Central DeWitt seniors Jen Keitel and Lindsay Smith have a lot of things in common.
As freshmen, both joined the Sabers varsity basketball team and helped start the program’s turnaround from a 1-21 record their eighth-grade season to Class 3A semifinalists — with Keitel stepping up after Smith suffered a serious knee injury in the quarterfinals —this season.
Both signed letters of intent to play basketball at Division I universities next year.
Now, Smith and Keitel have been selected as the Clinton Herald’s All-Area co-Players of the Year.
“I don’t know that you can distinguish one from the other,” Central DeWitt coach Mark Kurtz said as far as postseason awards go. “Without one, I don’t know that the other is nearly as effective. They each bring a little something different, and both were equally needed.”
Smith, a 5-foot, 10-inch guard, led the Sabers in scoring, averaging 15.8 points a game. She also led the team in assists and steals, while she finished second in rebounds and blocked shots.
Keitel, a 6-2 center, averaged 14.7 points a game. She led the team in rebounds and blocked shots and finished second in assists and steals.
While both have been excellent players during their high school careers, each added a new facet to her game for this season.
"I feel I improved immensely," Keitel said. "I'm more confident out of the post now. I have a little bit of an outside game."
Smith said her game developed in almost the exact opposite way.
"I developed more of a post game," Smith said. "I was able to post smaller girls up more this year."
Kurtz agreed that both players improved their games greatly during their time at Central DeWitt but saw it the most with Keitel.
“There’s probably not a more improved player I’ve seen,” Kurtz said of the University of Northern Iowa recruit. “I watched her mature, and to see her get to the point she was at as a senior, that’s one of the reasons you coach.”
Another thing they share is both love to practice, though Smith even more so.
"It's just because I love basketball," Smith said. "I love being in the gym all the time. Something I would look forward to everyday was going to practice."
Kurtz said in the four years Smith and Keitel were on the team he gave the team probably three or four days off. But every time the Sabers had a day off, Smith was in the gym. The only exception was when they went bowling as a team outing to celebrate making the state tournament.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever met a kid who loves to practice so much,” Kurtz said. “Lindsay knows you work on things to get better. Jennifer got to that point.”
Kurtz said the Sabers had better competition in practice than in the some of the games they played this season; Smith and Keitel agreed.
"From last year, all the same girls were back, so we had experience," Smith said. "All of them got better, especially the younger girls. So not having a break everyday from competition was a big help. It helped us work hard every day."
The two were recognized for their offensive skill, but what was just as important is their defensive ability.
"I think a couple of years ago, it was basically me and Jen on offense," Smith said. "It was a struggle for us to score sometimes and we relied on our defense to win games. That's been kind of a strong point. We take pride in how we play defense."
Keitel said: "What I learned from coach Kurtz, as far as defense, is that defense is your best offense. That's how we play as a team. Some nights, I don't have great offensive games. But if I pick it up on defense, I always feel like I'm contributing to the team."
Smith and Keitel were leaders on the court from the time they joined the varsity as freshmen. Over the course of their careers, they developed into the verbal and emotional leaders as well.
"I think we learned a lot our freshman year," Smith said. "We were leaders on the court, but verbally, the seniors were more the leaders. We learned a lot from them because they were so accepting of us, and it helped us grow as leaders."
Kurtz said Smith and Keitel were so competitive and they always expected the best of themselves and teammates.
"Sometimes Lindsay got really mad," Keitel said with a laugh. "She wasn't like, 'I'm going to not talk to you later,' but she'd get mad. But if they made a good play, she'd always make a comment. That's what we tried to do, make little comments to help them."
Smith said: "If the focus or energy wasn't there, Jen or I would definitely say something. But, then they'd learn from the way we were playing."
Kurtz said Smith and Keitel brought out the best in their teammates, every day.
“There’s no question some of those other kids are better basketball players because of those two kids,” he said.