Simeon's Smith Goes for Number Six

Simeon Head Coach Rob Smith is back in Peoria with a chance to win a record-tying 4th consecutive state titles behind a stellar group of seniors.

Not many high school coaches can say that they're used to playing in the state finals, but for Simeon Head Coach Rob Smith, playing on the big stage has become the norm.

This weekend, Simeon heads to Peoria with a chance to win a fourth-straight state championship. Only Peoria Manual under Wayne McClain has accomplished that feat, but Simeon is the favorite heading into the culmination of the season.

But it's not only the end of the season, it will mark the end of the high school careers of one of the best starting fives Smith has ever coached. And coming from the man who coached Derrick Rose, that's a bold statement. But Jaylon Tate, Kendrick Nunn, Kendall Pollard, Jabari Parker, and Russell Woods have the opportunity to cement their legacy as one of the best squads in Illinois history.

"Three of them have won state three years in a row, and then you have Jaylon (Tate) and you have Russell (Woods). They have a great rhythm and understand what's going on on the floor. When you have five guys like that, it's hard to take them out," Smith said. "With those guys, we have everything we need. With Russell playing the way he's playing right now, this could be the best five I've ever had."

Three of those five have been with Simeon from the beginning, but point guard Jaylon Tate and center Russell Woods joined Simeon via De La Salle and Leo respectively halfway through their high school careers. Smith admits that the transitions weren't seamless, but he couldn't be happier with where they are now.

"Well it took both of them a little while," he said. "Russell didn't really understand his role because he was so used to shooting the ball a lot when he was at Leo. He understands now that getting rebounds, putbacks, and blocks is as good as taking 10-12 shots. Now that he understands that, he's been playing well. It's great, really. The hard work and the dedication they put into it, you're starting to see a reward. It's huge for us."

With all five bound to play college basketball, Smith is optimistic about their futures, but like any coach, he knows they'll face challenges and will need to respond and face them.

"I think all of them will be great," Smith said. "They still have a lot of work to do. I know Kendrick and Jaylon want to get stronger. Kendall can guard 3-4 different positions. We even put him on Okafor when we played Young. I think they just need to get on campus and work hard."

And one thing Smith knows that may not be as clear to his players yet is the availability of playing time early in their college careers. Players who were once stars in high school are now on a more level playing field. Smith knows what they'll face, and his best advice for them is to simply hang in there.

"Stay focused. They're going to be freshmen in college and probably won't get all the minutes they think they should probably get as freshmen. Not many freshmen play right away. Steve Taylor was going through that early on, and I had a conversation with him and told him to keep working. His time has started to pick up and he's getting better."

"It helps them a lot to see what they're going through and they work against those guys every day in practice," he said. "They make each other better and the competition is really good."

But for now, Simeon is just two games away from that fourth state title. It's within reach, and if they achieve it, Smith and his players will go down as some of the best in state history.

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