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Rebel with a cause

April 23, 2017
Ross Thede - Central Iowa Press , Reinbeck Courier

REINBECK - He'd heard it all before.

"Keep your head up."

One hackneyed phrase after another.

"Who cares what people say?"

The clichs had become commonplace.

"Control what you can control."

His parents' words coming out of his own mouth.

"It's not a good deal, but you've got to fight through it."

The many life lessons imparted upon him over a dwindling childhood devoted to becoming the best basketball player he could be, Joe Smoldt was there to offer his mother those same truisms when her cancer came back.

No matter how painful a rare loss on the court was, Smoldt - the Times-Republican's 2017 All-Area Boys Basketball Player of the Year - had already watched his mom endure far worse.

Educated throughout his youth on how to handle adversity on the hardwood, Smoldt applied the same model when his family learned of his mother's infliction. Watching her beat back the disease - twice - motivated Smoldt throughout a basketball career that culminated as one of the greatest the state has ever known.

Breaking the bad news

Shelli Smoldt was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2012, shortly after the completion of her youngest son's seventh-grade year. Jacob, the oldest of two boys, had a summer baseball season separating him from his senior campaign at Gladbrook-Reinbeck High School. Joe, an up-and-coming basketball prodigy, was playing on an AAU team out of Marshalltown - the Iowa Glory, coached by Mark Hauser. Summer weekends were spent on the road at tournaments, even after Shelli's news stunned the Smoldt household.

"It wasn't too early that I didn't understand," Joe recalled. "I knew how serious it was. I remember her coming into the living room, telling us what had happened and what she was going to have to go through and I remember how she said it. She didn't have her head down. I could just tell she knew she was going to get through it. I had confidence in her that she was going to get through it. She put a big emphasis that it's going to be the family that gets through it, everybody's going to have to help her out and it was a big change in the family."

Shelli elected to have two lumpectomies that June, accompanied by radiation treatments, to try and rid her body of the cancerous cells. Both came back with unclean margins of resection, demanding additional surgery, and she had a bilateral mastectomy in August.

The norm was no more, as much as Shelli insisted it needed to be. Not for herself, but for her boys.

"I was worried how that would impact both of them," she said. "We just told them everything that was going on [with the diagnosis], but I never tried to cry in front of them. They were in the middle of one sport or another and I just didn't want them having to worry about me."

Shelli called her son's friends' parents, imploring them to send their kids over as if nothing had changed. Their laughter, a busy home, was good for her spirits too.

"You try to keep it as normal as possible, but it's a fine line," said Dan, Shelli's husband and an assistant boys basketball coach at Gladbrook-Reinbeck. "They know what's going on, but yet you try to keep it as normal as possible. The mentality is the kids come first, and that's your whole driving force."

You want driven? Imagine a kid with a basketball pedigree who had already decided the sport was his future, determined to get better every day, learning that his best rebounder would be sidelined by cancer treatments.

That's Joe, going into eighth grade with a gold chain around his neck, dangling a daily reminder of what his mother had been through.

Shelli's twin sister Sherri [Selenke, the cross country coach at Hudson] gave her a necklace with a breast cancer ribbon pendant at the time of Shelli's mastectomy, and Joe promptly asked if he could have it.

"I remember how emotional I was just by him wanting to wear it," Shelli said. "He took the pendant off the chain it came on and put it on a thicker one. He has worn it ever since, along with the pink silicon bracelet, as Jacob does too.

"Joe didn't wear a necklace prior to that. We didn't talk about [cancer] a lot so I think it was his way of showing me his support and that he cared."

Born from basketball stock

Five years between them, Jacob and Joe never played on the same basketball team, unless it was a 2-on-1 battle against Parker Bolt on the makeshift court in the Smoldts' basement. Parker, a year older than Jacob, was the "big kid" after all.

