With three Loras College athletes this past year, the Smith family wore down the road from Prairie du Sac to Dubuque, Iowa.
Scott and Miki Smith are used to it by now, and they’ll be continuing to make the drive throughout their children’s tenures at Loras College. Olivia Smith is finishing up her freshman year on the Loras volleyball team, while Zeke Smith will be a redshirt sophomore on the wrestling team next year, and Eddie Smith plans to stick around as an assistant wrestling coach after finishing his wrestling career and graduating this spring with a degree in politics and a minor in business.
“It’s been super fun following the kids at college,” said Scott, who coached Zeke and Eddie while they wrestled at Sauk Prairie High School. “I’m thankful that they have had the opportunity to extend their athletic careers to college. It is hard to beat the camaraderie and lessons that extracurricular activities provide. I’m also thankful that Miki and I have been able to follow them. We realize how quickly time goes by and these eras of life seem to come and go in an instant.”
The Smith’s connection with Dubuque won’t end any time soon. Scott grew up there, so there were plenty of family members in the area when Eddie began his college wrestling career in 2016. The extended family has grown the last four years, as wrestling teammates, volleyball teammates and college friends have been added to the mix.
“That was a factor coming in,” Zeke said of the campus connections. “I knew more about Loras than any other school. I knew what the (wrestling) coaches were about, what their expectations are and what philosophies they have. I obviously liked all that a lot, otherwise I wouldn’t have chosen Loras. ... I also had a little added level of comfort knowing Eddie was there, and if anything went wrong, I had my big brother there. That was really helpful having him.”
“I love it. I couldn’t imagine being at another college,” Olivia said. “Everyone on campus is so nice. And it’s a small campus, so we have such a close-knit community. Coming in with my two older brothers there, it seems like I know everyone and they know me. It was nice to know so many people during the big transition going to college.”
That transition was made easier by living in the same residence hall as Zeke, who was a resident advisor in the dorm.
“My first week was pretty rough, because I was just starting to build friendships on the volleyball team,” said Olivia, who plans on being an RA next year. “Zeke actually lived a floor above me and it was awesome to be able to go in his room, relax and decompress for a few minutes. ... The first week I had moved in, Eddie came and visited me and gave me some purple beads. He didn’t have much to give me, but what he did have, he would give it to me.”
“I pretty much went to all of her home games and the ones that were in town. She gets to support us and we get to support her too,” Zeke said of Olivia, who played for Loras’ junior varsity team while the varsity went 19-9, including 6-2 in the American Rivers Conference. “Me and Olivia are really close. We would actually hang out quite a bit. I probably see her more than Eddie even. It’s been really fun having her there.”
The boys have gotten used to having each other around — and are willingly signing on for more time together in a wrestling program on the upswing. Loras was the NCAA Division III runner-up last season, and was one of the favorites to win it all when the 2020 championships were canceled do to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s pretty sweet,” Eddie said of being teammates with Zeke, who received a medical redshirt after his season was cut short by a torn ACL and meniscus. “I think he was going to have a really good year this year before his injury. ... But now I’ll have three years to coach him hopefully, and I think that’ll be fun. I love it. He’s really tough and I’m looking forward to seeing how his next three seasons are going to go.”
“It’s been awesome,” Zeke said of wrestling with his brother again. “It’s kind of an indescribable feeling, being on the same team as your brother and fighting toward a goal together. ... It’s so much better than any other teammate. I love having my brother there because he wants me to succeed more than anybody else in the room. I know he’s always watching me, always rooting for me, and we work together a lot on technique, give each other pointers and try to help each other out.
“It’s just a whole new level of teammate. Not only are we teammates rooting for each other, but we’re brothers and we have that family bond.”
Wrestling has long been part of their bond.
“We used to go out on the trampoline and have trampoline matches,” Eddie said. “We’d wrestle to 20 in every style — freestyle... Greco... I would tie my arms behind my back or go on one leg, and it’s just funny that I used to be able to do that. If I did that now, he’d slam me on my head.”
The rest of the family has also been involved, with Scott coaching, Miki serving a number of roles and Olivia managing during high school. Olivia still tries to be in attendance any time either of her brothers is on the mat. She enjoys it so much that she passed on an offer to join the Loras track and field team.
