Exhibition tournaments in Barbados and San Diego, five years of winning, and a love for her teammates and coaches has Lenai Schmidt wishing for Groundhog Day.
The smiling 22-year-old Kalamalka Laker grad feels like she is losing something extraordinary after completing an all-star university volleyball career with the UBC Okanagan Heat.
“It went by so fast,” said Schmidt. “I would love to be able to play volleyball for another five years. Our team was like family.”
Head coach Steve Manuel and his staff recruited Schmidt when she was a power hitter for Maria Hansen and Dave Fehr’s high school Lakers.
“We had just won nationals and we were spoiled having a mature Libero,” said Manuel, 47, the CIS Coach of the Year in 2013. “We thought that was going to be one of our holes and weren’t sure how the fit was going to look, but as the season went on, Lenai was a perfect fit and was an all-star. I always like it when my players surprise me.”
The switch to defensive specialist wasn’t highly dramatic for the 5-foot-7 Schmidt.
“My passing and defensive specialities made the switch easier. When I played power, I always liked defence. I try and dig for everything and I was really lucky I started as a freshman. Their Libero retired and I was very surprised to start.”
Schmidt began her volleyball journey at Hillview Elemantary under coach Diane Bennett. She did the VSS Soccer Academy in Grades 8 and 9, while playing volleyball for Chris Bennett and Katie Reid.
The Heat, now a Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) team, were in the lower PacWest league for Schmidt’s freshman and sophomore years. They won provincials and nationals in her first season and took the B.C. title before losing the Canadian crown to the Vancouver Island Mariners of Nanaimo in a final match they led by two sets.
UBCO were young and somewhat overwhelmed in year one of CIS competition, missing the playoffs. In her senior year, the Heat lost to the Mt. Royal Cougars of Calgary in the first round of playoffs.
“It’s way faster (than PacWest),” said Schmidt, who is majoring in pyschologoy with one fnal semester left in her arts degree. “Everyone is so much bigger and stronger and it’s a different game. It’s even a heavier ball. It was definitely a huge jump for us, to go from being at the top and then getting beat on at the bottom.”
She found it cool this past season as the Heat surprised the Brandon Bobcats 3-0, 3-1 in the quarterfinals after being ambushed by the Cats in a regular-season encounter.
“We had a point to prove,” she smiled.
The Heat went to the CIS Canada West Final Four this year at UBC in Vancouver, falling 3-1 to the Trinity Western Spartans of Langley in the bronze match 3-1 (18-25, 25-16, 26-24, 25-14).
Manuel said the Heat made some serious noise in the playoffs and are stoked about what they have achieved in the last three years.
“We’ve been an underdog for 10 of my 13 years as coach (at UBCO). When we moved to CIS, we became just that college team again and in two-and-a-half years, we’ve proved that we are so much more than that and that we are a legitimately top CIS team in the country.”
Megan Festival (2nd year, Calgary) and Brianna Beamish (3rd year, Surrey) combined for 26 kills in the bronze-medal match. Schmidt, playing in the final game of her career, had 15 of the Heat’s 45 total tournament digs.
She will finish fourth all-time in digs per set with 2.76 and second all-time with 796 total digs. She is also fifth in the Canada West record book with 24 total digs in a single playoff match (Feb 15, 2013 versus Mount Royal).
Peaking at No. 3 in the nation on Jan. 7, 2014, the Heat not only made the playoffs for the second year in three Canada West seasons, they also won their first playoff series in school history to make their first Canada West Final Four.
“In our league, it’s not who’s better, bit’s who shows up that game,” said Schmidt. “There are so many upsets in our league.”
Schmidt and the Heat also pulled off a stunner in the Barbados tournament after Christmas last year, stopping the University of Montreal Carabins in the final.
Schmidt gave major props to Manuel and his staff.
“He’s so good because he believes in us. That’s his motto. He’s on us and everyone has a respect for him and he respect us. The other coaches were also very supportive. Becki (assistant Kosinski is very technical and helped with my defence.”
Manuel describes Schmidt as a quiet leader.
“She was a good leader. Everyone respected and liked her. I would call her the glue rather than the leader. Year after year, she showed big improvement from September until playoffs. There was never any doubt she was going to be one of our starters.”
Schmidt plans to study recreation therapy for two years at Douglas College in New Westminster after graduating from UBCO. She worked for Canadian Mental Health last summer as a rec assistant.