Malia and Najee Smith are twin sisters not identical in looks, temperament or basketball skills.
Put together, their contributions to Neuqua Valley are invaluable.
The Wildcats are 19-1 after big wins over Wheaton Warrenville South and Metea Valley, and a big reason is Neuqua’s core junior class of the Smiths, Nikki Lazar and Lauren Deveikis.
“I’ve known those kids since fifth-grade Sunday league,” Neuqua coach Mike Williams said. “They’re our glue, our foundation.”
Both Smiths are third-year varsity players, both also play volleyball and both have the same circle of friends.
They’re known just as well for their differences.
Malia, Neuqua’s starting point guard, is more the quiet gamer. She averages 5.6 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals. Her value perhaps was best revealed in Neuqua’s only loss. She hit her head in the first half against Naperville Central, didn’t return and the Wildcats let a 12-point halftime lead get away.
“We’re a chaotic team,” Williams said, “but she keeps things under control. She’ll never make the big mistake.”
Najee, at 5-foot-9 she’s 3 inches taller than Malia and more the extroverted sort, averages 7.8 points, 7 rebounds and 4 steals a game. In a nutshell she gives Neuqua whatever it needs on any given night. She isn’t afraid to mix it up inside for a rebound, and this season has developed more of a perimeter game. Najee’s two 3-pointers sparked Neuqua’s comeback last Tuesday from 12 down against WW South.
“Najee is everywhere on the court — post, guard — and is very vocal,” Williams said. “She is determined and focused and does it with a smile.”
Both girls feel fortunate to have their “other half” next to them on the court.
“It’s a comforting feeling having her out there,” said Malia, who noted that she and Najee hope to play together in college. “She’s the one person I can always depend on.”
“She understands me,” Najee added. “I have a tendency to get riled up, and it’s real easy to lose your head. It’s nice to have that little voice in the back of your head next to you out there.”
The younger of five siblings with three older brothers, Malia and Najee were born in Springfield but moved to Naperville in the sixth grade. Their dad Gordon, a former IHSA official, coached their Illinois Predators AAU and Wildcats feeder teams.
“They are on board with everything we do all the time. I wish all families were like that,” Williams said. “They have some skin in the game. If you cut them they bleed Neuqua blue and gold.”
Romiti on a roll:
Toni Romiti is a guard many Division III schools or junior colleges would probably jump at the chance to sign. The Hinsdale South senior, though, is holding out for Division I looks. Nobody’s biting yet, but that could change with more weeks like last week.
Romiti poured in a school-record 40 points last Tuesday against Proviso East, topping her previous high of 38 set against Hinsdale Central in November. She went for 25 on Friday against Addison Trail and put on a cherry on a big week by leading the Hornets back from 15 down in the fourth quarter to beat Downers Grove North 53-50. Romiti hit a couple deep 3s to spark the comeback, one off the backboard, and a pair of go-ahead free throws as part of a 19-point effort.
Romiti missed two games at the Montini Tournament with an ear infection; shortly thereafter Hornets coach Jen Belmonte met with her headstrong protégé with a message pointed toward the future.
“Her biggest thing right now is she’s starting to get refocused,” Belmonte said. “Her eyes have been opened to more opportunities. If she continues to play like she can she might get more looks, but I told her she has to back it up.”
A leap forward:
Fenton coach Tim Anderson is also a chemistry teacher at the Bensenville school and thus familiar with the term “quantum leap.” In the dictionary it’s defined as “an abrupt change, a sudden increase.”
On the basketball court these days, that means Sidney Montano.
The Bison senior, averaging nearly 11 points and 8 rebounds on the year, has taken it to the next level lately. Montano is averaging 20 points a game over the last four for 14-6 Fenton, with 26 against Lake Forest Academy and 21 versus Taft.
“The really good players do that. It’s subtle, but it seems abrupt,” Anderson said.
Montano was up on Fenton’s varsity team as a freshman, but a torn ACL cost her the entire sophomore season.
Anderson said Montano had a nice junior season “getting acquainted” with her knee, but she now appears to be a senior on a mission. Always a phenomenal rebounder, Montano is finishing better and shooting free throws at a higher rate. Anderson prefers to keep his 5-10 post closer to the basket, but Montano has also hit eight 3-pointers.
“I look at her and hardly recognize her from the player she was a few years ago,” Anderson said. “I’m hoping I can say the same thing four weeks from now.”
WW South, Willowbrook healing:
Wheaton Warrenville South and Willowbrook both have won despite injuries. Both are about to get key pieces back.
WW South (16-3) welcomed Kelly Langlas back to its lineup Saturday at Wheaton North; Diamond Thompson, out all month with a torn meniscus, has been cleared for contact and could be back in action this week or next.
Willowbrook (16-3), meanwhile got senior guard Colleen Krawczykowski back in its lineup Saturday at Proviso East. Krawczykowski played 12 minutes Saturday and could go up to 16 Thursday against Addison Trail before getting back in there full-bore for games with Oak Lawn and Plainfield North next weekend. The Warriors did go 9-1 in 10 games without Krawczykowski, but her return adds a lockdown defender who Willowbrook coach Terry Harrell noted makes the fastbreak flow better.
“I’m overjoyed with the way the team responded without her, but it will be nice to have Colleen back,” Harrell said. “We don’t get as many easy baskets without Colleen. With her, when we’re on the break we get layups.”
Krawczykowski’s return allows Harrell to slide junior Olivia Domin back to the top-sub role. Domin, averaging 7.3 points with 22 made 3s, had a big 19-point effort a week ago in an overtime win over Downers Grove South.
“Olivia really stepped up in Colleen’s absence,” Harrell said. “When she’s on she can be scary to teams. It’s nice to have a kid like that coming off the bench.”
Spartans continue surge:
St. Francis coach Mike Phillips called Saturday’s game with Immaculate Conception “eerily similar” to the first meeting in Elmhurst Nov. 27.
Difference is, Phillips’ Spartans came out on top this time. It is fitting the way things are trending upward in Wheaton.
St. Francis (9-9, 5-1 Suburban Christian Gold) led by 10 midway through the fourth quarter but let that lead get away. With IC down 2, a Knights player was fouled with 0.7 seconds left but missed the first free throw and the Spartans held on 41-39.
In November it was IC blowing a lead late, hitting a last-second shot in regulation and winning in overtime. That loss dropped St. Francis to 0-6, but since the Spartans are 9-3 and now lead the Gold Division.
“Some of the kids that maybe lacked a little bit of confidence at the beginning of the year are starting to feel better,” Phillips said.
The Spartans lean heavily on the senior guard combo of Kate Slattery and Aly Germanos. They’re also getting good contributions from freshmen Leah Riccolo, who starts, and Reagan Sproat. St. Francis also recently weathered a 2-point nail-biter against Winnebago. Phillips was more pleased with wins over Nazareth and Riverside-Brookfield.
“Those were our two best wins,” Phillips said. “The girls came out from the beginning and were ready to play.”
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