The downstairs venue was where Joe remembers exploring his love for the game, imitating his big brother, Jacob's friends, Gladbrook-Reinbeck's varsity players, and college and NBA stars. There were competitive games and arguments alike, and Joe's infatuation for the sport was born.

"It definitely felt natural because when I was younger I was always around basketball and it got in my mind that I've got to keep this going because everybody in the family has been successful at it," Joe said. "I don't want people to think I was forced to do it because I wasn't. I was just born into it and I just loved the game when I was first drawn to it. I love getting in the gym - that's something that's an everyday thing for me now, it's something that's an everyday routine. It's a passion of mine now."

It's understandable why people might think Joe was steered toward basketball. His folks were standouts in their day, too.

Dan graduated from Reinbeck High in 1982 as the school's all-time leading scorer with "something like 1,100 points," he said. The record still stood when Reinbeck began sharing with Gladbrook in 1987.

Same goes for Shelli (Winterroth), who graduated in 1983 as the Rams' career 6-on-6 scoring record holder. Her point total still topped the charts through 1987, though little sister Staci completed her career with 3,397 points in three years as a Reinbeck Ram and another on Gladbrook-Reinbeck's first cooperative unit. Shelli might tell you "that doesn't count" with a wink.

Dan was a three-time, first-team all-Big Iowa Conference selection. He was all-conference twice in football and baseball, and played basketball and baseball at Kirkwood Community College and Coe College. Shelli was a three-time, first-team all-Big Iowa honoree. "Maybe four," Dan offered of his high school sweetheart.

The Rams made the boys' basketball substate finals in 1982, Dan said, before losing to Ogden at the Marshalltown Roundhouse with a state tournament berth on the line. Shelli's highly ranked Reinbeck squads advanced to three-straight regional finals, falling twice to Clinton-Mater Dei (now Prince of Peace Catholic School) and lastly to West Central of Maynard.

"Expectations were pretty big, but things don't always work out when expectations are high," said Dan. "All really good teams that just didn't have the luck or whatever to get over the hump."

So to see Joe, a freshman who started all 25 games for Gladbrook-Reinbeck in 2013-14, lose in the substate finals was unbearable for his family. Belmond-Klemme knocked off sixth-ranked G-R, leaving the Rebels (22-3) one win shy of a school record and the first state tournament berth since Reinbeck placed fourth in 1929.

"Here we go again," said Dan. "It's not easy to lose that game because you're so close. I don't know how it helps that [Shelli and I] had been through that too. We understand it, but it doesn't really make it any easier to get past it or to help [Joe] get past it. You just hope he can use it as motivation going forward."

As if he didn't already have the ambition and inspiration, Joe - and the rest of the Rebels - set out with a special destination in mind and the determination to finally reach state.

"That substate game really fueled us to try to get better, and that's a mental toughness thing because it's not easy to move on from," said Joe. "We had big expectations and we maybe let some people down, and that was probably the point that I learned you've got to move on, start working harder to reach these goals."

Sophomore struggles

Gladbrook-Reinbeck returned four incumbents - including a pair of four-year starters in point guard Camden Kickbush and center Zach Pierce - for the 2014-15 season. But Kickbush, the quarterback of the football team, broke his collarbone in the Rebels' Class A state football semifinal win against Denver.

The injury sidelined Kickbush for the title game, a loss to Logan-Magnolia, and cast a shadow of undeniable doubt on the highly anticipated basketball season.

Joe's sophomore year was already adverse enough. Shelli's cancer came back in May 2014, and it had metastisized in her lymph nodes. Chemotherapy was the only treatment option, and that ran from June to October. Radiation treatments persisted through December, when basketball season resumed for the preseason No. 3 Rebels.

"I remember how devastated she was that it came back and that she was going to have to go through it again," Joe said. "I thought it was over and she was going to get back to her normal life and her normal routine. We knew she'd already beat it once and we knew she was going to beat it again, we had no doubt she would, but it was definitely hard."

The chemotherapy did its job, but it also sapped Shelli of her energy. She worked her way back by continuing to rebound for her son during his nightly workouts in the high school gym, no matter the pain or exhaustion.

