The Hamilton High West boys’ basketball team should be a fun team to watch this year, with the exploits of such talented scorers as Tyleer Wrenn, Malik Snead and Freddie Simmons, to name a few.
But underneath the glitz and glamour is a toughness and grittiness. That is where senior Kevin Smiegocki comes into play.
Smiegocki does the dirty work. Ask him how many times he’ll get knocked to the floor during the course of a game and he estimates that “The over-under on that is probably 20.”
Take the over.
Between diving for loose balls, taking charges and general gritty play throughout the course of a game, Smiegocki is one of those guys who sacrifices his body so that others may score and excel.
“He’s kind of the fight in our team,” coach Jason Malloy said. “It helps everybody get up to another level.”
Smiegocki came up through the Hamilton Little Lads, Mercer County CYO and Trenton PAL, where his teams won a number of championships. He is in his third year on the Hornets’ varsity squad, although he did get called up at the end of his freshman year.
Malloy recalled when the school security officer, Terry Brown, was on duty at a state tournament game against Jackson-Liberty that the Hornets were winning by a wide margin. Smiegocki was not in the game and wore a forlorn expression.
“Kevin wanted to be out there so much, and I guess he was making faces or made a comment and Officer Brown saw him,” Malloy said. “He went up to him and smiled and said, ‘You’ll get your turn. Just be patient. You just have to wait for it to come.’”
Smiegocki remembers the exchange.
“That definitely boosted my confidence and kept me striving to do my best,” he said.
Smiegocki got playing time as a sophomore, along with classmates Wrenn, Simmons and Snead, and good friend Dan Garcia, who was a year older. The young West team went through growing pains that season, but it paid off last year when Hamilton reached the Central Jersey Group III semifinals before dropping a memorable overtime game to Ewing.
Wrenn and Garcia got many of the headlines thanks to their scoring talents, but Smiegocki made his presence felt in other ways.
“He plays like a big guy but he’s really one of the smallest guys on the court (at 5-10),” Malloy said. “He’s a smart player, he does all the intangibles well. He basically knows what we’re doing at all times, he knows where all five guys should be.”
Malloy called Smiegocki a “calming influence” who sometimes sees things happening on the court that even Malloy misses.
“He knows where they should be, and he settles them down,” the coach said.
Don’t mistake the calming influence with Smiegocki’s style of play, however.
“I definitely wouldn’t call him calm out there,” Malloy said with a laugh. “He’s pretty feisty when he plays. He doesn’t back down from anybody. Last year he got punched in the face twice, because he just gets under people’s skin. He is just a scrappy player. He takes I don’t know how many charges each year and always bounces back up.”
Smiegocki said there is no real art to taking a charge. It’s basically a matter of having the guts to do it.
“It’s just throwing your body out there and doing it for the team,” he said. “Sometimes it hurts—it kind of depends on how you land. But there’s really no technique. Whatever happens, happens.”
He discovered the value of a charge innocently enough while playing for the freshman team.
“One day I just stood in front of the guy, and got knocked down,” Smiegocki said. “The ref called it, I said ‘Wow, this helps the team’ so I just kept doing it.”
When he’s not forcing turnovers by hitting the deck, Smiegocki is making life for West’s opponents difficult with his dogged defensive play.
“With the amount of height he gives up to some of the guys he plays, he makes up for it with tenacity and smarts,” Malloy said. “If he’s getting posted up he’ll find ways to try and get around to prevent the entry pass. If he needs it he’ll call for help, and he’s always the first to help other guys.”
Probably the biggest key to Smiegocki’s talents on the court is that his frenetic play on the outside does not indicate what’s going on inside.
“As feisty and as ill tempered as he can make others, he’s calm within himself, “ Malloy said. “He always knows what he’s doing. You can almost see when somebody is getting aggravated with him, that he knows he’s doing his job.”
Because Garcia, a 3-point specialist, graduated, Malloy feels Smiegocki may have to play a bigger role in the offense this year. He may play on the perimeter more often depending on the lineup, and may have to do a little more ball handling, although Malloy saw some good things from several sophomores in preseason scrimmages.
“I’ll just do whatever is best for the team,” Smiegocki said. “If I’m open, I’ll shoot it. If I have to make the extra pass, I’ll make it.”
Malloy said Smiegocki has his certain spots to score from. His baseline and foul line jumpers are favorites, though he’s shooting from the outside more in practices.
“He has the green light to shoot it and any added points we get from him is a bonus,” Malloy said. “But if he does the little things that he has been doing so consistently, that’s what I really want from him. And he’s very consistent. Day in and day out he does the same stuff. He’s the perfect example of playing in practice like he plays in games.”
Smiegocki also plays baseball, which is his main focus. He plays basketball more for the fun of it, but he still puts in just as much effort when he plays. With a good nucleus from last year returning, he is excited for this season.
“It’s going to be a special year,” Smiegocki said. “No doubt in my mind it’s going to be special and we’ll do big things. We’re like a family, we have great chemistry. We’re all hard workers, do it for the team and not for ourselves. We get after it every day.”
Which is exactly how he likes it.