May 26, 2011

Northwestern Rides Smith's Competitive Drive to Another Final Four

by Justin Feil |

Tewaaraton Trophy finalist Shannon Smith says she took Northwestern's back-to-back, mid-April losses to Florida and Johns Hopkins "very personally." She's been on a tear ever since, including five goals in each of the Wildcats last five games.

© TD Paulius/Midwest Lacrosse Photography

Shannon Smith was just getting into West Babylon (N.Y.) Junior High when her father banned the driveway one-on-one basketball games between her and her brother.

"We weren't allowed to do that anymore because we were being too competitive," said Andrew Smith, who is two years younger than Shannon. "Instead of the balls going in the basket, the balls were being aimed at each other."

Shannon won most of those games.

"If she wasn't so good at lacrosse," Andrew said, "she'd be playing basketball."

The competitive side of Shannon Smith, now a junior attacker for the Northwestern women's lacrosse team, hasn't changed.

"I always wanted to be the best in everything I did," said Smith, who also has a younger sister, Meghan. "My teammates will tell you that I'm competitive about card games. With my brother and sister, I would always run out fighting for [sitting] shotgun in the car, who could eat their food the fastest, who could get out of the car first. It could be anything."

It helped her to be the best scorer in New York state history. She started for West Babylon's varsity as a seventh grader and amassed 505 goals and 224 assists over her career – and that was with missing several games as a senior due to an ankle injury.

"At a young age, I was always a very highly motivated person and always a very competitive person," Smith said. "I was very driven in anything I did. If I was going to do something, I wanted to be the best at it. I would work hard to make sure I was the best."

That mindset has made Smith one of the top players in the college game, something that even her brother, a standout quarterback and attackman himself who will play lacrosse for Tampa's new program next year, has come to grips with.

"When I was younger, I didn't like talking about it," Andrew said. "She's my older sister. But now, I brag about it. It's kind of impressive."

Shannon is one of the stars of the final four that comes to Stony Brook on Friday when the Wildcats play North Carolina. Northwestern's 18-4 win over Albany in the quarterfinals was its eighth straight win since back-to-back losses in mid-April to Florida and Johns Hopkins.

"I definitely took those two losses very personally," said Smith, who had six total points in the only losses in the Wildcats' 19-2 season. "I think that was a huge turning point in my season and my teammates' season that you have to push it harder and go that much harder. We all looked inside of ourselves. We have to go day by day. We have to focus on the little things and get those things right. We have to play as a team.

"You take them personally and let them sit inside you and let them drive you. I let that drive me. I continued to do extra shooting, extra wall ball. When I was at practice, you push it as hard as you can as long as you can."

That push has helped Northwestern to another final four, Smith's childhood home just 30 minutes away.

Smith was in fifth grade when her father, Bill, steered her away from baseball and into lacrosse, which he had played in high school. Bill's youngest brother had played in college. He and a family friend helped to introduce and encourage Smith. It didn't take much prodding, and Smith was soon going out four times per week with her father to play catch and practice her shooting.

"I really pushed myself and worked at it every day," Smith said. "He was there no matter what I did."

And while her mother, Patty, had some reservations, Bill was confident that Shannon could handle varsity lacrosse as a seventh grader, in just her third year with the sport. She was ahead of her years in almost everything.

"When I was in eighth grade," Shannon said, "I was the starting point guard on my high school basketball team, and I started on our soccer team."

As a sophomore in high school, Smith set the New York single season mark with 129 goals. Three years later, she came to Northwestern a highly touted recruit, and she hasn't disappointed.

"My coaches put a lot of faith in me," Smith said. "That's awesome to know. My competitiveness has paid off. My work ethic has paid off for me. I never thought I'd be where I am, and I wouldn't be where I am without the coaching staff at Northwestern. They taught me a lot and put me in position to be where I am."

As a freshman, Smith played midfield and made an impact, even though she wasn't scoring as much as she was used to.

"Last year, we had Danielle [Spencer] and Katrina [Dowd]. They were terrific leaders. I'm that go-to person."

"She's an excellent defender as well," said Northwestern head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller. "She has the ability to play all over the field. That's what we needed that year. We needed her to be a strong midfielder at that point.

"I don't know if it's more comfortable [on attack]. She's scoring more because she's on the offense and she has to. She's really figuring things out and making other people around her better."

After scoring 33 goals and adding five assists as a freshman, she scored 69 goals and had 33 assists for 102 points as a sophomore after moving to attack. She also had 35 draw controls. This year, the Tewaaraton Trophy finalist has upped her output to 78 goals and 41 assists for 119 points. She has scored five goals in each of the last four games.

"I think she's been on a roll pretty much all season," Amonte Hiller said. "I think she's a competitor. Whenever the game is on the line, she's going to step up. Defense, offense, she's ready to help us out.

"I don't know how much more she could do for us. In certain situations, she really carried us and helped us when we needed goals and stepped up. She's matured a lot throughout the year in terms of her leadership. I think she'll continue to mature."

Each season has had its challenges for Smith. She played more midfield as a freshman, and sophomore year was the first season in which the Wildcats started to rely on her scoring. This year, they have needed not only her scoring, but her leadership with a young group around her.

"It's been great on this attack," Smith said. "We might have struggled a little bit, but the chemistry was always there. It was pulling the pieces together to make the attack look pretty. I took on a much bigger role. When the game's on the line, I want the ball in my stick to get the team the win.

"Last year, we had Danielle [Spencer] and Katrina [Dowd]. They were terrific leaders. I'm that go-to person that Danielle and Katrina were last year. I take more shots this year than last year."

Smith already has taken 49 more shots than last year, and her shooting percentage is higher. For Northwestern, that combination means getting Smith more shots is a great way to gain success.

"Any time you have a strong attacker out there that people have to worry about, it makes it a lot more challenging for another team to defend," Amonte Hiller said. "She can break through a lot of different types of defenses. She's got a way of figuring out where the holes are and finding them.

"She's a very good finisher," she added. "She has a great will and competitiveness to do well and win."

Those traits were hatched long ago, forged on the driveways playing basketball against her brother.

"Having him helped," Smith said. "He pushed me. Having a brother to play one-on-one basketball toughens you up a little bit. That was a good thing to have."

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