A high-ankle sprain suffered during a recent scrimmage caused immediate harm to the basketball routine of one of the area’s most promising high school seniors.
It was an unfamiliar feeling for someone used to bounding up and down a court, ball in hand, North Ridgeville-colored Nikes squeaking across the hardwood.
Since the injury, Leia Smith has been attending practices and donning the school’s basketball uniform, but has been relegated to watching as her Rangers teammates prepare for the upcoming season.
If there’s one thing to know about the 5-foot-10 Smith, it’s that sitting out of practice hurts more than an errant elbow in the post.
Basketball is the lifeblood of Smith, who is ready to see what the Rangers, with 10 returning players from last year’s roster, can do.
“Hopefully we can get a lot accomplished this year,” she said. “We have a bunch of young people, but it’s going to work out perfectly. We’ve got some returning people who are going to do big things. Our posts are looking pretty good (and) our guards (look good).”
Before the ankle injury sidelined her, Smith was playing seven days a week at any hours available to her. Oftentimes she could be found at the high school gym around 6 a.m. Outside of school, she could be found on her backyard court.
During the summer, she’d get shots up with her older brother, M.J., a sophomore at Muskingum who graduated from North Ridgeville in 2018 as one of the school’s all-time leading players. And the shots went up in abundance. Both completed the high school’s “40,000 Shot Club” ahead of time.
That’s not just 40,000 shots. That’s 40,000 makes.
“I’d say I probably get up about 1,000-plus shots a day,” she said. “You’re always shooting and putting in that work. I want to say I’ve made maybe 25 to 30 shots in a row (at a time).”
When not practicing, Smith has played for The National Basketball Academy AAU team, a collection of players from the region that competes in at least 10 tournaments during the high school off-season. Smith believes her AAU experience, playing against many of the best players from around the state, has made her a better player.
“(AAU) helps you a lot, honestly, because you’re playing against the best of the best,” Smith said. “You can see how you fit with other teams and see how you can bring it over to your school.”
In August, she joined Rangers teammates Bella Ramsey, Ryan Elbert and Kearstyn Marshall to win the annual North Ridgeville Cornfest 3-on-3 tournament, hosted by Mac Basketball and the city’s parks and recreation department.
Smith started playing competitively in kindergarten. Her father realized she had a knack for handling and passing the ball.
As a sophomore in a sectional tournament game against Midview, Smith scored a career-high 32 points in beating the Middies.
For her senior season, she’s hoping to improve even more on getting to the rim.
“I’m working on getting to the basket more, drawing that contact and getting more and-ones this year,” she said. “(I’m trying to) create more contact.”
As a junior, she led the team with 12.9 points per game, 4.7 rebounds and 1.3 assists. She wants to improve on those numbers this season. Smith has tried to add wrinkles to a game that’s already versatile. She can handle the ball, pull back and make shots from most distances and was one of the Rangers’ defensive anchors last season with 1.9 steals and 1.3 blocks per game.
She can also line up comfortably at four of the five positions on the court depending on the team’s needs on a particular night, something that is becoming commonplace in basketball.
“I’m trying to play all five spots this year,” Smith said. “Point guard, shooting guard, post player if I have to. Especially on defense, I feel like I can guard one through five so I’m trying to make an impact this year.”
She was named to the All-Southwestern Conference first-team last year and colleges have taken notice. She’s visited six schools, with the intent to continue playing and study exercise science. Her destination is likely to be an NCAA Division III university, though she hasn’t decided on a favorite yet.
“I have no idea what I would do (without basketball),” Smith said. “Basketball’s my everything. It’s my outlet for things that go wrong, so I don’t know, I’d probably be lost.”
For right now, there’s the agony of waiting for her ankle to heal so she can rejoin her teammates and continue to display her brand of leadership by example. The Rangers, coming off an 11-13 season in which they finished 7-12 in the SWC and lost a sectional final, want to advance even further this year and have the athleticism and experience to be much-improved.
“(The team) is ready,” Smith said. “They’re going to be ready for the pressure and how quick the tempo is. We’re going to be good. We want to win districts this year. That’s our main goal.”
Since the start of the fall season, she and a group of friends and teammates have attended the “Senior Night” contest for every varsity program at the school, and she will continue to coach elementary-age kids over the winter.
“Our motto this year is ‘Ranger Strong,’ so we’re trying to support every sport possible,” Smith said. “(We’re) going to their games so that when our time comes, maybe they’ll do the same for us.”
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