Shenneika Smith hopes to guide St. John's back to NCAA

March 9, 2013 - 10:49am
Shenneika Smith is leading St. Jphn's with 16 points and 7 rebounds a game (Photo courtesy of St. John's Athletics)

Shenneika Smith is leading St. Jphn's with 16 points and 7 rebounds a game (Photo courtesy of St. John's Athletics)

Since the tendency is to track a college athlete’s career through their sports’ calendar rather than their academic one, it would be fair to say that 6’ 1” guard Shenneika Smith’s senior year started with a seismic shift. In April of 2012 her coach, Kim Barnes Arico, announced she was leaving St. John’s -- a program whose profile she’d spent a decade building -- to become the head coach at Michigan. The decision, which came as a surprise to Smith and her teammates, made going into the summer not knowing who their coach was “nerve-wracking.”

When Joe Tartamella, Barnes Arico’s longtime assistant coach, was elevated to the head position “it was like a weight was lifted off our shoulders. We all came in with him,” explained Smith. “He knew us inside out, so the adjustment wasn’t as brutal as other programs and kids have had.”

Coaching change notwithstanding, the program began the 2012-13 season with high hopes. The Red Storm had gained national attention the previous season when, courtesy of Smith’s last second three, that simultaneously snapped the University of Connecticut’s 99-game home court winning streak and gave the Huskies their first home loss against an unranked opponent in 19 years. Then came St. John’s first-ever Sweet 16 appearance. There was every expectation that Smith, who had been named to the 2012 All-Big East first team, along with fellow seniors Nadirah McKenith and Eugeneia McPherson, would continue to elevate the program. The fact that St. John’s was to host first round of 2013 NCAA tournament on their home court was going to be the cherry on the top of their college career.

Things didn’t go quite as planned.

After a quick start 4-1, the team endured a string of injuries, the most significant at the end of November when shooting guard McPherson was felled by a season-ending ACL tear. The next two months consisted of a handful of losses – some unexpected, others frustratingly close. Suddenly, it seemed possible that Smith and her teammates would be attending the Tournament as observers, not participants.

Since February, though, after a surprisingly competitive loss against Connecticut, St. John’s has found themselves on a winning streak that has them talking NCAA tournament again. Smith gives coach Tartamella credit for keeping her and her teammates together positive through the losses – both on and off the court.

“He gives what we need to know -- that it’s not over and we can still fight,” explained Smith. “We dropped some tough ones, but we did some good things. So, he’d point out the positives and we just got better every day. He didn’t give up on us and we’re not going to give up on him and this program. We’re going to go out and fight and play hard. That’s all he asks us to do. And that’s all we can to – give it our all, play 100%, and be exhausted at the end.”

As her college career nears its end Smith, who played soccer in her native country of Jamaica, is grateful for the opportunities she’s earned through a game she picked up “just for fun.” “I was able to hit the shot against UConn. I’ll never forget that” she recalled with a smile. “I had a chance to go to the Bahamas,” she continued. “That was amazing. We went jet skiing. No, we didn’t win all the games, but it was a great trip for us. I had a chance to go to Miami for the first time with my teammates. In November. While New York was freezing, I was on the beach!” she laughed.

Currently averaging over 16 points and 7 rebounds a game, the woman who arrived at St. John’s not knowing what a shootaround was, has made a concerted effort to grow her game. “I’m not the greatest,” said Smith, “but I feel I’m made my game a lot more difficult to defend. They don’t know who to put on me. I can shoot over the guard, or take it to the rack against a post.”

She has also become a pest on the other side of the ball. “Freshman and sophomore year, my defense was okay, but last year I really dug down and wanted to be Big East Defensive Player of the Year. I wanted to guard the best player and try and limit their touches. I feel that over the years I’ve made adjustments and it’s taken me and my team pretty far.”

Whatever her basketball future holds for Smith and her teammates, she’s knows what she will carry forward from her coaches: trust.  A trait she learned from her high school and AAU coach Apache Paschall, who passed away suddenly of a heart attack last year at the age of 38.

“I trusted Apache and he handed me over to Kim Barnes Arico. I trusted Kim and she handed me over to coach T. They asked me to believe in them. They asked me to trust them, follow the game plan and buy in. I felt like I’d done that thus far, and it’s helped make me as successful as I am. I believe that they know what they’re doing, and that they’re doing everything they can to help me as a person and a player.”

As a student, Smith has found St. John’s to be “100% focused on making sure they graduate all the seniors and that you fulfill what you came here to do. That’s very important, and I don’t know that every institution is like that.” A Criminal Justice major, while she is a huge fan of television’s Special Victims Unit, she’s drawn to the FBI or, perhaps, undercover work. “I fit in anywhere and I’m a people person,” Smith explained. Besides, she added “on the court, I play so many positions, why not off the court?”

Reflecting on her decision to play her college ball in New York, Smith said, “You know, I didn’t really know anywhere. Granted, I traveled in high school and went to AAU. But I wasn’t from this country. I came here, and I’ve adopted this city. Maybe I could have adopted other places, but I was comfortable here. And then I got an opportunity to play here. That was amazing.” Because she stayed home, her little brothers have been able to come see her play. “I’m a role model for them. I never really thought myself as a role model until now,” said Smith. “Kids that I’ve met a camp that come to every home game just to see me. I know that can happen anywhere, but I was able to stay home, and that was major for me, my family and friends.”