Injury bug starting to bite No. 2 Smith Center girls

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

HILL CITY -- In the last several days, Smith Center High School senior Sydney Benoit, the team leader with 19.6 points, 9.4 rebounds, 4.3 steals and 3.8 assists per contest, felt tightness in her hamstring. Coach Nick Linn had two of his starters go down late last winter with season-ending injuries and an undefeated Smith Center team lost in the sub-state championship game and finished 22-1.

This year, Linn thought Benoit could work through the pain. However, the Lady Red again have encountered injury problems in late season. Benoit rarely played in Friday's 63-46 road win against Hill City.

"That is a big worry," Linn said. "We absolutely have to have her healthy. She will be icing all weekend."

In addition, senior reserve Blair McNary had concussion-like symptoms when she collided with Ringneck senior guard Shelby Stewart late in the third quarter and didn't return.

"It's too late in the season to have that kind of stuff like we had last year," Linn said.

Smith Center also had some defensive breakdowns, especially on the perimeter. But big nights from junior Colbie Decker (19 points) and senior Briana Dietz (14 points) helped Smith Center, ranked No. 2 in Class 2A, move to 16-1. It was a season-high for Dietz and the second-most points for Decker. Hill City dropped to 6-10.

"Anyone can hurt at any point in time, so others have to step up and take her place," Dietz said.

Smith Center remained in position for the No. 1 seed in the Plainville sub-state, arguably the classification's best sub-state. The Lady Red have a one-game lead on Oakley, ranked No. 3, and eighth-ranked Ellis. Smith Center has split with Ellis, while Ellis has defeated Oakley. Smith Center will not play Oakley. Linn said he "can't afford" to lose Benoit for a game, because it could "nip us in the butt."

"Then we have to hope for another team to lose maybe for seeding purposes," Linn said. "I think we have worked really, really hard since the league tournament to put us where we are at, and that's barring injury, and now we have got the injury bug right now with Sydney. That's so crucial in terms of running our team."

Benoit left the game midway through the first quarter and collected eight points, none in the second half. Hill City, led by Stewart, closed the game to 30-25 with 2 minutes, 11 seconds in the first half. Stewart sunk six treys for a game-high 22 points and collected two assists. Several times, Smith Center lost Stewart on the perimeter and didn't close out on Stewart.

"Really, dissatisfied with our defense," Linn said. "I really didn't think feel like we gave a lot of effort."

Smith Center, though, went on a 17-2 run during the last 2:11 of the first half and through the first 2:18 of the second half. The Lady Red hit two of its final three shots to close out the first half and then their first five shots after intermission.

The 6-foot Decker took advantage of her height inside against Hill City's smaller lineup and tallied four points in the run.

"I have been really focusing on just getting big and squaring up my shots, and getting open," Decker said.

"Without that tonight, I thought we were stale," Linn added.

With 9.8 seconds left in the third quarter, Stewart and McNary collided near the free-throw line. Stewart suffered a deep gash above her eyebrow and Hill City took her to the emergency room. She received seven stitches, but later returned to the gym in good spirits.

"I think she is all right," Hill City coach Linda Nighswonger said. "She is a pretty tough kid. She rides horses and all that all the time."

McNary, who collected two points and four rebounds, said she felt dizzy and didn't return. After Stewart left, Hill City sunk just four field goals the rest of the game and Smith Center closed out the win. Still, though, the Lady Red was focused on the injuries -- and not having a repeat of last year.

"I don't think it is going to happen again," Dietz said. "We all pray that it doesn't."