Mariah Smith laughs when asked to talk about her memories of playing basketball as a second grader in the Peoria Girls Sports League.
“I liked blocking shots, and just having fun,” she said. “I was really more of a defensive player back then.”
Smith can still block shots and play defense, but the sophomore at Richwoods has added a few more elements to her game over the years.
Her coach, John Gross, calls her one of the best players he has ever coached in his 30-year coaching career. He said, before Smith is finished at Richwoods, she may be remembered as the greatest girls basketball player to ever play at the school.
“You can count on one hand the number of freshmen who have started for me. Mariah started last year as a freshman, and she was a very important part of our (Sectional championship) team,” Gross said. “She can do it all. She’s so fast, and she has all the skills that the great players have. And, she keeps getting better.”
Gross called Smith his “go-to player.” He mentioned the game at Peoria Central a few weeks ago in which is team trailed by a large margin at halftime, but rallied to win in the fourth quarter.
“Mariah took over that game,” he said. “She carried us in the second half.”
Smith gets letters from colleges daily. Most of the colleges want her to play basketball, but others want Smith for her academic potential, too. Smith is an A student with an interest in chemical engineering.
“I love math and science,” she said. “U of I just built a new engineering facility, so that might be a good place for me to go. I just want to go somewhere where I can play basketball and challenge myself academically.”
For the past two summers, she attended Pat Summitt’s basketball camp at the University of Tennessee. Summitt, who recently won her 1,000th game, is considered the dean of all women’s basketball coaches.
“That (Pat Summitt camp) was an eye-opener,” she said. “There are some great players out there.”
Gross said he is just as impressed with Smith’s personality as he is with her ability. He calls her “very coachable,” “intelligent,” and “low key.”
“She is great in practice. I can get a little sarcastic with her, and she knows where I’m coming from. She knows how to take it the right way,” he said. “She works very hard, and she knows the game. She’s also humble and likeable. All her teammates like her a lot.”
Smith started playing basketball in second grade for PGSL. One of her teammates was Richwoods junior Katie Murphy.
She started attending the Richwoods summer basketball camp in fifth grade and held her own against the freshmen.
“She could have played on our freshman team when she was in fifth grade,” Gross said. “We all knew right away that she was going to be a great player.”
When asked if she thinks about her potential to be the greatest player in Richwoods history, Smith smiled and said, modestly, “I don’t think of it like that. It’s not about what I’m doing. It’s about our team. I just want to help our team go as far as we can go.”