When the Southern Oregon University volleyball team plays its home opener against Corban on Sept. 4, fans familiar with the local volleyball scene may recognize the tall blonde sitting with the rest of the redshirts at the end of the Raiders’ bench.
And those who don’t will probably learn to appreciate what she’ll eventually bring to the team, especially if, during prematch warm-ups, the Raiders’ newest addition jumps in line for a few practice swings, just for kicks. Those quick hops. Those high hands. Those powerful, sharp-angled spikes. Yes, that’s a rare talent. That's Niki Small.
An Ashland High alum and former starting middle blocker for NCAA Division I Northern Arizona, the 6-foot-1 Small will redshirt for SOU this season then, she hopes, use up her final two years of eligibility wearing Raider red, white and black. The long road from Northern Arizona back to Ashland was filled with twists and turns and an unexpected bump, but now that she's back on the court for the first time in nearly two years, and playing for the same man, Josh Rohlfing, who hooked her on the sport to begin with, Small can hardly contain her excitement.
"It's crazy," she said. "(Rohlfing) is the reason I started to play volleyball, and now to come back full circle. … Honestly, I'm getting the snot beat out of me (in practice) because I'm so out of shape, but I'm doing it with a smile on my face because I wouldn't rather do it anywhere else."
Small starred for the Grizzlies five years ago as a high school senior, leading them to their second straight third-place showing at the Class 5A state tournament and earning plenty of recognition in the process, including the Southern Sky Conference player of the year award and first-team all-tournament honors. So it was with high hopes and high expectations that she went to Flagstaff, Ariz., to join the Lumberjacks. At the time, Northern Arizona was a program stuck in a rut of mediocrity, having finished below .500 in the Big Sky Conference in the six seasons prior to Small's arrival (the Lumberjacks have since broken through, finishing above .500 in league play in each of the last two seasons).
Small made an immediate impact as a true freshman. As one of only three players to start all 26 matches, she ended the season ranked second on the team in kills (202), first in attack percentage (.253) and second in blocks (55). But the program slogged through another subpar season — they finished 10-16 overall and 6-10 in the Big Sky. And for Small, something just didn't feel right.
"By the time I got there, it wasn't really what I wanted anymore," she said. "It wasn't a good fit for me. It wasn't the program I was used to. (Rohlfing) has ingrained some very wonderful things into my lifestyle, so going (to NAU) a lot of those things weren't applied there, even in terms of health and nutrition."
So over her Thanksgiving break, Small flew back home and had a heart--to-heart talk with her family. Together, they decided that it would be best if she transferred. Now the question was where. Oregon State had showed some interest while Small was in high school, and Rohlfing had dropped hints that Small would look better in Raider red. But playing in the Pac-12, the premier volleyball conference in the country, was an opportunity that Small could not pass up, so she contacted the Oregon State coaching staff and asked if they had a spot for her. They said that if she was willing to work, then yes, so Small packed her bags for Corvallis and on Jan. 3, 2011, only four months after heading to NAU, Small was practicing with the Beavers.
"I knew the competition was big-time, but I was really excited," she said. "I went in thinking I didn't care if I sat on the bench, I'm a part of the best volleyball conference in the nation. I fell in love with the coaching staff and a lot of the girls. It was a really, really good change for me."
Small proved she belonged, but didn't play much. She finished with 11 kills and eight blocks in nine matches for a team that finished 16-16, 8-14 in the Pac-12. But the program treated her well, the competition was top-shelf and she liked the school. Then, Small's road through college took another sudden detour, only this time her feelings weren't part of the equation. While warming up for the second-to-last match of the season, a rivalry clash against Oregon, Small came down awkwardly and twisted her ankle. At first she thought it was merely a bad sprain and for about a month continued to limp around practices. Then she went home for winter break and began to sense that something wasn’t right — the pain wasn’t going away, and her shoe wasn’t fitting. A trip to the doctor revealed that she had been playing on a broken ankle with ligament damage.
Determined to play again, Small went through months of rehab, but when she tried to come back the pain returned and she was forced to make an agonizing decision.
“I decided that (the pain) was a sign that I should step back,” she said. “I got to play at Oregon State and now it was time to get into the real world and get a job.
“It was honestly heartbreaking. I went to Hawaii with my family and was just limping around. … The hardest part is hanging up your jersey before you think you’re ready.”
But that’s exactly what Small did. She spent the next two years living the life of a typical college student, pounding the books, hanging out with friends, slowly inching her way toward a bachelor’s degree that she thought she’d earn at OSU. Then, only weeks before graduation day, Small learned that she was a few electives short of earning a degree and would not be able to walk in June. She moved back home on July 26 with a tentative plan to finish her degree through online courses. Two days later, Small learned that SOU was holding its annual volleyball camp and decided to swing by and say hi to her former club and high school coach, Rohlfing, now entering his seventh season as the Raiders’ head coach.
Small’s plan was to catch up with Rohlfing and another former mentor assisting at the camp, Adam Wagman, then be on her way. It didn’t work out like that.
At one point during a one-on-one conversation, Wagman asked Small if she missed volleyball, to which Small responded by saying, “Are you crazy? Of course I miss this.”
Later, as Small was telling her mom about Wagman’s “funny” question, Wagman pulled Rohlfing aside. Then Rohlfing approached Small. “You still have two years (of eligibility) left. You think you might want to play?”
Small said, “Yeah, I think I would.”
And just like that, Small had found her way back to the volleyball court. There was still plenty of work to be done in order to make it all official – meetings with academic advisors, paper work, phone calls — but once Small had her mind set on returning, she said, “it was, let’s do it.”
Now, Small’s working on getting back into game shape and meshing with her new teammates. She says she doesn’t feel any pain in the ankle while playing and doesn’t expect it to be a problem so long as she ices it after practices and matches. As for the team, Small was blown away at the talent level at SOU, which was picked to finish third in the Cascade Conference preseason coaches’ poll.
“Our first practice was the first time I saw them play and I was beyond thrilled and I told (Rohlfing) that multiple times,” said Small, who turns 23 in October. “I’m excited and incredibly humbled by how wonderful this group is, on the court and off the court. I finally feel like I’m back in a program and I am too excited. I’m going to waste a lot of energy the next two years being too excited.”