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Sofia Panuelos | Staff Photographer

Jade Smith-Williams is 5 feet 7 inches of athleticism and heart. Most often she doesn’t tower over her opponents at the point guard position, but those other less visible — though more vital — attributes she possesses raise her up and distinguish her from the rest of the court.

Named Big West Player of the Week on Dec. 6, 2010 and Jan. 3, 2011, she recently posted a season high of 28 points in a win against UC Riverside, which accounted for more than half the total point output of the team. Smith-Williams averages 36.5 minutes a game this season, which is remarkable considering NCAA women’s basketball games last 40 minutes. She is a UC Irvine Scholar Athlete, meaning she maintains a GPA of at least 3.0, and plays at the highest collegiate level.

All these accomplishments, and the many more not listed, are incredible. But to rattle them off in a list without context would miss the story of perseverance and hard work that now has Smith-Williams in a position to lead her team toward a Big West Conference championship. Smith-Williams was born in 1988 in San Leandro, Calif., about 20 minutes south of Oakland, in the east portion of the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s the middle child of three in a nuclear family of all women. When she was in the sixth grade, her father passed away and she grew up the remainder of the time in a single-parent home. She described her familial relationship with her siblings as contentious.

“There was a lot of fighting growing up, not physically, but over regular things like who got the remote,” Smith-Williams said.

But even at an early age, she reflected that she was the competitive one in the family — or at least the most competitive.

As a child, she played basketball almost every day against her male cousin, who now plays football for Adams State College in Colorado.

“We would have tournaments against each other,” Smith-Williams said. “We would play five-game series and one time I won the first three games easily. He didn’t want to give up. He wanted to keep playing until he finally beat me. It even started raining and pouring down. We were outside for three and a half to four hours and we were still playing in the rain. He still never beat me (and in turn, she never let him win). My mom had to finally come get us and bring us out of the rain.”

Smith-Williams was 5 or 6 years old when she first began playing basketball on a team. In the California Youth Organization league she played in, she was moved up from the second-grade team to the sixth-grade team in a precursor event that demonstrated her propensity for athletics. She was 6 years old playing with and against 11 and 12 year olds — and she played well. She recalled that coaches wanted to coach her; they even bickered over the right on occasion.

She knew she wanted to play Division I basketball. In fact, she describes that aspiration as a dream she always had. She also knew that she wanted to utilize her talent to get a scholarship for college which would take the financial burden off her family. After high school, she decided to attend the California State University of Chico on a basketball scholarship. For two years, she played for the Wildcats. She describes the basketball program there as very good. The Wildcats made it to the Sweet Sixteen in the Division II NCAA Tournament while she played there. But ultimately, she felt unfulfilled at Chico State.

Along with her dream of playing Division I basketball, she has a parallel ambition, which she also describes as a lifelong dream of hers; Jade Smith-Williams wants to attend law school and become a lawyer. The senior guard described Chico State as having a party culture, which she didn’t want to engage in, as well as an academic environment that lacked the rigors she felt she needed to succeed in law school. After two years, she was ready to leave.

Opportunity struck when her coach at Chico, Molly Goodenbour, was hired as the new UCI head coach for the 2009-2010 season. Smith-Williams followed her coach to become an Anteater, a move that some might even consider was meant to be. Her grandparents are both UCI alumni; one of them is even a lawyer.

“You could say it’s in the family,” Smith-Williams said.

But now at the end of her collegiate career, she’s faced with a choice that she’s been postponing. Smith-Williams is a modest player. When asked about her impressive stats, most often she replies that she doesn’t know or doesn’t keep track of the numbers she puts up. It’s a method she utilizes for staying focused on the present moment and whatever task is at hand.
In the same way, she’s left the decision whether to attend law school directly after graduating or to leave the country and play basketball abroad after this season’s action. She said that her primary love has always been basketball and that to play for an overseas team would be a dream come true. However, she’s not willing to sacrifice law school and her career for basketball. She said that she never envisioned that she might have to choose between the two. Considering her ability and ambition, she might not have to choose, but rather get both.

Smith-Williams is a woman that expects excellence, as are all the women on this year’s UCI women’s basketball team. She’s worked hard to become the player and student she is today. When asked how she maintained such high levels of achievement, she remarked that it was an issue of effort, not one of possibility.

It’s this determination that has brought her within reach of a Big West Tournament Championship and her dream of attending law school. When asked if this was the year for a UCI birth in the NCAA Division I Tournament, an optimistic Smith-Williams was to the point.

“We definitely have the skill set to do it.”

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