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Smeltz's team earns 3rd-place
win at national event
Story and Photo by, Janet Smeltz

The national third-place medalist BC Butler Pursuit team is comprised of (from left) Janet Smeltz, Paula Franetti, Nancy Graham, Lisa Adamsky, Melinda Rhoads and Peggy Schwinge Schipper, along with Coach Bill Lahr. The Pursuit finished the tournament with a 7-2 record in three-on-three tournament play.

(Editor’s Note: As many Sentinel readers know, longtime Contributing Writer Janet Smeltz not only writes about sports; she plays them as well.

This week, Smeltz talks about her latest participation in the National Senior Games, playing three-on-three basketball.)

The 2015 National Senior Games were held from July 3-16 in the Bloomington/Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota region.

To participate, an athlete must be 50 years of age or older and qualify the previous year by participating in the NSGA-sanctioned State Qualifying Games. Teams must be one of the top four finishers in their age group to qualify for Nationals.

More than 12,000 athletes from across the United States came to Minnesota to compete in 19 different areas. 

Janet Smeltz of Millersburg played in the three-on-three basketball tournament from July 10-13. Her team, the Pittsburgh-based BC Pursuit, earned the bronze medal in its age division (55-59), placing them third in the nation.

Smeltz has participated in the Senior Games previously and was impressed with the huge turnout and variety of offerings.

“It was mind boggling.  There was archery, badminton, bowling, cycling, golf, horseshoes, pickleball, race walk, racquetball, road race, shuffleboard, softball, swimming, tennis, table tennis, track and field, triathlon and volleyball,’’ said Smeltz.

“There were 13 men's and three women’s teams in the 80-plus age division for three-on-three basketball,’’ she added. ‘‘There were two men who competed in the 50 M in track and field in the 95-99 age division and one man in the 100-plus age division! 

‘‘It was so inspiring to me to see these athletes playing. You almost get goose bumps just to be in their presence,’’ said Smeltz.  ‘‘These women who are playing – even the ones in their 80s are playing competitively. They are laughing, sweating, rebounding, blocking shots, driving the lane and playing the game with a passion. It is so great to see.”

‘‘I’ve been playing with the BC Pursuit for the past four years. I love my teammates, and we love our coach, Bill Lahr, who also happens to be my husband,’’ said Smeltz, who formerly played with the Chicago Hoopla.

The team earned its bronze in an extremely competitive bracket, according to Smeltz. 

‘‘To be third in the nation is quite an honor,’’ she said. ‘‘We had to fight extremely hard to earn that third place. We lost by only three points in our quest for getting at least the silver medal.” 

Bouncing back. A total of 18 teams from across the country were divided into four different pools. How well a team did in pool play would decide whether it would play in the tough A Bracket tournament or the B Bracket.  

To begin pool play, the Pursuit faced Second City Storm of Chicago; the New Mexico Net Crosswinds; and Virginia’s NOVA United Triple Threat.

‘‘Triple Threat is always our rival. We play them often in other state-sanctioned tournaments, and we know each other well,’’ Smeltz noted. ‘‘We are also great friends off the court. When we are on the court, however, it is game on.’’

The Pursuit played a total of four games in its pool and remained undefeated with a 4-0 record.  Triple Threat’s record was 3-1, and both teams advanced to the tough A Bracket tournament. 

‘‘It was double elimination, and you play a lot of undefeated teams. So it’s like starting all over again,’’ Smeltz explained. ‘‘We are a team that doesn’t have the ability to get together for many practices. So we are at a disadvantage because many of these teams practice several times a week, especially to prepare for this important event. 

‘‘For example, there is an organization in San Diego called the SWBA (San Diego Senior Women’s Basketball Association. It is  the largest and longest running senior women’s basketball league in the country with more than 20 teams, and 125 players.  They have age 80-plus teams, and it is nothing for them to get together several times a week to practice,’’ she said.

‘‘There are many teams established in Portland, Maine, Colorado, New Mexico and in Chicago, and I know these teams take their practices very seriously,’’ said Smeltz, who played with the Chicago-based Hoopla. ‘‘I would fly to Chicago for a weekend and practice with their teams.  It was amazing to me because this was a part of their normal, active lives to go to practice. 

‘‘I also attended the Not Too Late Basketball Camp in South Portland, Maine, a few times many years ago, and the camp was just as if you were back in high school again, with skills stations, coaches, etc.,’’ she added. ‘‘This was the point where I learned that a whole new world existed out there for older athletes.  I always thought I’d have to hang up my sneakers when I hit a certain age. But after experiencing going to Nationals and tournaments over the years, I have found I am not alone in wanting to stay active.”

