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All-Area 2013: Smith Center's Linn top girls' coach

By KLINT SPILLER

kspiller@dailynews.net

Smith Center High School girls' basketball coach Nick Linn said this season was his most challenging year to coach, but it also was his most rewarding one.

With graduation taking five seniors from 2012's 22-1 sub-state runner-up squad, Linn had to battle a lack of depth from the very start of this season. Then injuries further depleted the Lady Red's depth.

It got to a point during sub-state and state Smith Center played its five starters for nearly 32 minutes a night. Former reserves had to become starters and handle the pressure for entire games at a time.

But despite all of that, Smith Center built an epic run that resulted in its school's first state championship, and Linn did it by doing what a good coach does. He relied on his seniors.

"These girls came together at the right time and really played well when it mattered," said Linn, who completed his 21st year as head coach.

Overcoming those obstacles helped Linn net Girls Coach of the Year honors on the 35th Annual HDN All-Area Basketball Team.

Linn rolled the dice at state, choosing to play his starters -- four of which were seniors -- through the course of the game and not change his team's game plan.

Smith Center ran the same offenses and defenses he would normally run given a more bountiful bench. The Lady Red pressed for much of the time at sub-state and state and used different half-court defensive sets.

In the state title game, all five starters played 31 or more minutes.

"It all worked out," Linn said. "I've never seen a group of girls work as hard as they did without the breaks throughout the game. As a coaching staff, we rolled the dice, hoping they could manage to get through, and they did. It shows you what kind of individuals these young ladies really are."

At state, Linn adapted his squad's offense and made sure to keep the ball in his star's hands -- senior point guard Sydney Benoit.

Benoit averaged 24 points and nine rebounds per game at the state tournament, and playing with a cushion in the fourth quarter of the state semifinal and title games, Linn changed his press break to make sure Benoit had the ball in her hands longer.

Because of that, Benoit took 34 shots from the foul line and converted 26 of them -- three short of the Class 2A state tournament record. In the semifinal, Benoit tied the 2A tournament record for free throws made in a game, making 15 of 21.

"We sent the right players to the line," Linn said. "Sydney was certainly one of them."

Benoit said it was fun to play for Linn. She said she liked his sense of humor and knew he deeply cared about the squad.

At times, she said the team had to calm him down because he got nervous for them.

"I think we are all pretty close to Mr. Linn, and we like him a lot," Benoit said.

Realizing the squad wasn't deep, Benoit said Linn made sure they were properly conditioned. She said the Lady Red ran more in practice than they have in her career there.

"We did a lot more running this year to make sure we could play the whole game," Benoit said.

In his 21 years at Smith Center, Linn has seen plenty of talented squads.

The line between winning and losing can sometimes be microscopic.

Linn saw that firsthand last season when his squad went into the sub-state final undefeated, but lost 42-39 to Belleville-Republic County.

Linn thought that squad had a better shot of winning the title than this year's squad.

"It was a bitter pill to swallow," Linn said.

Last year's disappointment might have fed this year's squad.

"They were determined," he said. "They just wanted to go play."

Linn might have put it best in his post-game interview following the state championship.

"It's just these kids digging down," Linn said. "I'm not even sure if we had the best team here. We had the most heart here, I think."