"When I was going through the healing and trying to get my arms back into shape, I'd tell Joe 'I appreciate you letting me rebound,'" Shelli said. "I wasn't all that great at the time, it was sore, but it was getting me back into motion and stretching my muscles. I did as much as I could when I wasn't going through the three-to-four days after chemo."

Joe immersed himself in his training. It was easier than contemplating the disease that had befallen his mom.

Basketball was their therapy.

"To see her try to get through that, take it and go at it and not be afraid, trying to beat this thing, was so impressive," Joe said. "That was something that I looked up to, how much she wanted to beat it and how determined she was that she was going to beat it. She was never down, she was always confident about every situation.

"You're always thinking about it, especially when it came back, [that] was a really tough time," he continued. "But it affects you in a good way in just how she handled it and how I saw her handle it because that showed me if she can beat breast cancer, I can do anything. I saw how hard she worked to get through it and how determined she was to get back to what she loved, and to see that gave me determination, too, to want to do these things because she knows how much I love basketball and how much she wants me to be successful. I wanted to do that for her and I think I did that, and that's one of the reasons I'm really proud of what I've done and I think that's a reason she's really proud of me too. It's something we don't really talk about anymore because we got through it and it was a big part of our lives. It's definitely a driving force."

And as it turned out, Kickbush's absence served as a surprising blessing in disguise. Joe, already thrust into the starting lineup as a role-playing guard for his freshman season, was called upon to carry the load and run the point until Kickbush returned.

Joe scored a career-high 28 points in a season-opening, overtime victory at South Hardin, and averaged 24.3 points per game until Kickbush came back after missing only six contests. Kickbush tallied a team-leading 20 points in his season debut in a win against arch-rival Grundy Center, and the Rebels were off and running.

"I think the biggest thing was [G-R head coach Scott] Kiburis believing in me to put me in that role to lead the team as only a sophomore," Joe said, "and I think the seniors allowed me to be that leader. They believed in me and I respect that. Them believing in me gave me confidence to make plays and do my thing.

"Nothing changed when [Kickbush] came back. Maybe our expectations dropped at the beginning of the season because he was injured and some people thought we weren't going to be as good, and I took that to heart. I took that personally and I think that really fueled me to try and be better personally and better for the team."

Gladbrook-Reinbeck was unstoppable. The Rebels won an undefeated North Iowa Cedar League West Division championship and rolled into the postseason 21-0, winning only three games by fewer than 10 points.

Nothing but wins

Five days before G-R's district opener, Shelli posted a picture to her Facebook account - "First post treatment haircut. More of a trim ?? but it is growing!"

"I think that was probably her biggest fear, not even the cancer and getting through it, but losing her hair and not knowing how to handle that situation and how people are going to look at her," Joe said. "It was hard for her, and she doesn't really fear a lot, so to see her fear that, that was the point where I had to step up and talk to her about it and say, 'You can't worry about what people are going to think about you. You can't do anything about it. It's just part of what comes with chemo and this is going to get you better, so you can't worry about what's going to happen.'"

With a first-round win against BCLUW, Gladbrook-Reinbeck matched its school record for wins in a season (22). The record fell with a 43-point triumph against North Tama, climbed another notch with a district final win against Jesup, and upped to 25 with G-R's substate walloping of West Central of Maynard (the same school that ended Shelli's prep career a game shy of state).

The Rebels had checked off the goal of so many seemingly capable G-R teams before them. Ranked No. 2 in 2006-07, Gladbrook-Reinbeck was stunned in the district semifinals. Subsequent Rebel teams won 19 and 17 games, still coming up short of even the substate round. Kickbush and Pierce started as freshmen in 2011-12, when G-R got to the substate finals before falling to Iowa Mennonite School. A 17-win season followed in Jacob's senior season, but North Tama rolled the Rebels on the way to the Redhawks' first state tournament appearance.

