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BLOOMINGTON — As a sixth-grader in Farina (population 505), about 90 miles east of St. Louis, Mia Smith knew she wanted to become a coach.

The wisdom of that decision has been repeatedly affirmed for the 20th-year Illinois Wesleyan women's basketball coach, most recently with her selection to the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

Born into a sports-loving family, Smith's decision to coach meant continuing a lifestyle.

"I had three younger brothers," she explained. "That's what we did for fun. We played basketball in the dining room. We played ping-pong in the living room. Anytime we could go outside, we were outside with a baseball and a bat or a basketball."

Their parents had been athletes, as had their grandparents.

"My grandmother was the fastest woman in the county," Smith remembers. "My grandpa was a two-sport athlete."

When Smith reached Farina LaGrove High School, her freshman coach was "a great guy" named Jimmy Page. 

"I learned a lot from him," Smith said. "One of his daughters played at Southeast Missouri. He would take me to watch her play and I was just in awe."

As a senior, Smith had another coach to emulate in Brien Guy, whose pressing style showed her how to negate an opponents' height advantage. His 1981-82 team won the school's only regional title and its style became a forebearer of Smith's trademark "run-and-jump" press.

Smith went on to become a four-year letterwinner in basketball and softball at Southern Illinois Edwardsville, where she was the basketball captain for three years.

From 1986 to 1994, Smith coached several sports at Carrollton High School, going 156-55 in basketball. In 1994, she became the volleyball and softball coach at Monmouth College, expecting to become its basketball coach two years later. When that didn't happen, she took the basketball coaching job at IWU in 1998.

"Thank God, Coach (Denny) Bridges took a huge chance on me," said Smith, who takes a 389-181 record and a .682 winning percentage into Saturday's 5 p.m. home game against Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

"I just feel this was my calling. I just love seeing (players) grow and grow. With Facebook ... I'm watching former players' videos of their children and what they are doing around the world, where they are traveling."

Smith is gratified to see the bonds players built have lasted far beyond the final buzzer.

"The (2011-12 national) championship team, they get together about once a month up in the Chicago area," Smith said. "It makes me happy that their time here meant so much that they are going to keep those friendships going."

The national title holds a special place in Smith's heart. 

"It now becomes the yearly goal," she said. "Because you've done it one time, you just can't get it out of your blood. You want to do it again." 

That 28-5 title team was led by national player of the year Olivia Lett.

"Mia's confidence is a trait that her players emulate," said Lett, now an assistant coach at the University of Chicago. "We never walked into a game thinking that we couldn't win. Whether we had a 3-4 record, down 30 at half, or smaller at every position, we always believed we could compete with anyone."

Of the many ways to play, Smith chose an entertaining one.

"She brought a fun, high-scoring style of play to D-III women's basketball and it has attracted a lot of great players," said Lett, who saw fans come, too. "The crowds, which grew exponentially during Mia's tenure, are a testament to the success and excitement of the program."

Current IWU senior Rebekah Ehresman says, "I've had a lot of different coaches. She is one that has stood out as not only wanting us to do well as basketball players, but also as people.

"She gets real fired up before games. Her confidence in us as a team definitely carries over and inspires us to go out there and know that we are talented and we are capable of winning."

It has all stemmed from a sixth-grader's decision in a tiny town where there was no telling where a dream might lead.

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Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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