Sometimes, basketball makes for extraordinary partnerships.
One has formed at Bellarmine Prep between girls coach Kevin Meines and junior Shalyse Smith, the 4A SPSL player of the year.
On the surface, they seem like a match made of oil and vinegar: Meines is a big-hearted growler, while Smith is an affable and mild-mannered teenager.
Yet they work well together. As Meines pointed out, “She is one of the strongest people I know to overcome adversity.”
Both have a say in that department.
Last season, Smith was rolling along as the Lions’ new undisputed leader, averaging nearly a double-double — 14.1 points and 9.7 rebounds per game.
Then seemingly out of nowhere, when grade check came down two weeks before the regular season ended in January, Meines was blindsided by the news that Smith was ineligible to play basketball.
“She was doing the work,” Meines said. “Testing-wise, she was having challenges.”
Meines did not grouse about the loss of his best player. He got her help.
“We had conversations about what was the best situation for her to (take tests),” Meines said. “I told her I believed in her, and that, yes, it would take some work, but let’s find out how to make it all work.”
After a month, Smith had improved her academic standing enough that she would regain her eligibility if the Lions won their Class 4A regional game against Skyiew at Battle Ground High School.
Bellarmine Prep lost, 64-37, falling one step short of reaching the Tacoma Dome.
“To watch that was very hard,” Smith said. “I told myself I had to do it this year, to keep my academics up and do what I had to do to play.”
A couple months later Smith was back on the AAU circuit with the Northside Swarm, playing for her uncle Donyelle Frazier, a former Foss High School standout in the 1990s.
Needless to say, after being away from competitive games for nearly five weeks, she was eager to return to action.
“(Missing the end of high school season) was a big reason I worked even harder for what I wanted,” Smith said.
One AAU game changed her recruiting life forever.
The Swarm traveled down to California to take on the California Stars, who were ranked as one of the top programs in the country.
On that squad was Aquira DeCosta, a nationally top-five 2018 recruit from Saint Mary’s High School. She plays the same position as Smith, too — small forward.
Even though the Swarm lost, Smith decidedly outplayed DeCosta, scoring 29 points and grabbing 16 rebounds in a packed gymnasium in front of Division I coaches.
“I looked at my phone afterward and I got 10 notifications (on Twitter),” Smith said. “That is when 10 coaches started following me.”
And that is when one scholarship offer after another started landing in Smith’s lap. And Meines was there to help her navigate the process. Smith eventually gave an oral commitment to Arizona over Washington and USC.
“I look at him as a father figure to me,” Smith said. “We are not just close because of basketball. I’ve told him a lot about my life.
“He’s the first person I ask about a lot of stuff.”
The whole school received jolting news March 22. While walking outside on campus, Meines started struggling to walk to the next building. He was taken to the hospital, where it was discovered he’d had a stroke.
“When I found out, I was crying,” Smith said. “It was scary.”
Smith visited her coach constantly during Meines’ recovery in the hospital, trying to raise his spirits.
“He is stubborn,” Smith said, “but I am stubborn too.”
Meines returned to coaching this season, not yelling as vehemently as he used to. But the Lions did just fine — they captured the 4A West Central/Southwest District title last weekend with a 41-36 win over Camas. At 23-1, they are one of the teams to beat at next week’s state championships.
And Smith will be there, front and center — in uniform and not in street clothes.
“(She) and I have a strong bond,” Meines said. “And she amazes me with the things she can do. She is a special player. What she has really grown at, she will gather the kids in the huddle and say, ‘We’ve got this.’ She sees the value in her teammates when others don’t see it.”