The Hathaway Brown girls basketball team could win the Naples Holiday Shootout based on talent alone. The school from suburban Cleveland, Ohio, returns all five starters from last year's team that won its fourth state championship in a row.
But if the Holiday Shootout came down to SAT scores or grade-point averages, the Blazers would win by the mercy rule.
A trio of 6-foot seniors has led Hathaway Brown into the Shootout semifinals, where they face defending champion Chicago-Whitney Young at 8 tonight. Those seniors — Vanessa Smith, Nia Marshall and Stephanie Poland — are proof that winning championships isn't as important to the Blazers as getting an education.
Ranked among the top recruits in the nation, Smith (Princeton) and Marshall (Cornell) are committed to Ivy League schools. The 6-foot-4 Poland is signed with Colgate, another one of the country's top academic institutions.
"We try to stress them choosing (a college) to get an education," Blazers coach Paul Barlow said. "They want to play basketball, and that's important, but it's more important to walk out in a good position in life."
At Hathaway Brown, a $25,000-a-year private school in affluent Shaker Heights, academics come first. HB, as it's called, is an all-girls college preparatory school founded in 1876 with an enrollment of 345 students.
Smith is a 6-foot-1 utility player who can play in the post, but also handles the ball often. In Thursday's 53-38 victory over defending Class 5A champion Orlando-Edgewater, Smith had 16 points, 10 rebounds, three steals and shot 8-for-8 from the free-throw line.
Ranked No. 8 at the wing position in the Class of 2013 by ESPN, Smith had plenty of college options. Taking a page from her high school, she picked education over athletics.
"We've got great basketball, but we have even better academics," Smith said. "That's what we're focused on."
Smith is the captain on a team with six seniors. She and Marshall have played for the Blazers since they were freshman, helping Hathaway Brown to its past three titles.
Last season, Smith, Marshall and Poland averaged 34.8 points and 17.6 rebounds a game. In the first two games of the Holiday Shootout, the three seniors have scored 83 of the Blazers' 111 points.
Barlow, who is 219-91 in 13 seasons at the school, will take brains over brawn any day, but he said it's not always a good thing to have a group of intelligent players. With all those Ivy Leaguers, the coach said, the Blazers can outsmart themselves.
"They're a great group of girls," he said, "but sometimes they can overthink instead of just going out and playing basketball. When we just go out and play, we play a lot better."
Hathaway Brown has been to the state semifinals six straight years. The Blazers can set an Ohio record this season if they win their fifth consecutive championship.
To deal with the pressure of chasing history, Hathaway Brown has built a schedule almost as rigorous as the school's academic standards.
The Blazers, in the second-largest classification in Ohio, play a variety of teams from the state's largest class as well as several out-of-state opponents. In addition to playing in Naples this week, Hathaway Brown plays in a big tournament in Kentucky.
"There's always pressure when we play," Marshall said. "Teams circle us on their schedules. We handle it with composure. We play a tough, competitive schedule so when it comes down to (the playoffs) we're used to those pressure games."