Staying Strong: Daeja Smith's Journey Through Adversity
Athletes are told that how they respond to adversity ultimately shows what kind of person they are. Some shrink and run away while others embrace the challenge and forge ahead with renewed vigor.
For Cal State Fullerton women’s basketball player Daeja Smith, her collegiate career has been one long test in adversity. The redshirt junior’s career started well enough…she appeared in 32 games her freshman season in 2014-15, averaging 4.1 points and 4.2 rebounds in about 18 minutes per contest. She even found herself among the starting five 23 times.
Those first steps weren’t easy for the youngster from Etiwanda High School, an exciting but raw prospect who needed time to develop.
“It was hard because I wasn’t that skilled coming in and a lot of people were better than me,” says Smith. “It was so hard because the team depended on me but the competition was so different.”
After a year that saw the Titans advance to the Big West Tournament semifinal, Smith was working hard in the offseason when the injury bug came calling. She tore her meniscus during a summer workout. Eight weeks of rehab and she was back but the adversity didn’t end there. During another preseason workout, Smith turned to outlet a pass to a teammate and tore her ACL. The injury would shelve Smith for the season, one in which the squad went 3-27 and missed the Big West Tournament.
“It was really hard for me…but my mindset was that I’m coming back and I’m going to be better. Being out made me really grateful that I have a scholarship to play basketball.”
Once she returned to the fold for the 2016-17 season, Smith had a year that ended with Big West honorable mention accolades after leading the team in scoring (11.3) and rebounding (7.0) while playing in all 29 games. Adversity wasn’t done with her career though…the losses piled up for the CSF squad as it went 4-25 and topped off with a whirlwind of player defections. For Smith, motivation was key through such a difficult season. She needed something to drive her, and in turn, her teammates as they tried to turn around their fortunes during the campaign.
“Through it all I had to get in the gym and get better every day. My team depended on me…going through all that I just kept my head up and saying everything would be ok,” said Smith.
Team chemistry and morale hit such low points that Smith even entertained the notion of transferring following the season. A lot of difficult conversations followed but the theme Smith noticed was that most people were telling her that brighter days were ahead. It allowed her to realize how much she enjoyed being at Fullerton and how she wanted to finish her career with the blue and orange. Smith realized how much she wanted to be part of a turnaround for the Titans and that leaving the school would be leaving a part of herself.
“I wanted to be something…I wanted to make something out of myself. I just didn’t want to let it go, and I feel like this is where I’m supposed to be,” Smith said.
The first step came with a coaching change as Jeff Harada took over the program. One can’t blame Smith for being wary of a new coach attempting to change things but she understood that Harada wanted the best out of his new players. It was difficult but Smith worked through grueling offseason training and clicked with the new staff. She found that not only did Harada make her a better player but he wanted to show them all what it would take to compete.
"I think she’s definitely responded and grown a lot since the beginning of the year and knows there is still room for more," says Harada. "She understands that when she plays well the team as a whole has a better chance for success.”
“He’s probably one of the best coaches I’ve had…he’s a lot better than my previous coaches and wants us to be among the best in the Big West,” said Smith.
The mood around the team has brightened as well. The environment is one of trust, forged through hard work and sacrifice. Smith didn’t believe her previous teammates entirely trusted each other but now a new batch of teammates has given the program a clean slate. Something that is evident in the camaraderie the Titans show on and off the court.
“We want to get better for our team. Off the court we laugh and giggle and be friends. The whole team gets along…it’s so rare,” Smith said.
As one of the elder statesmen on the team, Smith takes her leadership role seriously. She takes a lot of pride in seeing the newcomers work hard to be better. She is happy that returnees like herself and classmate Jade Vega have an opportunity to see the program in better days. Adversity brought Smith to such a low point on the court that she cherishes every day she has on and off the court with her new teammates. Winning doesn’t necessarily cure all but the hardworking CSF squad is seeing their hard work pay off…especially through their top post player.
Smith is averaging 11.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. She is second in the league in double doubles (8), is averaging 30 minutes a game and has appeared in all 19 games so far for the Titans. After missing the Big West Tournament the last two years, Cal State Fullerton is on the right track for a return and has the added benefit of hosting the first two rounds this season at Titan Gym.
"Daeja has made big strides at embracing her role for our team this year," said Harada. "As pretty much our only true post player, she is asked to do a lot for us every night and it’s tough to play with that kind of pressure, especially if you’re not used to it."
On track to graduate this spring, Smith has also indicated that she is all-in on a return for her redshirt senior season. Adversity didn’t break her…it made her into a person who is keenly aware of the impact she can have on her team. More importantly, the last couple years have taught Smith what she truly loves and what she can accomplish with a positive attitude.
“You have to stay strong and do what you believe in. It’s important to have good mental health and talk to your parents. Make good decisions…play basketball or whatever and do what you love. Everything else doesn’t matter,” declared Smith.
It’s hard for athletes to think about what they want to leave behind once their playing days are over. Freshmen come in wide eyed and hopeful, not realizing that four years can go by in the blink of an eye. Smith’s journey has been one of adversity and triumph…a story that hasn’t met its ending but is building toward an ending that only hard work can deliver. Through it all, Smith has one final bit of advice and gives an insight on what she wants to leave behind for future Titans.
“It’s been a rough four years for me. I just want to leave an attitude of going hard every day and giving your best. You never know what tomorrow can bring.”