/Born to be a Falcon 
Cali Smallwood, the Gulf South Conference Freshman of the Year. Photo courtesy of UM's Athletics Department.

Born to be a Falcon 

By Sarah Turner, Sports editor 

The Falcons women’s basketball team has had its share of elite talent on the court, but superstar freshman Cali Smallwood is different.  

The Gulf South Conference Freshman of the Year was destined to play basketball for the Falcons. 

The Blountsville native arrived on the bricks this fall following in her mother’s footsteps. Natasha Smallwood played basketball for the Purple and Gold in the late 90s, and is still recorded as having the third best three-point percentage in a single season.  

Smallwood was also coached by her mom at Susan Moore High School, where she played in the AHSAA 3A State Championship game her junior year.  

After visiting the campus and meeting with the team and coaches, Smallwood was sold. 

“I was just looking for good, down-to-earth people,” she said. She found just that in Falcons women’s basketball.  

However, before her collegiate career could even begin, the Falcons went through a massive change in the offseason. Former head coach Gary Van Atta announced his retirement from coaching in June.  

Van Atta was the winningest coach in program history, boasting a career record of 244-161 during 14 seasons with UM. 

“I remember I was outside at my house during the summer, and he texted on one of our group chats and said ‘Everybody get on this Zoom call,” said Smallwood, “It shocked me at first.” 

Smallwood had been looking forward to playing for Van Atta because of his successful coaching career and to be able to play for a male coach, which is something she hadn’t been able to experience before. 

Van Atta’s departure left some big shoes to fill, but there was no one better fit for the job than Olivia Chapman. 

Chapman had served as an assistant coach during Van Atta’s last season, and was promoted to the head coaching position in July, shortly after his retirement was announced. 

“I just really enjoyed being around Coach O,” said Smallwood, who was still excited to play for the Falcons despite the change. 

Before the season began, the team had to grind through a tough preseason orchestrated by Coach Chapman. 

“All of the older girls that had Coach Van Atta their entire life said that this was the hardest preseason they’ve ever had before,” said Smallwood. 

However difficult it was, she felt that all of the training she had done with her mom throughout high school prepared her well for what Montevallo’s preseason put her through. 

“We were up at 5:15 three days a week…we would have basketball in the gym, at the track running, and then we would have weights,” she said. 

The team built up chemistry during this time, which put them in a good place to start off the regular season strong, according to Smallwood. 

Smallwood averaged 12.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game and ranked in the top 15 in the conference in nearly every offensive statistic. 

The shooting guard also shot 35% from three-point range, which ranked fourth in the GSC, but one of those three-pointers stood out above the rest. 

“The West Georgia game winner I hit…that was pretty cool,” she said. 

With the game tied at 63-all and 1.3 seconds left on the clock, Montevallo had possession of the ball. A play was drawn up during a timeout to make the West Georgia players think graduate student Marisa Snodgrass would take the final shot. Snodgrass is another incredible talent for the Falcons and a Second-Team All-GSC selection this season, but the ball would instead go to Smallwood. 

“I catch the ball out there and I turned and I shot it and when I shot it I was like, ‘Holy crap, that looks good.’” 

Smallwood said she couldn’t believe it when it went in, and the Falcons won on the road, 66-63. The game was even more special to her because her family was able to be there. 

The Falcons posted a 13-14 record this year, just missing out on a spot in the conference tournament.  

Smallwood is looking to improve on the team’s win percentage for next year. 

“I know there were some games we let go at the end, especially at home,” she said. 

Smallwood said she learned a lot about herself during her freshman campaign. 

“I wasn’t expecting to come in and win Freshman of the Year or play the minutes I play and have a starting position,” she said. 

She said that the accolade means a lot to her, and she’s proud of herself for putting the conference on notice this year. 

“I just know that if I put the work in then it comes back to me,” she said. 

Falcons women’s basketball will be back in action in late November.

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