Coach Mark Smith and the Burlington Central Rockets had a pretty good answer to the question, “What do you do for an encore?”
A year after taking a freshman-dominated team to a supersectional, Smith guided a sophomore-laden squad to the school’s first-ever state trophy for fourth in 3A. In a semifinal in which few gave them a chance to be close, the Rockets led eventual state champion Montini with under three minutes left before falling.
As a result, Smith has repeated as Courier-News Girls Basketball Coach of the Year, placing him in the company of some pretty successful repeat winners from the past, like Hampshire’s Sue Ellett and Milt Awe, Elgin’s Lee Turek and St. Edward’s Ken Mattini.
“The thing people have to remember about this is they made it (to state) and they’re still mostly sophomores and juniors,” Central athletic director Steve Diversey said. “Mark does a great job with the girls. He treats them like his own daughters.”
Central’s girls had to refocus after last year’s success, step up against a beefed-up nonconference schedule that included Fremd and the Dundee-Crown tourney, then deliver in postseason. They won a second straight Big Northern title easily, then went a step beyond last year with a supersectional win over Carmel en route to a 27-6 record. The 27 wins matched last year’s school record.
“The girls were a year older,” Smith said. “I can’t tell you enough how hard they play. Their defensive effort is just out of this world. Everything we do revolves around our defense.”
Smith’s team uses the “pack line defense” of former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett. It’s essentially man-to-man with plenty of help closer to the basket.
This year’s rules emphasis change removed some physicality the Rockets used in it last year.
“When it started, there were a lot of things that were tight,” Smith said. “As the season went along I think the game kind of, I think, everybody was wishing it (officiating) would go back to what it normally had been like.
“But we adjusted pretty well. I think we played our trademark defense.”
Smith, a former boys coach at St. Charles North, worked under great high school coaches like Boylan’s Steve Goers, St. Charles’ Ron Johnson and Palatine’s Ed Molitor. Like any successful coach, he points to the quality of his athletes to explain his success.
“Two years ago when I got the job I had no idea what I was getting into as far as how good these girls were,” Smith said. “So I just felt so blessed and fortunate to be around such great kids. They play so hard. It’s a fun group to coach.
“There’s a lot of togetherness, a lot of family.”
Smith recalled at state how growing up in Elk Grove he always dreamed of making it to Champaign, former site of the tourney.
The Rockets made the state dream come true.
“It’s been a real thrill for me as a coach and our coaching staff, but more importantly we’re just so happy for the girls,” Smith said.