Four years after almost leaving Kent, Merissa Barber-Smith prepares to graduate

Kent State former president Beverly Warren hugs Merissa Barber-Smith after Kent State’s 86-62 over the Falcons on March 11 in the first round of the MAC Tournament. 

Gina Butkovich

Many didn’t think Merissa Barber-Smith would make it through her freshman year of college basketball.

Now, as a senior, Barber-Smith has had a busy few months.

At the end of March, she helped lead the women’s basketball team to their first postseason win since 1996 with a win over Green Bay in the first round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.

A few weeks ago, she celebrated her son’s first birthday.

In two weeks she will graduate from college.

And after that, she gets to plan a wedding.

“To be honest, out of all the freshmen I came in with, I didn’t think Merissa was going to make it past the first summer,” senior guard Alexa Golden said. “So the fact that she made it all the way to senior year and she is the one I’m graduating with is really special.”

In 2015, Barber-Smith came in with five other freshmen on the team. Now, her and Golden are the only two players planning on graduating in May.

Barber-Smith wasn’t sure she would finish in four years as a college athlete either.

“When I was a freshman I questioned it,” Barber-Smith said. “Being away from home. Trainings I wasn’t really ready for that were really stressful for me. But I had my teammates and I had my friends.”

When they arrived, each freshman was linked with an upperclassman to help them transition onto the team. Barber-Smith was linked with Lacey Miller, who was a junior at the time.

Miller admits there were moments where she thought “oh no, she might not make it,” despite knowing Barber-Smith could make it.

Barber-Smith was late that first summer, missing the whole first week of workouts.

“When she finally did come, she told me she was from Chi-Raq,” Miller said. “I thought she meant like a different country because I didn’t know what Chi-Raq was. She had a lot of down points that first summer and first season. She came to me a few times saying she didn’t think she was going to make it, that she was going to quit.”

Barber-Smith did survive her freshman year, and when she came back for her sophomore year it was to a completely new coaching staff.

“The new coaches came in and it changed the whole dynamic of the game and how we played and how I thought of myself,” Barber-Smith said. “Because of that, I developed more confidence and courage and developed a unique personality for myself on the court, as well as off the court.”

The new coaches, lead by head coach Todd Starkey, talked with all the players on the team when they first came in to gauge where they are on and off the court.

“I think we were trying to figure out whether she was really that motivated or passionate about basketball,” Starkey said. “She was working on some life things, and needed to grow. We probably all, including her, had our doubts about how this was going to play out for her.”

Barber-Smith went from playing in 17 games her freshman year to playing in 29 her sophomore year. The Flashes finished first in the MAC East that year, and went on to play in the WNIT. Barber-Smith posted season-highs with 8 points and 13 rebounds in just 19 minutes of the WNIT first round game at Michigan.

“By her second year on the team, you saw a switch,” Miller said. “She improved so much. I used to be able to give her a little push and I could get any rebound I wanted from her that first year. By the next year, I probably got one or two rebounds against her all season. She had figured it out.”

The next season, Barber-Smith’s junior year, she only played in 15 games before sitting the rest of the season. It wasn’t because of an injury, or grades or any of the other reasons players often miss large portions of the season. It was because she had a baby.

“When I first found out I was pregnant, I really questioned if I should continue, will I continue, how I would continue,” Barber-Smith said. “I thought about this unborn child’s future, and I was thinking that the best way to give him a bright future was for me to finish out. I thought about quitting basketball, but I thought I can’t give up something I love. I want to teach my child that no matter what obstacles you go through, you can’t give up on something you love.”

Friends and her fiancé, Connor Strassburg, played a large role in convincing her to keep playing.

“My fiancé, he was like, ‘you can still continue,’” Barber-Smith said. “So I went in and talked to the coaches, and they agreed that I can still have my scholarship and I can still come back. And I would make sure I would do everything in my power to continue my studies, continue going to class and continue to work out.”

Starkey never had any doubts about letting Barber-Smith keep her scholarship.

“For me, as a coach, I’ve come to expect just about anything at anytime,” Starkey said. “The most important role that I play as a head coach is the ability to be adaptable. Obviously, you hear that and right away your thoughts are going two paths. Number one, how’s that going to affect us basketball-wise? But immediately it turns toward her well-being. How is she going to handle this?”

For Barber-Smith, handling meant making plans. Plans on how to continue basketball, school and how to raise her son

“She became depressed about not being able to play, but found motivation in the classroom,” Strassburg said. “She told me stories of how she couldn’t fit in the desk chairs sometimes, but even when her feet swelled up, she still made it to class on time and even went to her practices in the afternoon.”

She had a plan to have her son in Madison, Wisconsin, but Micah Philip Strassburg had other plans, and ended up being born early in Akron.

Another piece of her plan was Micah spending the first half of the year with her, and the rest of the year with his father in Wisconsin. That plan also went out the window.

“As I continued being with him all those months, I thought ‘I can’t leave him,’” Barber-Smith said. “I’m crazy for even thinking that in the first place.”

Now, her fiancé and her son are in Kent with her. According to Barber-Smith, Micah now has a ton of aunts: her teammates.

“They come around a lot more for him,” Barber-Smith said. “They are always buying him stuff, always giving him stuff. Lacey babysits him once or twice a week, and it’s really helpful for me. She is like a second mom to him. I’m just glad my son has like 14 aunties he can count on.”

Her family being in Kent also means they got to watch her play what many consider to be the best season of her college career.

Barber-Smith averaged 7.6 rebounds per game this season, good for eighth in the Mid-American Conference. She helped lead the team to their first post season win since 1996 against Green Bay in the first round of the WNIT. In KSU’s win over the Phoenix, Barber-Smith pulled down 15 rebounds and scoring two important free throws that helped the Flashes pull away with the win.

“I love the way she played and watching her was great experience for me and our son,” Strassburg said. “We enjoy going to her home games and being her greatest supporters.”

In just over a week, Barber-Smith is going to walk across the stage at graduation. She will graduate with a degree in Human Development and Family Studies.

“Anybody can be a basketball player,” Barber-Smith said. “It takes a true player to walk across that stage.”

After she is handed her diploma, she has plans to find a job where she can give back and help parents learn tactics to help their kids tackle life issues. She has plans to get married. She has plans to figure out how to stop her son from outsmarting her baby-proofed home.

Baber-Smith was the player many didn’t think was going to last through the first summer of basketball training. Now she is graduating as a four-year college athlete.

“In my opinion and in my 20 plus years of coaching, I’m not sure that I’ve coached a player that has gone through more growth,” Starkey said. “A significant amount of growth on the court, but even more off of the court.”

Gina Butkovich is a sports reporter. Contact her at [email protected].