A year after being denied on the doorstep of Des Moines, the Rebels were headed to Wells Fargo Arena for the first time.

Joe, already named the NICL West's Most Outstanding Player, was averaging a team-leading 17.7 points per game while breaking G-R's single-season assists record. The Rebels had achieved their dream, and now they wanted more.

"You want to be excited because you want to think something special is going to happen, but you also don't want to jinx it and you want to keep playing like you are and not worry about too much down the road," Joe said, "and I think we did a pretty good job of keeping our heads level."

And then Joe blew the roof off Wells Fargo Arena, dropping six 3-pointers and a game-high 31 points on Nodaway Valley in a 23-point, first-round victory. He got 20 more in a semifinal win against Earlham, and added 10 points in the title game triumph against Maple Valley-Anthon-Oto.

G-R finished 28-0, Joe was voted captain of the all-tournament team, and he broke the school's single-season scoring record. There were no boxes left to check on the to-do list.

Unless you know Joe.

"I worried about [complacency], but I never sensed that from him," said Dan. "He continued working. The expectation's there now."

Back-to-back-to-back

A couple of weeks passed before the AAU season started up again, and Joe was playing with the touted Iowa Barnstormers club. There was a break between AAU commitments in June, and that's when he realized the magnitude of his situation. The Rebels graduated four senior starters, essentially leaving the team in his hands.

"I wanted to show people that I could lead this team too and make this team just as successful," Joe said.

Six games into Joe's junior season, Gladbrook-Reinbeck was beaten by Janesville. Five games later, it lost to Anamosa. The Rebels were not unbeatable, but they still got back to state.

Smoldt averaged 25.3 points per game his junior season, surpassing 1,000 points and eventually the program's career scoring record, but a fourth-place finish wasn't good enough for the sixth-ranked Rebels.

"I felt like I let the team down because I led us to state but we didn't do as much as we needed to at state," Joe said.

Joe scored 35 points in an opening win against Jesup, 33 in a loss to eventual champion South O'Brien, and 19 in a consolation loss to West Hancock. He was named captain of the all-tournament team yet again in spite of G-R's 1-2 showing.

None of it was enough. Gladbrook-Reinbeck had been to the top, and Joe was determined to get his team, his school and his community back there before his prep career was done.

About a month before his senior season began, Joe followed up his verbal commitment to NCAA Division II Upper Iowa University by signing his National Letter of Intent to play for the Peacocks. His post-graduate future was finalized, but he wanted to take with him to Fayette the memories of another state championship season.

The Rebels lost back-to-back games in January to ranked 2A teams Jesup and South Hamilton. Smoldt scored a career-high 42 points - one shy of the school record - against the J-Hawks, and added 24 against the state-bound Hawks.

Gladbrook-Reinbeck didn't lose again until the state title game. Second-ranked Grand View Christian double-teamed No. 20 from the opening tip, jumping out to a 19-2 lead that proved insurmountable. Joe finished with a game-high 25 points, averaged 24.3 in three games at state, and became the first three-time all-tournament team captain. He finished with 2,358 career points - seventh on the all-time list.

A day later, the Iowa Newspaper Association voted him Iowa's Mr. Basketball.

He'd trade it in for one more state title, but nothing less.

"You don't set out to win individual awards," Joe said. "When I was younger, we would go down to state and watch, and I was like, 'yeah, this is something I would love to play in.' I knew that I could make a big impact and be a big-time player in high school if I really worked hard.

"It's obviously something I'm really proud of because I worked really hard. Some people may have doubted me because I'm only 6-feet tall and only play 1A basketball, and that's something I'm really proud of because I think I've proved some people wrong. There's not a better feeling than proving people wrong. But the biggest reason why the awards and the records are so important is because every single one has helped my team be successful. The team really generates those awards. It's my teammates and coaches and everybody who has helped me along the way.

"I'd say I've got a lot of 'thank yous' to give out."

 
 

 

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