Just one year remains to enjoy these two stars
St. Charles North's Kelsey Smith and Geneva's Taylor Whitley have been two of the best girls basketball players in the Tri-Cities Area for the past three seasons.
Both have been on varsity since their freshman year, made the All-Area team every year with each earning captain honors (Whitley did it as a sophomore, Smith a junior), both have eclipsed the 1,000-point mark and are their school's all-time leading scorer, both train with Josh Rader, both are volleyball players, both play for the same summer basketball team and both are the only basketball players in the area who will be playing at a Division I college next year.
On Wednesday, Smith signed her national letter of intent to Michigan State while Whitley penned hers to Indiana State Thursday.
Even though they play for different schools (and have faced one another in both volleyball and basketball), the duo also have something else in common - each other's friendship. Sure, they knew of each other and considered each other a friendly acquaintance, but that all changed over the summer. Through their summer team, the Illinois Hustle, and workouts with Rader, Smith and Whitley's friendship shot up to a new level.
"We had a blast," Smith said. "We roomed together a lot (with their summer team) and had a lot of good times. She's awesome."
"We were pretty much inseparable the whole summer with basketball," Whitley added. "She's one of my best friends."
Whitley trained with Rader, a former Geneva basketball player and varsity assistant, for years before Smith joined them in the off-season. Even though Whitley is a 5-foot-8 guard and Smith is a 6-foot-4 center, he worked on every all-around skill with both of them.
In other words, don't be surprised if Whitley starts to show some post moves while Smith does more things guards do.
"Sometimes, we did individual workouts... but then we started combining them," Rader said. "I think the best thing they got out of that is that they are both so competitive. They pushed each other. It was always friendly competition, but at the same time, they both want to outdo the other. If Kelsey makes 10 shots, Taylor wants to make 10 shots. They both support each other a lot.
"It's hard to compare them, but they are very good at what they do. They both are well-rounded players. I think Kelsey, for a post, handles the ball extremely well, and for Taylor as a guard, to get to the paint and score, she does that well. If I put Kelsey through a post workout, I'm going to put Taylor through that too because I want them both well-rounded as possible. If there is stuff Taylor is doing off the dribble, I make Kelsey do it... it's just nice to work with two girls who love the game so much."
The girls have become so close that they wanted to have their college signing party together, but it didn't pan out.
"We were trying to do it at a restaurant or some other neutral sight, but then it would have been really weird," Whitley said. "We wanted to really bad, but it didn't work out."
Whitley and Smith's signing parties each featured cake, balloons, family, friends, teammates, coaches and food. Smith's signing took place after practice at St. Charles North's team room. Smith's mom, Carin, brought the entire team green Michigan State shirts.
Smith is the first North Star girls basketball player to sign with a D-I school. St. Charles North coach Katie Sauber was impressed with the turnout.
"They all chose to be here," Sauber said. "We didn't have to say, 'Come on girls.' It was nice. You want to make sure it's special. It's just a big accomplishment for her."
Whitley signed at Geneva first, then threw the big bash at her house after practice. She too had a nice turnout. She is the second girls basketball player in school history to sign D-I (Jan Wallner was the first, and she is in Geneva's athletic Hall of Fame).
Both coaches can't believe it's Smith and Whitley's senior year. It seems like these two have been around forever.
"It's sad," Sauber said. "Every year, I've said, 'At least I have her one more year,' but this is the last one."
"She's the best player in program history, and she still has a year to improve those numbers," Geneva coach Gina Nolan said of Whitley. "It's been a pleasure for me to coach her. A player like that doesn't come along often. It's special to have a player like that in the program."