Freshman center living large at UI

By Dave Fultz

Jenna Smith walks confidently onto the court. Her beaming smile indicative of her love of the game. Dressed in her new blue practice gear, the 6-foot-3 freshman center is nine games into her first season as a Fighting Illini student-athlete and adjusting well to life at a big-time university.

Smith is coming off of the biggest game of her young career after collecting 22 points and 10 rebounds in her first start – a blowout win over Florida on Tuesday night. The Orange and Blue are 7-2 to start the season and Smith has been a large part of their early success.

“The season is going pretty good so far,” Smith said. “We are working so hard this year to really communicate and to do our best together.”

A highly-touted prospect coming out of high school, Smith was pursued by a number of big programs, including Big Ten rivals Minnesota and Iowa.

Standing on the practice court at the Ubben Basketball Complex, it is clear that Smith is a long way from home at Kennedy High School in Minnesota. Still, she is the same superstitious girl that makes sure she chews gum and calls her dad to talk basketball before games.

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    Head coach Theresa Grentz is beginning her 33rd-year as a Division-I basketball coach, her 12th at Illinois, and has seen thousands of basketball players over the course of her Hall of Fame career.

    “If she continues to work hard, do the things that are asked of her, and have a work ethic that is genuine and sincere, she has all of the tools to be a terrific collegiate player and possibly even beyond,” Grentz said.

    But, when Grentz talks about Smith, the first thing she mentions isn’t about her skills on the basketball court.

    “She’s just a sweet, sweet girl,” said Grentz before a recent practice. “And that hasn’t changed since she got here.”

    Decision Time

    Smith starred for the Kennedy Eagles and led them to a 28-2 record and the finals of Minnesota’s Class 4A State Championship as a senior in high school. She averaged a double-double during her senior season with 20.5 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. She also had 3.6 blocks per game and finished as the state’s all-time career leader.

    Her stellar final season led to many accolades and she was even named Minnesota’s Ms. Basketball. When it came to recruiting, Smith was no secret to big-time collegiate programs.

    “We all knew she was out there,” Grentz said. “Everyone knew about Jenna.”

    The lead recruiter responsible for bringing Smith to Illinois was associate head coach Marsha Frese. A recruiting specialist, Frese is starting her fourth season at Illinois and has been the recruiting coordinator at two other big-time universities, Minnesota and Maryland. The former Miss Iowa Basketball is no stranger to the buzz that surrounds a top-rated high school prospect.

    “There was a ton of competition for her,” Frese said. “She was pretty much recruited by every Big Ten and Big 12 school in the country. Once she got on the summer circuit, a lot of the outer region schools came after her, but mainly it was a lot of competition in the Midwest trying to keep her close to home.”

    When it came to making a decision, Smith chose Illinois over at least five other schools that she was seriously considering.

    “I chose Illinois because I felt the most comfortable here,” Smith said. “I felt comfortable with the coaches and made strong bonds with some of the players that I didn’t want to lose. It just felt like a good fit.”

    Becoming an Illini

    Making the move from Minnesota to central Illinois has been rough on the freshman, but her adjustment has been made easier by her easygoing personality and the support of her friends and teammates.

    “A lot of people don’t realize that she was her homecoming queen,” Frese said. “You don’t see a lot of 6-foot-3, basketball-playing homecoming queen’s out there. It is really a testament to her personality and how she gets along with people.”

    “Her being the only freshman on the team definitely makes the transition a little harder, but Danyel Crutcher has really done a great job with her. Danyel went through some of the same situations when she was a freshman and has done a really good job of helping her understand that freshman year is a growing and learning experience and it is smooth sailing after that.”

    Crutcher, a junior forward from Orange, N.J., has taken the time to help Smith whenever she needs it, even inviting her to eat Thanksgiving dinner with her mother and a couple of other teammates.

    “I came in with two other freshman and the transition was still a little rough,” Crutcher said. “She came in by herself so I’ve just tried to take her under my wing and tell her that we’ve all been there, it’s rough, and that she’ll get through it.”

    With the early success she’s had, it is hard not to look to the future and speculate what could come of this talented young player. Grentz predicts a strong future from her, but also realizes that she has to focus on the present and not get ahead of herself.

    “I don’t have a crystal ball so I can’t tell you for sure what is going to happen in the future,” Grentz said. “But for us, our mindset is to get through the summer, get through the preseason, get through non-conference games, and so on. We like to take it one step at a time and then take a step back and look at the whole big picture.”

    Although her transition from high school to college has been smoothed by the strong relationships and support she has established here, Smith still acknowledges that she is taking big steps every day and her work is not done yet.

    “It has been a big adjustment from high school,” Smith said, “but my teammates are helping me out a lot and we are doing good so far. We are just trying to improve day by day.”