Former Hampshire, NIU standout Smith having a winning run coaching in Florida
The state of Florida will never be mistaken as a hotbed for basketball.
Football, volleyball, softball, soccer? Yep. Basketball? Not so much.
Stephanie Smith, a former standout basketball player at Hampshire High School and Northern Illinois University, is doing her part trying to change that culture, even if it's at just one Florida school.
Smith, a 2000 Hampshire graduate who was a two-time Daily Herald All-Area captain, is in her third year as the head girls basketball coach at Braden River High School in Bradenton, Fla.
Being in the right place at the right time landed Smith the job in 2018, and with it she inherited one of the best players in the country in 5-foot-5 point guard O'Mariah Gordon, who won Florida's Gatorade Player of the Year honors the past two years and will play at Florida State next year.
"The brother of one of my friends up north coaches the JV team at Lakewood Ranch, which is one of our rivals," Smith said. "The coach here left for another job and this guy was like this kid (Gordon) really needs you to coach her. He kept sending me game film and clippings on her and she looked similar to what I was like as a kid. He put my resume in, he knew the principal that interviewed me and they decided to hire me.
"It was the best decision of my life. I've met a ton of awesome people and I've had a lot of great kids to coach. The administration is great and my friends are great. The sun definitely brings out the positivity in people. Everybody's living the dream here."
With Smith directing and Gordon running the Braden River show, the Pirates made the Class 6A (Florida has seven classes for basketball) Elite Eight in 2018-19, then the Final Four last season, losing both times to the eventual state champion.
Smith's first two Braden River teams have gone 41-12 and the Pirates won both of their preseason games this year, with their season opener scheduled Thursday against Montverde Academy, one of the state's top-ranked teams. Braden River's enrollment is 2,188 according to public school review.
Smith, who teaches physical education, was an assistant coach at South Elgin and Marian Catholic before a two-year stint as head coach at Burlington Central. After five years in various coaching positions at NIU, she brought a style to Florida most coaches in that state don't employ -- one that includes marching the sidelines and showing the passion and heart she played and coached with in Illinois.
"The kids have been very receptive to my style," said Smith, whose parents Tom and Donna live in Hampshire. "They just wanted to be coached. They wanted someone to teach them and care about them.
"People come and watch games and tell me they see how passionate I am and they see I really care about the kids and to me that's a compliment, but that's just what I know. It's good to see a different coaching style here. A lot of it has to do with my confidence and knowing what will work. It's not just sitting on the bench. A lot of the coaches down here are more laid back. That's the Florida style. I'm no Pat Summitt but people say your team plays like you coach and that's something the great Pat Summitt teams had," Smith said, referring to the late legendary Tennessee coach.
Returning to high school coaching from college came with challenges for Smith, who played on Hampshire teams that went 75-16 in her three varsity seasons.
"The biggest challenge going from D-I to high school is just the level of play," she said. "I have five starters who wipe the floor with our bench. I play (in practice) and we have some of the boys come in and play. We have to go through a lot of fundamentals and drills. It's just something I had to go back to."
Transportation and funding are challenges as well but one of the biggest hurdles Smith faces each year is not knowing who is coming into the program. While schools in Florida have boundaries, it's also a state of choice. And, there are no feeder programs. High school coaches can't attend middle school games as it's seen as recruiting.
Florida has begun its season despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Fans are allowed at 50 percent capacity. Players do not have to wear masks while playing but they do when on the bench. Temperature checks are done and hand sanitizer is plentiful.
"Our administration has done a great job of giving us the products we need to be safe," Smith said.
Her hope is the season will go on uninterrupted and that it concludes with a Braden River state championship.
"Our goal is to be on top and this is the year we can do it," she said. "We're praying the season will last until February."