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Finished product

Eileen JoyceBear River's Cassie Smith (above right) fights for a loose ball with Lady Bruin Kayla Smith during practice.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

Cassie Smith’s alter ego was born on the basketball court nine seasons ago.

The then eight-year-old transformed from a happy-go-lucky third grader into every point guard’s nightmare.

“We were on the same rec league team,” long time friend and Bear River teammate Christina Guerland said. “Cassie would love to steal the ball, go down and score, but they wouldn’t let you press at that age, so we’d have to wait at half court. And as soon as they crossed the line, she’d take the ball away, and (it was two points).”



BACK TO THE FUTURE




With all of the glory that comes with hitting the big shot in crunch time, what was it about playing defense – and doing all of the dirty work that goes along with it – that hit the spot for her?

The senior guard pointed to some of her earliest experiences with the round orange ball.

“I always enjoyed watching the Bear River girls play when I was younger. They were all awesome,” Smith said. “I used to like to watch Rhayanna Berkowitz and Michelle St. Clair and the way they played. Rhayanna was non-stop hustle on defense. And Michelle played like I’d never seen before. I just wanted to apply what they did to my game.”

Smith, 17, honed her skills on the playgrounds and gymnasiums in and around Grass Valley for the next half decade before she caught the eye of her future high school coach, Bear River’s Lady Duwaine Ganskie.

“I think the first time I saw her, she was in eighth grade. And what impressed me most was her athleticism and toughness. She’s never been afraid to mix it up with the big girls,” Ganskie said. “You don’t see too many players who’ve combined those traits as well as she had.”

NO SOPHOMORE JINX

Smith spent the next season biding her time on the freshman team, before she was called up to the varsity for the 2000-01 season.

While she was no slouch in the scoring department, it was her ability to defend which earned her major minutes off the bench.

Smith, who patterned her play after some of the best players in Bear River history as a grade schooler, now had the chance get up close and personal with two more everyday in practice.

Laurie Goodnight, who along with Nicole Fry earned All-Sierra Foothill League honors and led the Lady Bruins to a berth in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III final, also helped mold Smith into the player she is today.

“Laurie was just an all-around awesome player. She could score and she could play defense,” Smith said. “She could steal the ball and beat the other nine players down the floor for the layup. That was pure hustle.”

Bear River lost the section final to Center (Antelope) in a squeaker, then both Goodnight and Fry to graduation, but Ganskie’s team, with Smith out front, would be back.

The roles on last year’s Lady Bruin squad were pretty clear as it had a pair of go-to scorers in senior center Briana Thomas and wing Meaghan Noud, two crafty point guards with Amy Pistone and Guerland, and Smith as the stopper.

Smith lived up to her job, leading the team in charges taken (12) and back tips (five), finishing second in deflections (51) and third in steals (46).

“I just have a head for defense. As a team, you always want to have the ball. And if the other team has it, you’ve got to go and get it,” Smith said. “When coach challenges me (to guard the other teams best player), I get psyched up because I know I’m going have to raise my game and work harder.”

“That makes me try 10 times harder because I know if she scores 30 points, that I’m the one to blame, that I let them down,” she added.

On the strength of its quick-strike offense and a downright stingy defense, the Lady Bruins went on to win the SFL title – its ninth league crown since 1991 – but came up short in the section finals, this time to St. Francis (Sacramento).

Smith’s efforts were rewarded by league coaches as she, along with Noud and Thomas, were voted to the all-league team.

HERE AND NOW

Smith’s game is new and improved this year.

Thanks to hours of work on her shot, she’s just as much of a threat on offense as defense.

“Coach has always wanted me to be a scorer, but this year I finally got the confidence to know I can play on both ends of the court,” Smith said. “I could do more offensively, but I still like defense.”

If you need proof, just ask Reno High School’s Jessica Stewart.

The 6-foot, 1-inch UC-Davis bound forward was Smith’s defensive assignment at the recent Elite 8 Tournament in Reno.

Stewart tried to use her height advantage down low to avail. She finished with four points to Smith’s 12 in a Bear River win.

The Lady Bruins sent on to win their second straight Reno tournament title and Smith was voted tourney MVP.

“It felt great. It was a nice reward for a lot of hard work, but being the MVP really doesn’t matter to me in the long run. Our team winning is good enough for me.”


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