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Smith Center showing work pays off at the buzzer

By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN

dobrien@dailynews.net

Donna Devlin cringed in 2008 when she heard a comment about the Smith Center High School scholars bowl team, which had just lost by a large margin at a tournament in Osborne.

"The program was floundering at the time, and we had just lost (a round) -- badly," Devlin said. "We walked out of the room, and we heard someone say, 'At least they're good in football.' Our kids heard it, and they were mortified."

Devlin, Smith Center's junior high scholars bowl coach at the time, took over the high school program the next year.

These days, it's the Redmen's opponents who are doing the squirming when they see Smith Center on the list of schools at scholars bowl tournaments.

Smith Center, winner of eight state football championships -- including five in a row from 2004 to 2008 -- hasn't been as fortunate in scholars bowl competition.

That could start changing this year.

Led by a group that includes five students in the gifted program at Smith Center, the Redmen have finished in the top three of four of their first four tournaments this season, including two first-place finishes in their last two.

Most recent was the team's second consecutive Mid-Continent League championship, in friendly territory. This happened to be the year Smith Center hosted the MCL tourney.

Smith Center won the 2013 MCL title by going 8-0 on the day, well ahead of Norton and Stockton, which each went 5-3. Norton, a perennially strong 3A team, earned runner-up honors by winning the head-to-head matchup with Stockton.

Devlin said it's no coincidence the scholars bowl program at Smith Center is flourishing now; it's the result of a commitment from youngsters from early on, much like the football team.

"The program has advanced incredibly," said Devlin, who coached both junior high and high school for five years before handing over the junior high reins to gifted coordinator Joe Burgardt this year. "Coaching both the junior high and high school (programs) created some cohesiveness so I could bring them up from junior high.

"It created a 'team' of players," Devlin added, "and with the junior high having some success, it encouraged them to go on and keep doing it in high school when their lives get so busy."

Senior Payton Buckmaster and junior Taylor Zabel bought into that idea. Both are multi-sport athletes and starters on the Redmen football and basketball teams. They were joined Tuesday by seniors Faith Karg, Alex Kirnie and Kelli Jones and junior Robert Strine in keeping the team's hopes alive to finish strong down the stretch.

The Redmen feature depth as well. Devlin has 20 students on her high school team.

Smith Center has a handful of regular-season tournaments in which to compete before traveling to Lincoln the last day of this month for a Class 2A regional tourney.

The top three finishers from regionals qualify for state -- Smith Center's ultimate goal. The Redmen lost out on a tiebreaker to go to state last year.

However, Devlin is well aware how quickly standings of a team can change in scholars bowl.

"One bad round, one question -- they can really make a difference," said Devlin, who participated in scholars bowl in high school in the late 1980s at White Rock High School in Burr Oak.

Therefore, she is trying hard to keep her team on an even keel as it approaches the last month of the season.

But she admits it's tough not to have high expectations with this particular team.

"We're all excited," she said, "about showing that Smith Center is good at something besides football."