Smith's face glowed brighter than Caesar's Palace, the Mirage and Bellagio put together as she was mobbed by her teammates. This moment was a long time coming. Injuries and the frustration that came with last year threatened to derail what began as a promising collegiate career. A spring and summer of deep soul-searching and healing sparked her remarkable return to form, however. Now she poses a greater than ever threat than ever to goalkeepers across the country.
Ups and Downs
Two years ago, the buzz surrounding Kansas soccer was that a two-woman wrecking crew named Smith was about to run a demolition operation on the KU record books.
Caroline Smith, a highly-touted forward from Edina, Minn., and Jessica Smith, a standout goal-scorer from Wichita, both were freshmen in 2002 and it was believed they would become the most lethal scoring duo the school had ever seen. They seemed on track to meet those expectations when Caroline earned Freshman All-American honors and scored a school-record 12 goals. Jessica was right behind her with seven goals – the seventh-best single-season total ever at KU. Their combined 21 goals accounted for 46 percent of Kansas' offense that year.
What was supposed to be another record-shattering season for the pair in 2003 didn't fully pan out. The Jayhawks rolled to an all-time best 18-6-1 record, placed third in the Big 12 Conference and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile, Caroline scored 19 goals and garnered All-American honors. Jessica, however, barely registered a blip in the team statistics, scored just one goal, and spent most of her time riding the bench.
What should have been a stellar season in Jessica's career turned out to be her most disappointing year ever. People wondered what was wrong with her, but only she and her teammates knew.
Injuries and inner struggle
Jessica said part of the problem was a leg injury – a condition known as anterior compartment syndrome, which is essentially a buildup of pressure in the bones caused by excessive exercise and stress. The other problem, she admitted, was herself.
"Having so much desire to do something and then physically not being able to go out and do that just killed me," said Jessica, who is the all-time leading goal-scorer in Kansas high school soccer with 128 goals. "Then I lost track of the goals of the team.
"I think it's easy when something like that happens to you to put it on your shoulders and just think about you, and I started thinking about the name on the back of my jersey rather than the front."
Out of shape and out of focus, KU coach Mark Francis sat Smith on the bench for most of the season. When she did play, it came in 10- or 15-minute increments before her body gave out and forced her back to the sideline. The Jayhawks continued winning, but Smith kept sitting.
Frustrated by missing out on the greatest season in KU soccer history, Smith said she embarked on some deep soul-searching during the spring. Injuries were something she had no control over, but she admitted she needed to take responsibility for other things she could control.
"I definitely reevaluated who I was and where I was going last spring," she said. "I wanted to change that, and I'm completely different right now."
She said it wasn't easy to admit to herself that she needed to make some changes, but once she did the improvements were almost instantaneous.
"It was real hard for me to be honest with myself," she said, "but with the help of some important people in my life, I really broke down some things I needed to do and I did it. I lost some weight, got my mind back in shape and was determined to come back and help my team this year."
Smith credited her teammates and coaches for sticking with her during her struggles and frustration and said their support and encouragement helped fuel her drive to return to form. They let her know she still could be a contributor and a major difference-maker, and they made it clear they wanted her back.
"This is the best team I've ever played on, the most support that I've ever had, and we have so many great people that we work with that are so supportive," she said. "I had to take that first step in saying there needed to be changes, but there were people there every day helping me get through it."
All summer long, teammates gossiped about Smith's summer of self-rediscovery. Word spread that she was making noticeable improvements, that she was healthy again and that she looked great.
"I knew this year she stayed here and worked hard all summer," said teammate Stacy Leeper. "She struck to a strict diet, ate healthy, worked hard and kept us in mind. To me, she really wants to be back. She really wants to be in there and she's shown a lot of commitment. She went the extra mile to prove it."
Guess who's back
The Jayhawks got their first up-close look at the new Jessica Smith in five-on-five drills the first week of practice. The results were astounding. The cannon-leg she'd displayed as a freshman had returned, but she was fitter and faster than in 2002. Her footwork was better, and so was her passing.
Her mindset was different too. The "me-first" thoughts had been replaced with an "all-about-the-team" philosophy. The team goals now were the only goals that mattered to her.
The changes didn't go unnoticed by the coaching staff either. Francis, now in his sixth year at KU, was wowed by Smith's personal revival and said she earned the right to start KU's first exhibition of the season. She rewarded his vote of confidence by smashing two goals in the Jayhawks' 6-1 victory.
And then there was Vegas. Another start. Another goal. More validation that her recommitment to her team and to herself is paying off.
"She's been one of the three most consistent forwards during preseason," Francis said. "It's a good start for her and I'm happy to see her healthy."
Francis and the Kansas players may be thrilled to have a healthy Jessica Smith back this season, but it's a sure bet nobody's more ecstatic about her health than Jessica Smith. She's back, she's having fun, and she's helping KU win games.
This story was originally published in the October 1st issue of Jayhawk Illustrated. Smith and Jayhawks look to win their first Big 12 Championship with a victory over Iowa State on Friday at 3 p.m. at the Jayhawk Soccer Complex. Before the game, KU will honor its seven seniors, who will finish their careers as the most successful class to go through the Kansas soccer program.