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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Chattanooga Lady Red Wolves midfielder Mackenzie Smith, left, defends during a USL W League match against Tennessee SC on June 17 at CHI Memorial Stadium in East Ridge.

Growing up in a family of medical professionals, Mackenzie Smith already knows her future.

In the meantime, she's having a lot of fun in her present.

Smith is just weeks away from her fourth soccer season at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and she's playing this summer as a midfielder for the USL W League's Chattanooga Lady Red Wolves.

While she doesn't expect to diverge from the family tradition of medicine when it comes to her ultimate career, Smith's college choice showed she has no problem charting her own path — even as the youngest of six kids. While all five of her siblings attended the University of Tennessee, she hasn't minded being unique.

"I think I was always going to follow where the soccer took me, so whether that was here or there, it didn't really matter," Smith said recently — with "there" being Knoxville, where she was a prep star at Hardin Valley Academy. "I knew I wanted to play, and everything else just fell into place for me."

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Chattanooga Lady Red Wolves midfielder Mackenzie Smith

Success on the field has always followed Smith, and that's been no different in Chattanooga.

A Southern Conference All-Freshman team pick in 2019, this past fall she led UTC in points with 10 by accounting for three goals and four assists for the Mocs. It's been much of the same for the Lady Red Wolves (6-2-3), with Smith accumulating four goals and an assist for nine points, one behind team leader Hannah Tillett (five goals).

With the first-year USL W League about to enter the postseason, Smith and her teammates will try to extend the Lady Red Wolves' schedule. They will visit South Carolina United (5-3-2) at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the regular-season finale for Chattanooga and a game with championship implications.

If the Lady Red Wolves win, they will have 24 points in the South Central Division standings, moving them into first place ahead of South Georgia Tormenta FC (6-1-4, 22 points). However, South Georgia hosts South Carolina on Sunday night in the regular-season finale for both — so Chattanooga needs not only a win Friday but for South Georgia to either draw or lose to South Carolina for the Lady Red Wolves to clinch the division and a berth in the eight-team USL W League playoffs.

Whatever happens this weekend, this season has been a bit of a roller coaster for the Lady Red Wolves, who opened 0-1-2 before winning five matches in a row. Now they're coming off a 3-2 home win against Southern Soccer Academy that avenged a 4-3 road loss a week earlier, when Chattanooga led 3-0 at halftime.

"At the beginning, we could have chalked it up to not knowing each other. Our chemistry wasn't there," Smith said. "Once we started getting on our win streak, we started figuring each other out and we started seeing that success. But that losing actually helped us in the long run because it made us realize that we do need to play, we do need to focus.

"Riding the wave has been difficult, but it's a very humbling experience, and that's part of this league. Not every game is going to be easy, and games you should win, you might not win, but that's why you have to show up no matter the team, no matter the standing, and play with everything you have."

Smith isn't in a hurry for her soccer career to end, but once it does, the plan is pretty clear.

Her father Lawrence? A doctor. Her mother Paula? A nurse. Each of her five brothers and sisters? Either in medical school or headed that way.

Mackenzie's major at UTC is biochemistry, and she said the majority of her time away from soccer is spent in a lab "doing biophysics research on E. coli." She would love to be an oncologist, a doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

So, yeah, soccer has become her relief in a sense.

"It's always, 'Thank God, I have soccer today,'" she said. "It's always been like that since as long as I can remember, and I think it will always be that point of relief for me. I love the lab; it's like my second love, my education and going to school. But soccer will always be my first."

Smith admitted she was nervous when she first came to Chattanooga. Although it was a decision blessed by the family, it was also going against the grain by being the first of the six kids to not attend Tennessee. In hindsight, she has no regrets.

"I feel like I've made this my own space, my own home. And it's part of me now," she said. "I get to go to school, and I get to meet amazing people, and I get to meet so many people through soccer."

The Lady Red Wolves add another dimension to that opportunity.

"I just meet an entirely different side of Chattanooga," she said, "which is an honor."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.

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