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Top stories 2013 - Smith Center breaks through with title

By AUSTIN COLBERT

acolbert@dailynews.net

The 2011-12 season was the 20th for Nick Linn as the head girls' basketball coach at Smith Center High School. It was also the season Linn seemed to be on course to finally win that elusive state championship.

With five seniors, Smith Center entered the sub-state final undefeated. Then came a crushing 42-39 loss to Belleville-Republic County and just like that Linn's state title seemed to forever be unreachable.

A year later, Smith Center players Sydney Benoit and Alexis Ryan would be pouring ice water on Linn's head in the locker room at Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan after the Lady Red upset Jefferson County North -- the defending state champions -- 63-55 to win the 2013 Class 2A state championship in March.

It was the first state championship in basketball -- boys or girls -- for Smith Center, and a long overdue accomplishment for one of the area's best coaches. For this reason, it was chosen as one of The Hays Daily News' top stories of 2013.

"We finally crossed that hurdle in basketball," Linn said after the game. "Hopefully it won't take 20 some years until it happens again."

After graduating five seniors from the season before, last year's Lady Red surprised many with their 24-2 record and state title. Injuries throughout the season made depth a major issue, and Linn was forced to play his five starters nearly 32 minutes every night.

"It all worked out," Linn said. "I've never seen a group of girls work as hard as they did without 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."

For the improbable title run, Linn was named the HDN's area coach of the year. A large part of the success was because of Benoit, a 5-foot-9 senior guard on last season's team, who was named the HDN area girls' basketball player of the year.

Benoit, who Linn called a "gamer," averaged 19 points, nine rebounds, 3.6 steals and 3.7 assists per game a year ago. Despite the heavy minutes she played toward the end of the season, she managed to step up her game when they needed her to. Benoit averaged 24 points and nine rebounds in the state tournament, including 25 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks in the state title game.

"I just thought I needed to go out there and do my best," Benoit said after beating Jefferson County North. "That's what I tried to do."

It may have taken 21 years, but the 2012-13 season finally culminated in a championship for Linn, who earlier this fall also reached 700 career wins as Smith Center's volleyball coach.

And getting ambushed by Benoit and Ryan with an icy shower following the win in the state title game was worth every second of misery.

"I wasn't ready for that," Linn said. "I wasn't thinking of that, but it was worth it. It's a celebration and it's just enjoyable. I'll get soaked every night if it's like that."