UJ's Schmitz grateful to be at nationals following health scare

This week's NAIA women's volleyball tournament in Sioux City is more than a potential week of competition for University of Jamestown freshman Nicole Schmitz.

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University of Jamestown's Nicole Schmitz (14) sends the ball across the net to a couple of University of Saint Mary players Saturday, April 17, 2021, at Harold Newman Arena. John M. Steiner / The Sun

This week's NAIA women's volleyball tournament in Sioux City, Iowa, is more than a potential week of competition for University of Jamestown freshman Nicole Schmitz.

It's an opportunity for a small-town athlete from nearby Oakes to fully appreciate her ability on a national stage with coaches and teammates who together comprise the No. 1-ranked Jimmies.

Last month, doctors thought Schmitz might have cancer.

A barrage of testing and a bone marrow biopsy at Sanford Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo had professionals leaning toward a potential lymphoma diagnosis, according to Schmitz.

The high-flying outside hitter said she felt run down the week of March 1, the same week Jamestown was able to finally resume play held over from the fall due to COVID. Also juggling exams just prior to spring break, a taxed first-year biology major immediately thought allergies or strep throat.


Schmitz and the Jimmies begin national tournament pool play tomorrow morning (April 27) at Sioux City's Tyson Events Center.

"I thought I had just over-stressed myself," Schmitz recalled. "I'll get over it if I just go to bed and sleep it off.

"I got pretty sick."

The following week, Schmitz, with a fever and swollen tonsils, went home to Oakes to hopefully recover during the week off from school. But after visiting with her primary care physician, it was realized Schmitz's liver and spleen were enlarged and she was showing signs of acute liver failure.

Schmitz tested negative for mononucleosis.

"All those tests were coming back negative," Schmitz said. "But just everything in my body was showing it was fighting off something, and it was causing my hemoglobin to drop which gave me hemolytic anemia, which is a big fancy medical term that I now know of."

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University of Jamestown's Nicole Schmitz (14) sends the ball across the net to a couple of University of Saint Mary players Saturday, April 17, 2021, at Harold Newman Arena. John M. Steiner / The Sun


Schmitz had been referred by her physician to an oncologist at Roger Maris in Fargo, where her bone marrow came back clean prior to the removal of two lymph nodes from her neck for further testing as there were still no answers.

Meanwhile, the Great Plains Athletic Conference champion Jimmies were sweeping through its non-conference return to play. UJ and head coach Jon Hegerle didn't lose a set in wins over the University of Mary, Valley City State, Mayville State and Dakota State.

But Schmitz had already established herself as a potent weapon within the Jimmies' rotation, tallying 150 kills in the fall as a true freshman on the nation's top-ranked program.

Her absence was noticeable.

"It was a lot of keeping up with coach over the phone, being at home. A lot of praying," Schmitz said. "I'm a person that likes to be in control of everything.

"Like I told coach, I look back on it and I'm like, it was an experience I would've been fine probably not going through, but because I had to it made me appreciate life a little bit more."

Schmitz finally received a positive test result, but it was one her body had turned back negative on three prior occasions. While waiting to receive the verdict on her lymph nodes, Schmitz went in for blood work to check on her hemoglobin and liver enzymes when a breakthrough was realized.

"We ran another last mono test ... after I already went through all the tests for everything," Schmitz said. "Fourth time's the charm."


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University of Jamestown's Kalli Hegerle, left, shares a laugh with teammate Nicole Schmitz prior to the Jimmies' intrasquad scrimmage held at Harold Newman Arena on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. Michael Savaloja / The Sun

Schmitz was suffering from severe mononucleosis, symptoms for which she said physicians might believe intensified after she had battled COVID-19 last fall.

"They think it might be something from fighting off COVID in September," Schmitz said. "My immune system wasn't used to something as hard as COVID was on me, and when I had to fight off something like mono it didn't know what to do."

Schmitz, North Dakota's high school Class B volleyball senior athlete of the year a little more than a year ago, regained her strength quickly following treatment and was in uniform for all three matches of the GPAC tournament held earlier this month at Harold Newman Arena.

She began her return with a handful of rotations in UJ's 3-0 sweep of Morningside in the quarterfinals on April 3. She played three sets in UJ's 3-1 win over Midland in the semifinals on April 7, before once again cracking the starting lineup for the Jimmies on title night against fifth-ranked Northwestern.

Schmitz turned in eight kills as UJ swept to a second GPAC tournament title in as many seasons.

"A lot of talking and communicating with the coaches and trainers on how you're feeling, and being honest about it," Schmitz said. "I just wanted to get back and compete. It was good to be back and play against Northwestern like we did."


Coach Hegerle said Schmitz still has a little catching up to do, but her impact has rejoined a stronger UJ team that was forced to sharpen without her.

"The biggest part for her is just mentally," Hegerle said. "What she went through mentally and emotionally, not to mention physically, with that roller coaster there, she's still not back where she was this fall, but she's getting close and you can see that same spirit.

"Not that we want to go through anything like that ... but it's a real measure of a team how they -- No. 1 -- react to it, and -- No. 2 -- how they respond to it," Hegerle continued. "Fortunately for us, our team has always responded really well to adversity."

The Jimmies toppled the University of Saint Mary, Kansas, 3-0 in the opening round of the NAIA national tournament on April 17. Pool play for the 27-1 Jimmies begins in the morning at 8:30 facing Viterbo University, Wisconsin.

"Now we're here and I'm just grateful every day that God's given me this opportunity," Schmitz said. "Seeing everyone in the Roger Maris Cancer Center made me realize my life's not that hard. I need to appreciate every moment that I'm given in this life and then never take anything for granted."

Savaloja is the sports lead writer for The Jamestown Sun.
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