In the tough A Bracket, the Pursuit’s first game (July 12) was against Quick Silver, also based in Maine.

‘‘They are one of those teams that practice all the time together. We knew this was going to be a battle,’’ said Smeltz.

Sure enough, it was.

‘‘By the time it ended, we had a huge crowd watching us,’’ Lahr said. ‘‘It was so exciting, with a lot of talent being displayed.

‘‘It was a back-and-forth battle. They initially took a nice-sized lead, and we had to fight back to tie the game. Once we caught up, it was an exchange of points up to the final second, as it went into overtime,’’ said Lahr.

‘‘Again in the overtime, it was a battle of points being exchanged. But as the clock was ticking down, Janet hit a key three-pointer at the top of the key that sunk all net and put us up by three points. That was huge,’’ Lahr continued. ‘‘That gave a bit of separation and forced them to have to foul, and Melinda was able to sink four straight free throws. Janet made two more free throws, and we beat them 52-47 till it was all said and done. It was a huge team effort and a big confidence booster for us.’’

The next opponent that same day was another Maine team, also calling itself the Triple Threat. The Pursuit lost 40-28.

‘‘We didn’t play well. I felt we could have and should have beaten this team. But our shots were not on, and that sometimes happens,’’ said Lahr. 

Bouncing back. With the loss, the Pursuit was forced to go to the ‘‘loser’s bracket’’ and would have to fight hard to continue to win to make it to the finals spot. 

‘‘We were forced to play our friends from the NOVA United Triple Threat of Virginia Monday (July 13) at 8 a.m. This was hard because one of us would have to be eliminated."

Nova United initially took a huge lead.

‘‘We were not playing well at all. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, we are going to be packing up early to go home,’’’ said Smeltz. ‘‘I didn’t  play very well in this game or against the Maine Triple Threat, and I really wanted us to pull through.’’

Lahr agreed, saying, “We must have missed our first 20 shots we took. My team looked like it was 8 a.m.’’

Somehow, the Pursuit clawed its way back into contention. The game ended in a tie by the time the final buzzer rang, forcing overtime.

‘‘I think (Nova) was tired by that time. Our big girls Peg and Lisa, started controlling the boards, and Paula and Nancy made some key shots,’’ said Lahr. ‘‘They had one previously injured player who couldn’t play, and I think it wore them down. That was the difference.

‘‘Somehow, we went on to defeat the Triple Threat 40-30. I was so proud how the girls never gave up, never hung their heads and instead fought back to contention,’’ the coach said.

Moving on, the Pursuit took on the Colorado Long Shots, which also had only one loss to that point.

‘‘This team was definitely an excellent team and it would take a team, effort to win this game,’’ said Smeltz. ‘‘They were quick, and they had some real height on the team. They had only one loss to the Connecticut Classics, the gold medal team that remained undefeated for the entire tournament. 

‘‘I was just ecstatic when we started off leading and kept the lead throughout the game. We defeated the Long Shots 40-33, and we were just really pumped!  That assured us of the bronze medal,’’ she added.  ‘‘We couldn’t have been happier. In this game, it was a total team effort.  Everyone contributed. We played great defense and held their big girl from scoring as well.’’

With the victory, the Pursuit prepared for a rematch with the Maine Triple Threat, the team that had handed them their sole loss.

‘‘We felt we had a chance to beat them, but it was our third straight game of the day,’’ said Lahr. ‘‘It is always tough when you have to fight your way through the loser’s bracket because you have to play pretty much back to back.’’

The Pursuit gave the Triple Threat a good competitive game, and Triple Threat was ahead by only three points by halftime.

‘‘Janet hit four or five  key three-pointers in this game, and it kept our team pumped and right there in the thick of the game,’’ said Lahr. ‘‘But we had some turnovers because we were tired. By the end of the game, we were down by three points with nine seconds left to play.

‘‘They knew Janet was going to shoot a three, and they guarded her like a hawk. She threw a shot from almost half court, and it was right on target but hit the front of the rim and fell just short,’’ the coach added.

‘‘It was a great effort from our team to win that game. We just fell short. It would have given us the silver medal and a chance to play for the gold. But I am extremely proud of how every single girl on our team played. It was a team effort. You can’t ask for anything better out of a great group of talented athletes,’’ he added.

Smeltz said she and her teammates were “ecstatic’’ to bring home a bronze medal.

‘‘Two years ago, we earned the bronze medal, and we wanted to defend our title. So to claw our way back from the loser’s bracket just speaks volumes about my team. They are fighters!’’ she said.

A familiar face. Smeltz was particularly blown away when, during the tournament, she encountered an athlete whom she had played against in high school, four decades ago – Lynda Wiest, a Williams Valley graduate and former Wiconisco resident.

