Five Long Island girls basketball players are slated to play Division I basketball next year. Five players, spread out over more than 125 programs; a public school would be lucky to have even one of them stay in the district and resist the lure of the private schools.
That's what makes the case of Shneeka Center, Sara English and Smithtown West so curious. This year they both play for Smithtown West, next year Center will play for Davidson and English for UMass. They've both lived in Smithtown their whole life and they both fit the mold of high school post players. In other cases, one would have transferred. Instead they average double doubles side-by-side.
Then there's the existence of Smithtown West. Just before Center and English entered high school, Smithtown split into two high schools. English actually lives about 10 minutes closer to Smithtown East, in the Nesconset area, but still headed to West.
"I don't know how it worked out," said English, who plays center. "We're lucky."
Even redistricting couldn't split the up the pair, who first played together as second graders in CYO. Said Center: "We have pictures and video of that. It's pretty embarrassing."
Center lives off Smithtown's Main Street, firmly in West territory. But she too almost went a different route.
Before her freshman year, she took the Catholic High School entrance exam with her eye on attending St. John the Baptist in West Islip. Center laughed when asked how good that team would be with her on it. She said she didn't want to leave her friends behind and, as anyone who's driven down Old Nichols Rd. knows, it's tough to go from Smithtown to the South Shore every day.
SJB's loss has been Smithtown West's gain. Few teams on L.I. can match up with the 6-4 English in the middle and the 5-10 Center slashing all over the court. Take Thursday's 59-37 win over defending state champion Copiague. Center piled up 35 points and 12 rebounds, and English put up a triple double with 19 points, 11 rebounds and 11 blocks.
"Sarah walked in for like four or five layups because they were covering Shneeka," said coach Katie Combs. "They take a lot of pressure off each other."
When even one is out, the team suffers. Center missed Tuesday's game against Bellport with an ankle injury. English had 22 points and 12 rebounds, but the Bulls needed overtime to pull out the 53-50 win.
Now, with seven straight wins to open league play, Smithtown West could be looking at a League IV title and a high seed for the AA playoffs - a tournament the Bulls have bowed out in the first round of for the past three seasons.
The trend could end this year. Younger post players like Kirsten Viscount have stepped up to take the load off English in the paint. And a lot will depend on the improved backcourt play of seniors Annie McCutchen and Kailey Murphy, who with Center and English are captains.
"What do people think are assisting themselves," Combs said of the impact of McCutchen, the point guard. "Sometimes she gets overshadowed."
And even the seniors who don't fill up in the boxscore make an impact for the Bulls. Jess Dwyer's an accomplished opera singer and Heather Towey was voted "best personality" for the senior class. Said Combs: "This class doesn't even know how special it is."
And McKutchen, Murphy and Towey were there playing CYO with Center and English in elementary school. Whenever the season ends, be it in the first round of the playoffs or later, it will be he final time they all play together.
English chose UMass, partly because, like Smithtown West, it's far from home, but not too far. And the lure of playing in the Atlantic-10, which sent three teams to the national tournament last season, didn't hurt.
Playing big-time college basketball will be a fufillment of a dream that English realized she could achieve when she started playing on high-level AAU teams.
Said English, who plans to study elementary education: "You see these coaches walking around and it's the same one's you see on TV and it's like, wow."
Center plans to be pre-med at Davidson. Said Center: "With the team they have now, what Steph Curry did a few years ago, we can do with the girls team."
Center will move into a more guard-like role at Davidson, a transition she says she'll make easily thanks to her trainer Jerry Powell, who interestingly enough, also trains Suffolk's other two Division I prospects: Kristen Doherty and Bria Hartley. The freedom that comes from playing with a 6-4 center helps, too.
"They really complement each other so well," Combs said. "I don't even think they realize how much they're going to miss each other. But they'll realize it next year."