“It was Eddie’s senior season and I love watching them so much that I didn’t really want to give that up,” Olivia said. “That’s what I look forward to on the weekends in winter — watching my brothers. I’m super proud of them and what they’ve done, and I aspire to be like them in my sport.”
Olivia admittedly gets pretty fired up watching her brothers. Since her friends don’t always get that level of enthusiasm, she typically sits next to her parents, who rarely miss a match. Scott stepped down from the Sauk Prairie wrestling head coaching job after the 2017-18 season, taking on a smaller role that allows him to get to even more of Loras’ matches. The Smiths are often joined in the crowd by extended family members.
“It’s really nice having family in Dubuque,” Zeke said. “It kind of makes it feel even more at home. Just having that family there to support you and knowing that if you need anything, they’ll be there to help you out.”
If the family isn’t there to lean on, each of the Smiths have built up their own community of people they can count on.
“I love the wrestling team culture, and I’ve become extremely close with those guys,” Eddie said of the Duhawks, who went 14-1 this year, including 8-0 in the American Rivers Conference to snap Wartburg’s run of 27 straight titles. “Also, the school is just really awesome. It’s really friendly and they help people out. Anything you need, ask for help. It’s a really great environment to be in.”
“You’re building relationships 24/7,” Olivia said of her first impression of college. “My roommate was on the volleyball team and we always had volleyball girls in our dorm. We were always hanging out, building bonds 24/7, where in high school you go to practice and that’s where you build those friendships. It just seems the relationships are so much stronger in college. You’re with those girls 24/7 and they know everything about you. All the girls were really friendly, inviting and nice to all the freshmen.”
That support was crucial throughout a 2019-20 school year that brought challenges to each Smith sibling — from Olivia’s transition to college to Zeke’s season-ending injury to Eddie’s lost chance at a national title and a fitting end to his senior year. Now, the coronavirus has forced them off campus and to online classes for the remainder of the semester.
The Smith’s Loras communities have carried over despite the temporary ban on sports and bonding activities. First-year Loras volleyball coach Kristy Duncan, who is replacing Jenna Ness after coaching Illinois College to a 21-8 record in 2019, is doing what she can to build team chemistry while away from her new players.
“She’s really awesome about building team bonds,” Olivia said, noting she enjoyed her time on the junior varsity because of her high number of reps and the team camaraderie. “We’ve been Zooming once a week, our whole team. She just gives us space to talk with each other.”
With the NCAA championships being canceled less than a month ago, the Loras wrestling program is still working its way into an offseason starting without any access to gyms or traditional training.
“They usually give us a little break, a week or two and then they expect us to get back on it,” said Zeke, who had knee surgery in January and is back in Prairie du Sac until students are allowed to return to Loras for the fall semester. “It’s mostly self-guided. We’re doing our own workouts and they expect us to get a lot of lifts in. ... At that level they just kind of expect you to be drive on your own, so they don’t really micro-manage it.”
Zeke, who went 18-6 as a freshman in 2018-19, was 6-2 in the 133-pound weight class when he injured his knee wrestling a teammate. After taking time to adjust, he’s spent the last three months lifting weights and rehabbing.
“Right when I got injured, I felt like I was hitting my stride and building confidence,” Zeke said. “I doubted myself all through freshman year. At the beginning of this year, I started to overcome that I felt like, and then I got injured right when I was getting myself in the right spot. So that was kind of frustrating, and another mental and emotional hurdle to overcome.
“I’ve never had any serious injuries, other than like broken fingers, so I’ve never had to sit out for an extended period of time. When I first found out that I was hurt badly, it took some time to readjust my thought process. I was pretty down for awhile, just trying to figure everything out and sort out my feelings. But then after awhile, I kind of flipped my perspective and started thinking about the good in it. How I’m not losing a year and I can just use this time to get stronger, do a lot of lifting, support my teammates, and watch my brother and the team succeed.”
The tables will be turned next year, when Eddie will watch Zeke and the Duhawks try to take their season as far as they can.
“He kind of wrestles like me, but I think he’s better,” Eddie said. “He’s really exciting and he goes really hard for 7 minutes. He’s a little shier than me in person, but on the wrestling mat he’s more fearless. He’ll go for anything and go hard for 7 minutes. So I think next year now that’s he’s grown... he’s put on 25 or 30 pounds, and is way taller, so I think he’ll have some success, and I can’t wait to watch.”
Follow Brock Fritz on Twitter @BrockFritz
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