It is a long trip from Alexandria, Louisiana, to Houston, Texas, to Winnetka, Ill. But Rashid Smith made it without a hitch. In his second year as head coach at North Shore Country Day, he still has some unfinished business.
Basketball never has been a major topic of discussion at the small and elite private school. Football records date to the school's founding in 1919 but the only basketball record of note is a regional championship in 2011.
Smith is anxious to re-write history. North Shore Country Day is 17-4 going into Tuesday's Class 1A supersectional against Sterling Newman, has won its first conference championship in 40 years and its first sectional in history. "There is a gap in the records," he said.
The Raiders, who were 17-7 last year but lost to Hope Academy in the sectional semifinal, avenged that loss on Friday night by overwhelming the team that was favored to win the Class 1A title this season, Hope Academy, 70-56. Jake Bruce scored 27 points and Austen Curren had 23.
"I'm 30 years old but I'm not surprised by anything at this point," Smith said. "They are playing unselfishly and hard and smart. If you do those three things, you give yourself a chance to win. I wasn't surprised about winning the regional and sectional.
"But what impressed me was after we won the regional they didn't celebrate. They shook the other team's hand and walked off the court. In the first game of the sectional, they did the same thing. One kid said: 'I don't want to lose without playing our best basketball.' They still feel we haven't played our best basketball. I was impressed that 16- and 17- and 18-year-old kids have that mindset."
Hey, the Raiders could be unbeaten. They lost to Christian Liberty by two, Chicago Latin by two, Chicago University High by two in overtime and Northridge Prep by two in overtime.
"But the losses helped us," Smith said. "They forced us to do some self-reflecting and make corrections and improvements. We are a smarter team, more patient on offense. We take better shots and we are more dynamic. In the beginning of the year, zone defense and pressure hurt us. But now our guards do a good job of handling pressure. And our ball movement is much crisper now."
Smith knows how to win. At Peabody Magnet High School in Alexandria, La., he led his team to a state championship. He was All-State and MVP in the state tournament. In three years, his teams lost only 10 games. He earned a scholarship to Rice University in Houston, Texas.
At Rice, a couple of his teammates were from Northbrook, Illinois. They started a basketball training company and Smith joined them. Along the way, he connected with coaches and athletes on the North Shore. One of his college teammates was Omar Mance, who preceded him as head coach at North Shore Country Day, When Mance left to become an assistant at Army, Smith succeeded him.
Smith inherited three returning starters from last year's squad. Curren, a 6-foot-3 junior, averages 17.5 points and six rebounds per game. He was an all-conference selection last year. Bruce, a 6'2" senior guard, averages 13.5 points and four steals.
Other starters are 6-foot-5 junior Ryan Hall (14 ppg, 11 rpg) and 5-foot-9 junior point guard Jamie Swimmer who contributes five assists per game and scored 15 points against Hope Academy. Both were all-conference selections a year ago.
The other starting spot is split between 6'2" junior Flores Hondmann and 6-foot junior Tim Morette. They combine for 11 points and five rebounds between them.
Smith thinks North Shore Country Day isn't given much respect because the Independent League, which also includes University High and Francis Parker and Chicago Latin, isn't considered a very competitive conference. But Smith believes his team's victory over highly rated Hope Academy should send a message to critics.
"I feel our conference is good," Smith said. "University High is a Class 3A school. We weren't intimidated by Hope Academy. We play quick, athletic teams in our conference, schools that are in Class 2A and 3A. We've seen everything.
"These kids are typical of North Shore kids. They are hard working, very competitive, good spirit, high energy.
"They haven't had a game where they have felt that everybody has played up to their potential. We can click better than we are doing. I could tell by the way they approached and prepared for the sectional that they still have a lot of basketball left to play.
"Some of the kids on this team I have known since fifth and sixth grade. I worked with them at our training center. I knew it wasn't like Peabody (North Shore's enrollment is only 220). But I knew the players. Give me a kid who goes to North Shore to play basketball, who is a decent player, not developed, but has potential, and he will develop. He might might be a super star as a ninth or 10th grader but he will grow and reach his potential."