It would be perfectly understandable if Margaret Smith ’10 found herself having an identity crisis. You see, she's a guard. Make that a forward. Nope, definitely a guard. Well, maybe a forward again ...
Confused yet? The rest of the Ivy League sure has been.
A senior for Dartmouth, Smith’s graduation will equal a sigh of relief for Ivy League women’s basketball coaches. Switching from forward to guard and even back again, Smith has spent the last four years as one of the league's most challenging match-up problems. Offensively, she might drive to draw a foul, backdoor cut for a layup, or spot up for three. Defensively, her 6’1” frame and even longer wingspan have terrorized point and shooting guards all over the East coast.
Paving the way for younger sister, Brittney Smith ’11, 2009 Ivy Player of the Year, to follow her to Hanover didn't boost her popularity around the league much either.
But Margaret Smith doesn't mean to be such a problem — she's just doing her job.
"Margaret is perfectly comfortable not being the center of attention, just to quietly do her job and move on," said head coach Chris Wielgus. "She doesn't need praise because she is very comfortable with herself. I can't think of another athlete whose gotten as much out of herself as she has."
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Smith's journey to Hanover started back in Fort Worth, Texas, where Team Ichiban AAU coach Eugene Watts encouraged her to look at the Ivy League school where another one of his products, Fatima Kamara '07, was excelling. Ultimately, Dartmouth was the only East coast school that Smith would visit, turning down offers from the likes of New Mexico to join the Big Green.
Margaret arrived at Dartmouth in 2006 and immediately found her place on the court, coming off the bench as a forward, earning Ivy All-Rookie team accolades. After a smooth transition to college basketball as a freshman, Smith found herself facing some big tests as a sophomore. With sister Brittney, a power forward, joining Margaret in Hanover, Wielgus concocted a plan that would allow her to keep both of the Smiths and All-Ivy forward Sydney Scott '08 on the court together.
Margaret would become a guard.
"I was getting hints at the beginning of sophomore year," said Smith, "But the announcement was made - and I found out - in front of everyone on the team before we played Iowa [in the 2007-08 season opener]."
"Honestly, Margaret was taking a beating inside and we decided she should face the basket," said Wielgus. "We needed her on the court so we decided to move her and it made a big impact defensively and with her rebounding."
During the past two years, Dartmouth has gone a combined 24-4 in Ivy play en route to back-to-back Ivy League Championships in 2008 and 2009 and was the league's top defensive team. Smith's workmanlike play was the steadying force for the Big Green; she was comfortable in the guard and had even developed a keen outside shot. Margaret's presence on the perimeter helped open things up inside for Brittney to pick up Ivy League Rookie and Player of the Year honors in consecutive seasons (2008, 2009) and she is certainly her sister’s biggest supporter. Off the court, the two are inseparable, living together last season and still sharing each other's closets and, often, thoughts.
"They are soul mates," said Wielgus. "They're in each other's souls and they're almost like twins. They keep each other grounded."
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Poised for her senior year, another twist was thrown at Smith this fall when junior forward Cassie Cooper '11 was lost to injury after just two games. You guessed it — Margaret would become a forward, again. Fortunately, the emergence of Sasha Dosenko '12 inside has ultimately allowed Margaret to stay on the perimeter more, but she's also had to adapt to changing on the fly, often switching into the post to spell Dartmouth's few forwards.
"I don't have a problem with it," said Smith of her somewhat dubious forward-guard-forward label. "I like different aspects of each. As a guard you have more control over what shots you take, but as a post you're closer to the basket, so you get better shots. But you do get banged up a lot more in there."
Getting banged up in the post might come with the territory, but for Smith, with an agonizing knee injury, jockeying for position can be downright brutal. She had dealt with intermittent pain and swelling in her right knee since having surgery to repair a torn meniscus in high school. Before her sophomore year at Dartmouth, she had a second surgery to relieve some of the pain that stems from severe cartilage degeneration, causing the bones in the knee joint to rub directly against each other. The respite was short-lived.
"It's bone on bone ... but when I'm playing it doesn't really hurt unless I tweak it, the adrenaline takes over," says Smith. "I don't have pain when I'm not playing on it, but after a game, I can't believe how badly it hurts."
"She does no complaining, the only time I'll sit her is if I say, 'Margaret, you're limping,' and she usually doesn't even realize it," said Wielgus. "She has learned to deal with the pain and done it with enormous dignity. I have never once heard her use her knee as an excuse."
Smith has never once missed a game because of her knee, is on pace to stand second all-time in career games played (currently at 111) and ranks in Dartmouth's top-10 all-time in rebounding. This season, Smith has found a new identity as Dartmouth's go-to player at the end of games, hitting game-winning or lead-preserving free throws against Harvard and twice against Cornell. The senior co-captain has shown no fear of injury either, routinely putting herself in harm's way in order to get to the free throw line, where she shoots an Ivy League-leading 90.2 percent. She's having her best season to date at Dartmouth, averaging 7.7 points and 6.6 rebounds per game in Ivy contests.
"I'm really proud of her, at the beginning of the season we talked a lot about how it was her year to step up," said sister Brittney. "She's always in pain but gives 100 percent every game and I respect that."
"When the game is on the line, Margaret wants the ball," said Wielgus. "Regardless of the obstacles put in her way, she knows that we are relying on her and she won't let us down. She's playing because she has a passion for the game, enormous dignity and pride and cares greatly for this program."
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Receiving her diploma in June carries much larger significance as Smith will become the first person in her immediate family to graduate from college, though some aunts and cousins on her father's side have done so.
"Knowing that I would be the first person on my mom's side to graduate from college was a big motivating factor to pursue this and finish successfully," said Smith.
Though the rest of the Ivy League will be happy to have the number 10 Smith off their scouting reports, with three games left she's not yet done working for the league's most storied program.
"It was upsetting to realize that we couldn't win a title this year, but at the end of the day, knowing that this is the last time I'll be able to play, I'm motivated," said Smith. "It's starting to hit me how I was able to have an impact and what a great opportunity I had to be part of this program. It's something that's going to stay with me for a long time."
For four years, Margaret Smith has been whatever Dartmouth basketball needed her to be, yet never sacrificed her own identity or integrity. Playing through adversity and pain, her resilience and commitment were just part of a job well done.
And there's nothing uncertain about that.