DLN WINTER-ALL AREA: Downingtown East’s Smuda towers over foes, in more ways than one

UWCHLAN >> Nobody could possibly deny that Bella Smuda stands out on the basketball court. And at 6-foot-5, the Downingtown East center stands head and shoulders above all other competitors.

But the junior is more than just a tall player. Much more.

“A lot of people dismiss Bella’s ability,” said her head coach Tom Schurtz. “They think she finds success simply because she is tall. And certainly, height does help. But she has a tremendous skill-set on top of that.”

The Daily Local News All-Area Girls Basketball Player of the Year, Smuda was a big-time stat-stuffer for a Cougars’ team that went 20-9 and captured the 2019 Ches-Mont League crown. She averaged 20.4 points, 11.9 rebounds and 5.6 blocks per game, and has already committed to play Division I college basketball at Liberty University.

“I’ve always been tall,” Smuda said. “My dad is 6-7 and my mom is 5-11. So you can see why I am 6-5. I’ve always seen my height as a blessing, so I am trying to use it to the best of my ability to play basketball.”

Despite being the focal point for every opposing defense – and routinely facing double-teams — Smuda still managed to register 19 double-doubles and an astounding three triple-doubles this winter. And on a lesser squad, or with a more selfish demeanor, she could have averaged much more.

“If our team had not been better defending the perimeter, her block numbers would have been even better,” Schurtz said. “Last season she had more blocks because our opposition went to the basket so much.

“She does such a great job picking and choosing when to be aggressive defensively. And the other thing is she has been so successful, players stop going (to the basket) and settle for the five-foot jumper.

“Her blocks are clearly impressive, but the constant threat of that changes the way teams attack us. It also allows our guards to be more aggressive because they know if they do get beat off the dribble, help is waiting.”

Smuda’s father, Jimmy, is the pastor of Trinity Assembly Church in West Goshen. He played high school ball growing up in the Chicago area and introduced the game to his daughter about a decade ago.

“I was about seven and it started with my dad saying, ‘let’s go play,’” Bella recalled. “I started playing rec league and my dad kind of showed me the game in the backyard and at parks. Once I hit middle school, that’s when I fell in love with the game.”

A starter since she was a freshman, Smuda immediately became a post presence for East. And the Cougars’ program has improved as she’s improved.

“We’ve played a number of players who are over 6-foot who haven’t had the success Bella’s had,” Schurtz pointed out. “She has an emerging perimeter game, she has tremendous touch around the rim, just great hands and good feet.

“Plus, she has a motor – she plays hard. All of these things in combination to her physical attributes are the reasons she is so successful.”

A first team All-Ches-Mont pick and the tournament MVP of the Marple Newtown Holiday Shoot-Out, Smuda helped Downingtown East win 11 games in a row after starting the campaign 0-3. In 15 outings against league foes, the Cougars wound up winning 14 times, including a 16-point victory over West Chester Rustin in the title game.

“I did not think the season was going to end like it did because we started so poorly,” said Smuda, who poured in 29 points against the Knights.

According to Schurtz, Smuda has been able to make great strides from year to year due to her willingness to work hard during each off-season. 

“For the last three years, Bella’s hit every individual goal that was set,” Schurtz said. “She is very systematic to her off-season approach to improvement. Off-season is the time to be selfish and work on your individual game.”

Smuda says she liked to discuss goals for the next season, but did admit that Schurtz’s objectives after her sophomore season were a bit lofty.

“I saw the goals he had for me, and I was like: ‘those are crazy. I don’t know if I can do that,’” she recalled. “I actually took the list and put them on my mirror so I saw them every morning.

“(Schurtz’s) goals were for me were to get to 1,000 (career) points and have a certain amount of rebounds and points a game. For me, it helped me focus on what I could do on the court to make myself better, and who can I play against to help me improve my game.”

All of those objectives were met as Smuda refined her decision-making and wound up fouling out of zero games this winter. For her senior year, Smuda is looking to expand her offensive game.

“I would love to get a jump shot down and expand my game to be able to play more outside,” she said.

Smuda verbally committed to play at Liberty (Va.) University last October, and even though higher profile programs are now showing interest, she has not yet been tempted.

“There have been other schools contact me to inquire whether her verbal will stick, but she is very happy with Liberty,” Schurtz said.

“I’m 100 percent set with Liberty,” Smuda added. “I know that’s the place for me.”

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