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Burlington Central's Mark Smith is The Courier-News Coach of the Year. | John Konstantaras~For Sun-Times Media

They weren’t the Fab Five and Mark Smith wasn’t Steve Fisher, but Burlington Central’s first-year coach definitely had a promising group of five freshmen coming onto the varsity in 2012-13 to pair up with five sophomores.

With inexperience across the court, all the Rockets did this past season was win the school’s first conference title since 2008, set a record for victories in finishing 27-5 and make a supersectional for only the second time in school history. As a result, Smith has been named Courier-News Coach of the Year.

“We had a lot of young players, but they’re young players with an enormous amount of talent,” Smith said. “They are very committed and play AAU ball, so these weren’t just your regular freshmen and sophomores.

“I was also fortunate because we had 18 to 20 girls playing in the summer program and I was hired early enough that I got to see them and was familiar with them. If you can get a jump by getting your plan in place it’s always going to be easier.”

Perhaps Smith had a bit of a head start in this manner, but he had that inexperience factor to overcome. He had to blend in freshmen Shelby Holt, Kayla Ross, Becca Gerke, Sam Pryor, and Sam Cruz with sophomores Alison Colby, Aly DeTamble, Anna McCurdy, Jackie Collins, and Kayla Rafferty, and he had only seniors Camille Delacruz and Erica Haynes and junior Kathleen Ratzek back from a 13-16 team.

The former St. Charles North and Harper College head coach did it by relying on a coaching background that included time spent coaching under former boys coaches Steve Goers with Rockford Boylan, Ron Johnson and Jerry Krieg with St. Charles/St. Charles East, and Ed Molitor with Palatine. And he also tapped into a college playing career in Wisconsin at Beloit under Bill Knapton as well as the coaching genius of someone else from Wisconsin — former Badgers coach Dick Bennett.

“I knew from coaching at Harper we could run Dick Bennett’s Pack Line defense and be successful so we went with that,” Smith said. “It’s a defense that’s been around. You could say I’m a Dick Bennett disciple.”

The defense basically puts one player on the ball and four others in help positions in an arc about 15 or 16 feet around the basket. The defense became the calling card for a team that scored many of its points quickly off turnovers.

Smith also had his team rely on backcourt pressure because of the speed of Delacruz, Ross, and Haynes.

“Coach Smith has had a big impact,” said Colby. “He’s very serious, but we can have fun at the same time.

“And he brought a whole new offense and press.”

Getting the Rockets to be a bit more willing to shoot was another challenge the Rockets had.

“Myself and the assistants were always telling the girls to shoot, but not just shoot — we wanted them in games to not hesitate when they have the open shots,” he said. “I’ve always taught in the past if you have the open one take it. But some had been told some different things in the past.”

Smith also said it helped greatly in terms of continuity having Darnell Coleman as an assistant after he had been freshman coach in 2011-12, and Kyle Molik back as a sophomore coach.

Most of the credit for the success was given to the players by Smith.

“Every one of them ... they all grew quite a bit,” he said. “One who really seemed to come around is Kayla Ross. Her ability to defend is something I’d never seen in a freshman and she really came around in terms of scoring.

“All the girls, their potential is out of this world.”

In the end, it took a Vernon Hills team that had played for the state title last year and did again this year to oust the young Rockets.

Smith loses Delacruz and Haynes, but the Rockets will try to recapture their postseason momentum next year with an influx of talent from a sophomore team that lost only once. They’ll toughen up their schedule and play at the prestigious Dundee-Crown Christmas tournament.

“Next year it’s going to be even easier because they know what to expect from me,” he said. “We can kind of extend and do some things we couldn’t this year.”

COURIER-NEWS COACH OF THE YEAR HONOR ROLL

1981: Lee Turek, Elgin

1982: Scott Beutlich, Crystal Lake Central

1983: Larry Eichert, Valley Lutheran

1984: Ralph Hix, Burlington Central

1985: Ken Mattini, St. Edward

1986: Gary Gilmore, St. Charles

1987: Bruce Kay, Cary-Grove

1988: Ken Mattini, St. Edward

1989: Ken Mattini, St. Edward

1990: Gary Wadlington, Cary-Grove

1991: Jack Miller, St. Edward

1992: Lee Turek, Elgin

1993: Lee Turek, Elgin

1994: Ray Card, Crystal Lake Central

1995: Ralph Hix, Marengo

1996: Lee Turek, Elgin

1997: Ed Patrick, St. Edward

1998: George Rosner, Streamwood

1999: Milt Awe, Hampshire

2000: Milt Awe, Hampshire

2001: Milt Awe, Hampshire

2002: Milt Awe, Hampshire

2003: Milt Awe, Hampshire

2004: Sue Ellett, Hampshire and Ed Haugens, Jacobs

2005: Denise Sarna, Bartlett

2006: Joe Komaromy, Dundee-Crown

2007: Michelle Dawson, St. Edward

2008: Katie Duraski (Sauber), St. Charles North

2009: Sue Ellett, Hampshire

2010: Sue Ellett, Hampshire

2011: Ed Haugens, Hampshire

2012: Denise Sarna, Bartlett

2013: Mark Smith, Burlington Central

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