Countdown to 2015–16: After making history last year, Vanessa Smith and Princeton want to keep climbing higher

Smith, No. 13. Left photo courtesy of Frank Wojciechowski; right photo courtesy of Mitchell Layton/Getty Images North America.

There’s the 19 points and 11 rebounds she posted in a gritty road win at Hampton last January, which helped keep Princeton’s undefeated season intact. There was the way she came off the bench in the NCAA tournament last March, against No. 9 Green Bay and No. 1 Maryland, and wasted no time in making an impact.

But maybe it was a moment during a recent Princeton women’s soccer game that paints the best picture of what Vanessa Smith is all about.

Princeton coach Courtney Banghart, sitting in the stands with her team, remembers watching Smith sidle over to a couple friends she’d made this summer in Santiago, Chile during a six-week global seminar for her anthropology major. (Following that course, she stayed on in Chile for a four-week co-op with a non-profit that funds libraries in underprivileged neighborhoods.)

“She’s very connected on campus,” says Banghart, before adding, with a chuckle. “Vanessa’s kind of goofy.”

That goes hand in hand with the 6–1 junior wing’s talent, and it meshes perfectly within the makeup of this Princeton team. In addition to her transcendent skill as a basketball player, Smith is passionate about her anthropology major. She raves about her time spent in Chile, the ways in which she witnessed art’s capacity to shape civilization. After graduation, she plans to attend graduate school and become a college professor.

Banghart remembers recruiting Smith, who was a heralded prospect — see: top-75 nationally — at Hathaway Brown School, in Ohio. Smith’s brother, Phillip, played football at Brown, and when Smith would head east with her family for his games, she’d beg her parents to make stops at Princeton. She had a sense this place might be right for her, so she’d take in the Tigers’ practices, studying what made them so successful.

“There was something special about Princeton,” says Smith. “It wasn’t about coming in and getting playing time; it was about giving my all. That legacy of working hard was really attractive to me.”

The enthusiasm and authenticity shared by Banghart and her coaching staff rang true. It proved a welcome respite from the often-superficial world of college recruiting. “The coaches didn’t coat it over,” Smith says. “They told me they thought I’d be a good fit. They wanted me here. Then, once I met the team, my decision was in the books. This group of girls is pretty extraordinary. One through 17 on the roster, we all love the game and want to get better and leave a legacy for future teams. That’s pretty rare.”

“On the very first phone call, you understood there were layers to Vanessa,” says Banghart. “Academics, college experience and basketball. She wants to make a difference on campus, and academically, she gets wonderful opportunities. For basketball. she was the kind of player that loves the Ivy League, but wants the best in what it can provide in terms of basketball.”

Banghart references the trip Smith took to Spain after her freshman season, the work done in Chile this past summer. “Vanessa is just an adventurer,” Banghart says. “She’s a really neat piece to our identity as a team.”

Smith remembers quickly zeroing in on one of Banghart’s mantras: If you can defend, you can play. “That’s something the coaches stress,” says Smith. “We’re only as strong as our weakest link — and we don’t want one on defense.”

As a freshman, Smith was a key sub, playing in all 30 games and averaging just over 13 minutes. She showcased her ability to have a hand in every major statistical category. Points, boards, dimes, steals, blocks. Five tools on lock. Then, that ability to be at her best when the spotlight shines brightest.

Says Banghart, “She’s got raw talent, but she’s long and explosive in addition to being talented. She’s sort of fearless offensively. Her best games have come when the team is not playing well —last season, at Hampton, the Penn game, our NCAA tournament games. Ones that required incredible levels of focus, and she homed right in. Now, she’s a junior, and we hope she’ll be a significant contributor.”

It’s one of the great things about this program. Each season, new players come to the fore. Blake Dietrick, Princeton’s fearless leader last season, and one of the best players in college basketball, didn’t start until her junior year.

“Every year is so unique,” says Banghart. “Our team changes so dramatically. Vanessa has been in different roles. She’s come off the bench and been a contributor. She had a great postseason for us; now, we want to see her dominate regardless of whom we’re playing.”

Smith, who in ‘14–15 averaged 7.5 points and 3.5 rebounds in 18.6 minutes while hitting 57% of her shots, can call upon another experience to ensure that she makes this season count.

After her senior year of high school, Smith participated in an Athletes in Action tour of Ukraine. She was the youngest player on the team by two years — the oldest was 27 — and she noticed how many of her teammates, already finished with college, expressed regret over opportunities missed. That terrible sense that their time had not been spent to its fullest.

Says Smith, “I took away from that how important my four years in college are, and how quickly they go by. I realized that you have to live up each moment. For basketball, that means every practice, every game.”

This was one of the reasons Princeton’s historic undefeated run was so much fun to follow. The Tigers rode that wave with style. There was nothing cagey about it, no walking on eggshells for fear that it might end. They knew they were in the midst of something special — so, why not enjoy it?

That being said, once practice or game-time hit, the team always buckled down to business. It was Smith maintaining that mindset this summer in Chile. She found gyms and kept her skills sharp. She picked out parks where she could go for runs. Ballhandling and conditioning were two things she bolstered.

Even though summers see Princeton players head to the far corners of the country and, often, the world, they are connected by accountability. It’s the glue that holds them together, the shared determination to make each season special. They work hard to ensure that it is so.

“We’re there to have fun and enjoy each other, but once we’re between the lines, we give it our all,” says Smith. “During that streak last season, we never thought, ‘Oh, we can’t lose, it’ll mess it up.’ We just focused on playing the game we love.”

It was kind of like a roller coaster, buckling in and going along for hte ride. There was a reason none of them hung their heads after the loss to Maryland, on the Terps’ home court, in the NCAA tournament round of 32. (Smith had 15 points.) The season ending at 31–1.

“We were proud —well, the freshmen were in shock, seeing as it was their first loss in college,” says Smith. “But we weren’t satistifed. There was a sour taste in our mouth. We want to get back on that stage and have a more successful outcome. We want to use that as a springboard. We’re still climbing.”

Ever the anthropology major, Smith has a sixth sense of how to weave a narrative, and derive meaning from it. She can also pinpoint what it takes to make this season the best it can possibly be.

It will be different, but when it comes to journeys, that’s part of what makes them so much fun.

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops