanted more film.”

Cal State Bakersfield, Pacific and Florida Gulf Coast (where Lane and South Eugene High alum Sarah Brolsma Whitfield now plays) have been more aggressive in their pursuit of Smith, and recently, Cal Poly joined that group and has asked her to take an official visit.

“I’m excited, nervous, freaked out, not sure what am I going to do, where am I going to go, what am I going to study, where am I going to live, can I take my dog?” Smith said with a laugh. “It’s nice that I have been through it before and I know what to look for. I’m more understanding and I know I can’t make the wrong decision again. I need to know for sure that this is where I want to be for two years.”

But first, Smith is focused on finishing her last weekend as a member of the Titans.

“I’m excited for the tournament,” Smith said. “We’re going to have to be physically and mentally ready to go.”

Just as she has been all season.