‘‘It was amazing to see someone from my own home area competing in Nationals. I recognized her right away! She looked the same as when we played against each other in high school!’’ Smeltz noted.    ‘‘There was Lynda, playing for the San Diego Seabyrds.  They placed fifth in the tournament; they had lost to the Colorado Long Shots, otherwise we would have played them instead. I would have loved to play against her.  

‘‘We talked at length, and I developed another great friendship,’’ Smeltz said.

A standout Viking player, Wiest’s team went 20-0 her senior season (1974-75).  Playing forward or center, she averaged double-figures in scoring and led in rebounding and field-goal percentage.

Wiest also played basketball at Bloomsburg University where she earned both bachelor’s as well as master’s degrees in elementary education.  She then earned her Ph.D in curriculum studies/matehematics education in 1996 from  Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind. She has been a professor at the University of Nevada – Reno, entering her 20th year in mathematics, education and educational equity and diversity.  

Wiest’s passion for basketball has never waned in four decades. In the early 1980s, she played semi-professionally for two seasons with the Allentown Crestettes, who qualified for nationals both seasons. She also coached high school girls’ varsity basketball at Elizabethtown High School, and has played in numerous recreational leagues in Elizabethtown and Harrisburg, as well as  at Indiana University and in city, YMCA and sports club leagues in Reno. And she always made time for many pick-up games outdoors and indoors, as well as at the gym. 

She’s currently helping to organize and run the basketball portion of the Reno/Tahoe Senior Games, running through Sunday, Aug. 30.

‘‘I played full court with both women and men until my late 40s. I started playing three-on-three in April of 1991 and have played in three-on-three tournaments every year since then, switching mainly to a half-court game starting in my late 40s,’’ Wiest explained. ‘‘I played in Gus Macker three-on-three tournaments with the same team from 1991 through 2008. 

‘‘I discovered the Senior Games in 2008. I had a very difficult time trying to find a Nevada team. At that time, we were only allowed one out-of-state player. I made a massive statewide search for players and only found three of us and was just about to give up when a teammate found a former college teammate from Arizona who was excited to be asked to play as our out-of-state player.

‘‘That gave me incentive to form a team to play in Las Vegas in a qualifying tournament for Nationals. We played with four players and won the tourney. We then played with only four players in Nationals at Stanford University the following year (August 2009) and took sixth out of 23 teams.

‘‘I played with a Nevada-based team comprised of differing players over time in the 2009, 2011 and 2013 nationals, and then was invited to play with a San Diego team that I played for in 2015 in Minneapolis,’’ said Wiest.

Keeping the flame burning. Smeltz, who also played in the past at the Stanford and Cleveland games, said she was fortunate that she finally got to bump into the area native this year.

‘‘Finding the senior games has reignited my interest in continuing to play basketball,’’ said Wiest. ‘‘I had no idea I could or would be still playing at this age. I love the competition, the incentive to stay in shape and have a reason to keep my basketball skills sharpened, and the camaraderie of playing competitive sports with other seniors. I am inspired to see women playing through their 80s in this tourney. 

‘‘Some people think three-on-three is an ‘easy’ version of the game, but it isn’t. Compared with full court, there is no down time,’’ Wiest explained. ‘‘The immediate transitions between offense and defense create a very intense and demanding game, and I was surprised to see how physical and competitive the games are.’’

Wiest was thrilled to find Smeltz, as well as another native Keystoner, still playing as well.

‘‘The other player is Karen Grenot, who I played with for many years in rec/city leagues in Elizabethtown and Harrisburg; and of course, Janet, whom I played against in high school,’’ Wiest said. ‘‘What a wonderful and surprising connection 25 years later for Karen and me, and 40 years later for Janet and me!

‘‘Almost five years ago, my doctor told me to stop playing due to knee problems, but I have continued to play and will do so as long as my physical condition allows (in my judgment),’’ said Wiest, who also keeps active in other activities such as kayaking, downhill skiing and country line dancing. 

‘‘I love animals and paddled a kayak the whole 72 miles around Lake Tahoe to raise money for animals in 2008 and 2009, and then did it again just for the challenge.”  

Smeltz and Wiest hope their passion to remain active will motivate others to find their passion and stick with it, regardless of age.

‘‘After watching these older athletes, I am inspired to know that, despite any physical limitations one may have, there is still the joy of remaining active in something that you love,’’ said Smeltz.  ‘‘Some of these women who played basketball didn't even start until they were in their 50s and have found the friendships and bonds you form with others are just what they needed to overcome a lot of life’s challenges and obstacles.’’

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