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By Randy York
Janet Smith is 52 now. She’s in her ninth year as the principal of an intermediate school for fifth and sixth-graders in Garden City, Kan., far removed from her heyday as the all-time leading rebounder in Nebraska women’s basketball history. All she did was snag 1,280 rebounds in her four-year (1979-82) Husker career, 260 more than first-team All-American Kelsey Griffin (2006-10) and 279 more than Karen Jennings (1990-93), the captain of Nebraska’s All-Century Team and a first-team Academic All-American.
Even if the Huskers’ Nos. 2 and 3-ranked all-time rebounders posted another season average that matched their career average at Nebraska, neither Griffin nor Jennings would supplant Smith atop NU’s career rebound chart. A star from three decades ago, Smith has not seen Jordan Hooper play basketball live, but she’s heard enough about Nebraska’s All-Big Ten sophomore to know that she’s a “must-see” someday soon because she’s a prolific scorer as well as a rock star rebounder.
David Smith, one of Janet’s three brothers, lives in Ft. Calhoun, Neb. He calls his sister constantly to report Hooper’s amazing scoring and rebounding stats on a nationally ranked team. Jennifer Wieberg, a University of Nebraska at Kearney graduate who’s a teacher on Smith’s staff in Garden City, sends her principal emails that pretty much deliver the same message: “You’ve got to see this girl from Alliance. She’s really something!”
As immersed as she is in a demanding job, Smith is as proud and impressed as anyone who has followed Nebraska’s emergence from the shadows of the Big Eight Conference in women’s basketball to share a piece of the national spotlight. The Huskers won a Big 12 championship in historic style and then came within a whisker of winning a Big Ten Tournament title in their inaugural season. And let’s not forget the importance of gaining meaningful seeds in the NCAA Tournament in the process.
“In Connie Yori’s first year at Nebraska,” Smith said, “we were going to drive and welcome her to Lincoln. But the weather got bad, and we couldn’t make it. I missed the opportunity. It was so awesome when we went 30-and-0 two years ago and what we’re doing this year. I love seeing Nebraska in the national rankings.”
Smith knows how hard it is to do what Yori’s done. In 22 years at Garden City, after eight years teaching and coaching at Lyons, Neb., and Waverly, Neb., she coached junior high school girls basketball, volleyball and track. She quit playing competitive basketball 20 years ago and gave up competitive volleyball 10 years ago, but the 6-foot-2 Omaha Burke High School graduate will be forever grateful to her alma mater.
“Basketball has given me opportunities to learn leadership skills and communication skills,” she said. “I am where I am today because I learned how to deal with different personalities. I had a blast coaching for a number of years, and I will always remember how many places we got to visit and the experiences we had playing basketball before there even was an NCAA Tournament.
“I will never forget playing in a tournament in Queens, New York, over New Year’s Eve and getting to celebrate at Times Square. That was pretty cool,” she said. “We got to play teams we never dreamed of playing. We played Tennessee when Pat Summitt was in her early years of coaching. We played at Louisiana Tech when they were ranked No. 1 and had a huge fan-base. They treated us really nice. We were scared to death, but we did really well. We only lost by 25 points, and that was because their top two players were out with knee injuries.”
Smith dramatizes those points to show how far Nebraska women’s basketball has come. She praises the progress and wishes the 2012 Huskers nothing but the best in their journey through an NCAA Tournament that starts in Little Rock and will move to Des Moines if they can win two games in Arkansas.
“Nebraska has so many good athletes,” Smith said. “They recruit well. Connie Yori is a phenomenal coach, and she was phenomenal before she even got to Nebraska. She brought that wealth of knowledge and an ability to recruit top-notch athletes. She’s done a wonderful job. She’s turned that whole program around. It’s all pretty amazing, really.”
Even to the best rebounder, by far, in school history.
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