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Right at home

ASHLAND — One year she was here, the next she was gone.

Alexi Smith's journey toward stability at Southern Oregon University has been a biennial event, at times magical and at other times heartbreaking and confusing.

The 6-foot senior forward twice left the university to return home to Bakersfield, Calif., and deal with personal matters during her collegiate basketball career. Raider head coach Lynn Kennedy has welcomed her services for three seasons, every other winter for the last five years, and speaks of Smith with a look of inspiration in his eyes.

Perhaps a testament to her character or her ability, Smith has been able to make a lasting impact for SOU despite the rushed goodbyes, repeated hellos and circuitous paths connecting them. Mostly, her teammates and the coaching staff here wish they had more time with the skilled 23-year-old standout.

"She deserves everything she gets," said teammate Kristen Schoenherr after the eighth-ranked Raiders' 90-66 victory over Concordia at Bob Riehm Arena on Saturday night.

Smith erupted for a career-high 29 points with eight rebounds and three assists as SOU wrapped up the regular season and secured its eighth straight triumph. The Raiders (25-3, 15-3 Cascade Collegiate Conference) finished a game behind 17th-ranked Eastern Oregon University (24-5, 16-2) in the league race for first, but SOU still sealed up the No. 2 seed and homecourt advantage through the semifinal round of this week's conference tournament. The Raiders will host College of Idaho at 7 p.m. in Tuesday's quarterfinals.

Smith, who originally transferred to SOU from Bakersfield College in 2010, has played an enormous role in her squad's success. This year she's averaged a team-best 13.6 points per game and 7.5 rebounds with 1.5 assists. Earlier this winter, Smith became the 15th player to join the program's 1,000-point club, doing it in spurts over three seasons. Smith ranks in the top 10 in both career points and rebounding.

She looks back at the beginning of her basketball timeline and marvels that it has played out this way.

Smith transferred from Bakersfield High to nearby Stockdale High for her senior season after her family bought a house in that district. At Stockdale she played with friend Melissa Sweat, an eventual NCAA Division I transfer who played at SOU briefly.

Smith was a scoring threat and rebounding extraordinaire who competed for one season at Bakersfield College. The men's coach there, Rich Hughes, knows Kennedy well, and the two spoke of Smith. Kennedy was interested and she played out the 2010-11 season as a Raider.

Then trouble back home struck.

"It wasn't as serious (as a death in the family), but it was pretty close to it," Smith recalled.

A year passed and she returned for the 2012-13 season, only to reverse back south to Bakersfield the next year. She coached the girls freshman-sophomore basketball team at Stockdale, all the while keeping tabs on the Raiders. Smith texted back and forth with Kennedy after the squad's win over EOU in the conference tournament, envious that she hadn't been part of such a key victory.

And when the moment was right for her to return, the Smiths were ready.

"When everything was straightened out, my family said you need to go back and do what you need to do," said Smith, who has nine siblings.

Against Concordia (12-15, 6-12) on Saturday, Smith had 18 points by halftime using a dazzling array of spin moves, post-ups and jump shots. Schoenherr finished with 18 points, five rebounds and four assists and Ashley Claussen 14 points.

"She is the type of player that if you need two points, she'll get you two points at any time," Kennedy said of Smith.

Added Schoenherr: "She is amazing. We are all in awe of her and her ability to score with three defenders on her."

When the contest ended, the crowd gave Smith and others a cheer of support as the seniors were honored.

Her playing eligibility nearing its expiration, Smith plans to graduate with a teaching degree next year and go on to coach and teach.

Smith said she’s been assured Stockdale has a spot on the varsity girls coaching staff with her name on it but, much like SOU has willingly done over the years, they’re going to have to wait for her services.

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email djones@mailtribune.com. Find him online at twitter.com/danjonesmt

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Southern Oregon junior Ashley Claussen fights her way past Concordia's Lexi Campbell in their game Saturday. PHOTO BY LARRY STAUTH JR.
Kristen Schoenherr, an SOU junior, races around Concordia's Sierra Dean Saturday at Bob Riehm Arena. PHOTO BY LARRY STAUTH JR.