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How do you top that game, Sydney Smith?
How do you keep your emotions in check? How do you remain unflappable, young teenager? A freshman playing her first high school basketball game -- on varsity, no less.
And Julie Smith had a special seat.
It was just the start of a wonderful career as a VH Cougar for Julie's daughter.
Less than a month later, Julie lost her five-year battle with cancer. She was just 47.
Sydney's first game as a Vernon Hills Cougar was also the last one her mother saw. Athletic director Brian McDonald and girls basketball coach Paul Brettner had arranged it so Julie, whose health was declining rapidly, could comfortably watch her little girl play that November night in 2010.
"I just told Gregg, Sydney's dad, ‘We'll make it happen. We'll find a way to get (Julie) in the gym and get her to be able to see Syd's first game,' " McDonald said.
"I'm really happy that we were able to make that happen," Sydney said. "It was great for me, and I think it was really good for everyone, especially her, that she actually got to be there, because I know how much she did want to go to games. And it was so difficult."
How do you top that night, Sydney Smith?
Answer: By authoring so many more special nights on the basketball court. By moving forward and embracing being Sydney Smith, proud daughter of Julie and Gregg and big sister of Andrew.
Three years later, the 5-foot-10 senior forward is the captain of the Daily Herald Lake County All-Area team after averaging 19.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.9 blocks per game. With the graduation of her neighbor and former teammate Meri Bennett-Swanson, and with classmate/fellow star forward Lauren Webb sidelined with a foot injury, Smith took the court for the Cougars in their season opener as their only established scoring threat.
She embraced the responsibility. She led Vernon Hills to a share of its third straight North Suburban Conference Prairie Division championship, third sectional-final appearance in a row and 25 wins.
When Carmel stunned Vernon Hills at Ridgewood last week, it capped Smith's four-year varsity career after a school-record 1,659 points and 99 victories.
"In nearly every game this year, she was the best player on the floor," Brettner said. "Her four-year body of work is impressive, and couple that with the fact that she was one of the top leaders we have ever had at our school in any sport."
Credit starts at home.
"I've been told I have the looks and smarts of my mom, but then I have the personality and athleticism of my dad," Smith said. "I think I've definitely learned a lot from both of them. I learned how to be the person I am today. I think a lot of my leadership qualities have come from the way I saw my mom and how my dad is with sports and everything."
She calls her dad "very intense" and a guy who, like her, likes to joke around. Her mom was the serious type.
"My dad and I would always give her a hard time and joke about stuff," Smith said. "She and my brother are a lot alike in their personalities."
The Smiths lives across the street from the family of Bennett-Swanson, who along with Smith and Webb helped Vernon Hills place second in the state in Class 3A in 2012 and 2013. Smith has known the Bennett-Swanson family since she was 3. When her mom died, Smith says Meri's mother, Susan, was there for her.
For that, Smith gives an "infinite amount" of thanks, she says.
"They have done so much for my family -- for me, especially," Smith said.
"I'm fortunate that I have a great support system around me. My family is there for each other, and I have great friends who understand what's happened in my life, and I have other friends who have gone through similar situations, and we're always able to talk about that with each other. But it's not necessarily something I try to dwell on. What happened, happened. I still live my life."
She lives, eats and breathes basketball.
She opened this season by tying Lauren Horan's school record with 29 points in a game, then got the school mark with a 35-point effort five games later against Lakes. Before the season was over, she posted two more 29-point games and a 30-point performance.
With the injured Webb watching from the bench, Smith took charge, helping Vernon Hills start the season 7-0. By the time Webb returned to the lineup for good, the Cougars were sporting a 15-5 record.
"We didn't know how long we weren't going to have Lauren," Smith said. "We realized we were going to be at a loss for a while, but everyone on the team stepped up at practices and in games and filled roles that they weren't necessarily expecting to be doing at first.
"A lot of people -- like Mia Polisky, Dana Meline and Danielle Comitor -- got great minutes, and they did exactly what they needed to do in those minutes. When Lauren came back, we were overjoyed because with her we were that much better."
Smith averaged 12.7 points per game in a repeat all-area campaign last season, which included her verbally committing to play Division-I basketball for the University of Vermont. During the summer and off-season, she worked with well-regarded athletic trainer Jeff Pagliocca on raising her game another notch.
"He taught me, since seventh grade, how to be the player I am today," Smith said. "Last year, I lived and died by the 3. This year, yes, I wanted to shoot, but also do other things. I wanted to drive and, especially, work on my defense and be an all-around player."
In a few months, Smith will be off to beautiful Vermont. She'll miss her high school teammates, but her life goes on.
"I realize it's time for a new chapter to begin," Smith said. "I am so fortunate that I get to play another four years of basketball in college. That's awesome."
That attitude has served her well.