One of the biggest questions heading into the 2018-19 season was how would North Ridgeville replace reigning Lorain County Miss Basketball Isabella Geraci?
Just a week into the new season, Rangers guard Leia Smith has answered that question.
The 5-foot-10 junior scored the game-winning basket in the closing seconds of a 52-51 upset win at Avon, and over the first three games of the season, Smith is averaging 20.7 points, eight rebounds and 2.7 steals per game.
“I saw how hard we worked in the offseason so I’m not surprised we started out strong,” Smith said.
While last season Smith played the role of a spot-up shooter, averaging 10 points, Now she also moves off the ball to create shots for herself and distribute to open teammates, as opposing defenses start to focus on her.
“Last year I was a pure shooter. Now, I can score in multiple ways. I like it a lot,” Smith said. “I had to work hard over the summer to be ready so that I can still be a good shooter but also take it to the rack and get to the foul line.”
On a team with just two seniors, Smith has filled the leadership void as well as the void on the stat sheet left with the departure of Geraci, who is playing at Cleveland State and Cianna Bright, who continued her career at Hiram.
“I looked up to Izzy and saw what she did. I want to be able to do those same things,” Smith said. “I saw what all of the seniors did last year to be leaders and I want to follow that.”
North Ridgeville coach Amy Esser saw glimpses of what Smith could be last year. The Rangers have revamped the offense to unleash Smith’s full potential.
“Leia has always had the talent. This year she’s getting more looks at the basket,” Esser said. “Leia works on her game religious every day. A lot of people thinks she’s just a 3-point shooter. She’s really the full package. A lot of her points have come on putbacks off of rebounds or off of steals. She’s a very versatile player.”
“Leia watched Izzy and she has her brother to look up to. She understands to be a great basketball player she can’t just sit behind the 3-point line.”
So far this season, Smith is shooting 42.9 percent from the field and 50 percent (9-for-18) from behind the arc.
When Smith wasn’t working out with her teammates in the summer, she was shooting with her brother M.J., an all-district player at North Ridgeville last year who is playing as Muskingum University.
Esser said Leia will likely follow her brother along the path to college basketball as she has already received interest from numerous Division II and III programs.
“I try to shoot around with my brother as much as I can,” Smith said. “My brother is a pure shooter. He’s just so good, it really helps to work with him.”
Because Smith is just as content setting up her teammates with an open look as she is taking the shot herself, Esser needed to keep reminding her in the offseason that she is now the focal point of the offense.
“In the summer, I had to get on her about not shooting enough. She would be wide open but pass the ball off,” Esser said. “When we went to Findlay (team camp), that was when it seemed to all click for her.”
Smith gave Rangers fan a glimpse into the future last year when she scored a career-high 32 points in a Division I sectional win over Midview. She said that game gave her a boost heading into the offseason.
“That game gave me so much confidence. It showed me I could do the stuff I needed to do to be a leader on this team,” Smith said. “It pushed me to work even harder so I could progress coming into this season.”
With a core of good young talent on the roster, Smith expects that the Rangers’ early-season success is the start of a two-year run that will carry through her senior year.
“We have a lot of really good freshman and with only two seniors, so most of us will all be back next year, too,” Smith said. “I’ve really loved bonding with these girls. This team is amazing and I love them all to death.”