Burlington Central hired Mark Smith as girls basketball coach on a Thursday. Summer workouts began the following Monday.
How on Earth was Smith going to wrangle the Rockets’ email addresses in time?
The answer? Don’t bother.
Influenced by his own basketball-playing daughters, Smith learned email “doesn’t cut it anymore” and turned to texting to communicate. The Kane County Chronicle Girls Basketball Coach of the Year initially was leery to catch the wave, but these days gives two thumbs up – so long as his digits aren’t otherwise indisposed.
“Something pops into my head, I can shoot a text,” Smith said. “I don’t see the kids all the time and I want to see them more, but maintaining contact via texting has been good and has been unique to my career.”
The first boys basketball coach in St. Charles North program history, Smith remains a math teacher at North. Smith has coached at various levels in a career spanning almost three decades, and had been coming off a year away after stepping down as Harper College women’s coach in 2011.
Central (27-5) was in search of its third coach in as many seasons, but Smith quickly proved a stabilizing force, guiding a freshmen-heavy group to a school-record for victories and an appearance in the Class 3A Hoffman Estates Supersectional, where the Rockets narrowly lost to Vernon Hills.
“It was great,” said Rockets senior guard Camille Dela Cruz, a Northern Iowa soccer recruit who played under Stephanie Smith and Jenna Real earlier in her career. “I’m pretty used to having a new coach a lot, and what he did this year was pretty awesome. I’m not comparing him to other coaches, of course, but he was just good to work with. Fun to work with. It was easy to work with him, blend with him.”
Smith credited his team’s familiarity before he took the job as a big part of its success. Central’s five freshmen – including leading scorer Shelby Holt – played AAU ball together with Illinois Hoop Dreams.
Sophomore Jackie Collins, whose father, Paul, founded the program in 2010, also is part of the team.
With Smith touting quickness and disciplined defense, the Rockets rolled to an unbeaten run to the Big Northern East title before taking the program’s furthest postseason run since 1984.
Several players texted Smith when Vernon Hills defeated three-time defending state champion Montini in the state semifinals last weekend. Smith, who was in attendance at Illinois State University’s Redbird Arena in Normal, replied that he was an eyewitness.
He’s just as eager as his players to be on the Redbird Arena floor at the end of next season.
“The girls are very humble and apologetic,” Smith said. “They didn’t go as far as they thought they could have, so I know they’ll keep working hard and have that unselfish team-first attitude to help them get there.”
His new favorite medium offers affirmation. When he’s not needling the Rockets with texts about “The Bachelor” – several players’ favorite TV program – Smith is receiving messages regarding their offseason drive.
“To a person, they’re almost the same,” Smith said. “It’s, ‘Coach, we can’t wait until high school season.’ That’s nice. It’s exciting to see.”