The first time Anitha Smith-Williams stepped to midcourt to meet the referees before a Pleasure Ridge Park High School boys’ junior varsity game, she was greeted with a quizzical look.
“I need the coach,” the referee said.
“I am the coach,” she replied.
Smith, who joined the PRP staff this season, is a rarity in boys’ basketball, but being the only female assistant coach in the city doesn’t bother her.
“It’s just a surprise to everyone when they hear that I coach boys’ basketball,” she said. “I thought it would be a better opportunity, especially with where I want to go with coaching. I would love to coach at the college level one day.”
Smith, 24, isn’t a new face at PRP. A 2004 graduate, she played point guard on the girls’ team and was a four-year starter and an All-State selection. Known for her quickness and passing, she went on to play at Morehead State University and played one season of professional basketball in Romania.
“She used to be a college basketball player, so she knows what she’s talking about,” said PRP senior guard Jake Simpson. “She was a shooter in college, so she knows a lot about shooting.”
Smith stresses the fundamentals with her players, working on ball handling and shooting.
The PRP coaching staff is a tight-knit group. Head coach Dale Mabrey is in his 30th season, while assistant coaches Larry Kihnley and Mike Baxter have been with the team 27 years. The team was 13-7 going into Tuesday night’s game with Central
Smith worked as a volunteer assistant coach on the girls’ team last year, and Kihnley was instrumental in having her join the boys’ staff.
“She’s a throwback to the days of when people really wanted to coach and were really students of the game,” Kihnley said. “A lot of people don’t want to put in the time to coach; they just want to show up for games. Anitha has learned to scout, to develop practice plans and the philosophies of the game.”
And she instills that in her players.
“She just always pushes you and makes you work harder,” said senior center Corey Anderson.
She constantly reminds her players to work hard even when they are tired.
“This is what you love to do,” she said “Find some energy somewhere.”
It doesn’t matter that she is a female.
“She seems the same as one of the guy coaches,” Anderson said. “You can’t really tell the difference.”
But there are some differences. Smith, who works at PRP during the day as a substitute teacher, has to wait outside the locker room while players get dressed. And she said that boys seem to have “less drama” than girls.
Boys could fight one day, and “you’ll see them walking down the hallway together the next day,” Smith said. That’s not always the case with girls.
Smith has played basketball with boys all her life. She first started playing with her brothers (she has four), and they encouraged her to try out for the sixth grade team at Conway Middle School.
“I didn’t play at all my sixth grade year,” she said, “I didn’t touch the floor.”
But she got a lot more playing time in seventh grade, and from there, her basketball career took off.
“On the first day of school, you’re always looking for somebody who can play,” Kihnley said. “Usually no girls play, but she was playing with the boys.”
He introduced himself and gave her the nickname “Nitro” after having trouble saying Anitha (pronounced a-nigh-tha).
Craig Webb, PRP’s athletic director who coached the girls’ basketball team when Smith played, said that she was “an extremely talented basketball player.”
“She played fearlessly, like you want your point guards to do,” he said.
Her sophomore year, PRP made it to the elite eight in the State Tournament.
Having had a successful career as a player, Smith teaches her players what it takes to succeed: “Dedication. Commitment. Hard work – a lot of hard work,” she said. “(It takes) a lot of extra time by yourself as far as working on your game if you want to play at the next level.”
“I’ve been very impressed,” he said. “She just loves the game so much. I’ve always thought a lot of Anitha, so (hiring her) was a no-brainer. The JV and varsity players respect her tremendously.”
“We didn’t view her as a female coaching a boys’ sport,” Webb said. “We just viewed it as a very good player wanting to learn the coaching profession.”
Being naturally soft-spoken, the 5-foot-7 Smith has had to learn to project her voice and be firm when coaching.
“I have to keep reminding myself, OK, they really probably can’t hear me,” she said.
Smith works with the boys’ junior varsity and varsity squads, and she has coached two JV games on her own.
“The first one I was a little bit nervous, but the last one I felt a little more comfortable,” she said.
Kihnley sees a bright future for Smith with many more games on the sideline.
“Whatever she chooses to do, whether it be a high school coach or a college coach, I think she’ll be great at it because she is really dedicated to the game,” he said.
photos by JACOB GLASSNER | Voice-Tribune
Category: Cover Stories
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Jacob Glassner, News Editor/Plate Spinner
Jacob usually has his eyes glued to a computer screen, editing stories and making sure the paper gets out the door each week. Multi-tasking is his modus operandi – similar to the plate spinners you’d see on the old “Ed Sullivan Show.” Turn ons: freshly-sharpened pencils. Turn offs: exclamation points!!!