Danielle and Chanelle Smith saw “Phoenix” and instantly thought of Arizona.
So after meeting volleyball coach Mary Tendler, the twins were convinced she was recruiting them to come play at Elon University in Arizona.
“We had to do a little background to find it was in North Carolina,” Danielle Smith said.
Nearly six years and more than 100 volleyball games later, the Smith twins and fellow senior Kris Harris have completed their volleyball careers at a school none of them originally envisioned themselves attending. During their time at Elon, the three players helped the Phoenix win 57 games and reach the Southern Conference Tournament three times while also guiding the program into its first season as a member of the Colonial Athletic Association.
“It’s sad to see them go,” Tendler said. “I’m excited for all of them to take the next step in their lives. I know all of them are going to do really well in whatever they decide to do.”
Anywhere but here
When Harris, a middle blocker, started being recruited out of Apex High School and Triangle Volleyball Club, she had one stipulation for her future school.
“I was looking everywhere else but North Carolina,” she said. “I just wanted to go far and somewhere completely new.”
So it’s a little funny that all three of her offers came from in-state schools — the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Appalachian State University and Elon.
She originally visited Elon in her sophomore year of high school but didn’t think much of it. When she came back during her junior year, she realized it was the right fit for her.
Tendler recalled a tournament she was at in Richmond, Virginia, when she caught a true glimpse of what Harris could bring to the table.
“She had two or three kills hitting slides and took over the match,” Tendler said. “That was my final decision that we needed her in our program.”
At Elon, Harris amassed 740 kills and 319 blocks while anchoring down the middle of the net since her freshman year. She overcame a knee injury that sidelined her for the second half of her junior season to come back and start 23 matches this season.
After she graduates in May, Harris will begin working at Fidelity Investments in Raleigh, where she interned this past summer.
A package deal
Chanelle and Danielle never considered splitting up for college. From their days at Sandy Creek High School in Tyrone, Georgia, and Tsunami Volleyball, they were determined to continue playing together at the next level.
They thought they had that locked up when they committed to Howard University in Washington, D.C. during their sophomore year.
One year later, they switched their commitment to Elon — a drastic change in the demographics of the school.
“I think the reason we were leaning toward an [historically black college or university] was that we grew up in a predominantly white area in suburban Georgia,” Chanelle said. “Elon is exactly where we’re from. I think we wanted to get a new surrounding. But we came to Elon and fell in love with the campus. It was really easy.”
This season, Danielle worked through a foot injury that held her back to play in the final eight games. A right side / outside hitter, she recorded 576 kills in her career.
Chanelle was a team captain during her junior and senior years and tallied 751 kills and 1,096 digs while playing roles as an outside hitter, libero and defensive specialist.
“It’s hard enough as a coach to make a decision to recruit one person, yet alone a package deal,” Tendler said. “I couldn’t pass up on them because of the energy they bring to the gym and the versatility that they bring to the volleyball court.”
Danielle is a sport and event management major and hopes to go into coaching when she graduates. Chanelle is majoring in strategic communications with a digital art minor, and is currently in the process of applying to Elon’s Interactive Media graduate program.
With tears in her eyes, Chanelle tried to sum up the magnitude of what it meant to her to be able to play and live with her sister for four years in college.
“Coming into a new experience, everyone’s always terrified,” she said. “To be able to experience something new with my sister who I got to live with, travel with and play the sport you love with, it’s not something you can ever replace. That’s going to be the hardest thing for me next year if I’m still at Elon, is not having Danielle here.”
Feelings settling in
Entering last weekend’s games against the University of Delaware and Towson University, it was tough for the three seniors to grapple with the fact that their careers were coming to an end.
The surreal feelings had been creeping into the back of their minds since the summer, but the finality of the whole situation had yet to hit.
“I still feel like I have a bunch of games left,” Chanelle said. “Maybe I’m in denial.”
Elon celebrated the trio at its last home match of the year Nov. 2 against James Madison University. The Phoenix battled until the end before a controversial reversal of a call gave the Dukes a five-set victory.
All three described it as an emotional day, complete with a little ceremony with the whole team and their parents after the game. Harris said her grandfather was able to fly in from St. Louis and see her play collegiately for the first time.
“That was really special,” she said.
As for the season itself, Elon’s 6-26 overall record and a 1-15 mark in the CAA aren’t exactly how the Smith sisters and Harris want to be remembered. But they said they were glad they went through the rough patches with such a tight-knit team.
“They understand the process,” Tendler said. “Whatever the seniors’ attitude is is going to go to the rest of the team. The three of them just enjoyed playing volleyball. That’s been the overall theme with our team: Go out, play hard, have fun and keep improving.”
Now that it’s all ending, life after volleyball is the conversation. No longer will they have daily practices and workouts to attend. No longer will there be frequent road trips and overnight stays in cities far from home.
But some things will stay, just in different forms, and remind them that it was all worth it.
“Leaving high school, you know you’ll be playing in college,” Danielle said. “Being in college, you know you’re not playing overseas, you’re not playing professionally. It does come to an end. But I’ve met some of my best friends who will still be there for me after college. The biggest struggle will be not seeing them go into the locker room and at practice every day.”