Natasha Howard, left, of Waite High School is the All-Blade girl's player of the year.
In a sporting world that often overflows with unwarranted hyperbole, occasionally there is an athlete whose performance justifiably inspires folks to pull out their bag of superlatives.
Just halfway through her high school basketball career, 6-foot-3 Waite sophomore standout Natasha Howard - a soft spoken and unassuming teenager - is one of those athletes.
Howard is The Blade's 2008 girls player of the year, following in the footsteps of her 2006-07 teammate, Shareese Ulis, who received this honor in 2006 and last year.
Notre Dame coach Rhett Boyd had already admired Howard's talent from previous games with Waite, but was driven to praise her after the Indians topped his Eagles inthe City League semifinals.
"Mark it down now and put it in stone," Boyd said. "She's the most talented player I've ever seen come out of this area. She's as good as I've ever seen."
CL girls coach of the year Roger Achter of Clay knows a thing or two about talented athletes. He and twin brother Rod are each in Clay's hall of fame for their three-sport exploits, and Roger's daughter, Kate, is a senior point guard at Bowling Green State University.
Roger didn't struggle to find words for Howard.
"She has more talent than any [girls] player we've ever had in this area," he said.
And then there's Steve Pfahler, the coach of perennial CL power Central Catholic, which this year beat Waite for the City and Division I district titles. He has won more games than any girls coach in league history.
"Natasha Howard is probably as good a player as I've seen at such a young age," Pfahler said. "She's long, she's athletic and she can do it all - handle the ball, play defense, shoot, everything.
"She's a load to prepare for. And it's scary to think about what she could be in the future. But the best thing about her is that she's a very humble kid, and I really respect her for that."
Howard's basketball beginnings were a struggle, but not for long.
"I started playing basketball in the fourth grade," she said. "I was 10 years old at Pickett Elementary. I wasn't good at first. I had to practice and practice.
"My uncle [Greg Howard] was helping me out because I didn't know how to play. He helped on my jump shot and dribbling. He still helps me out at the YMCA sometimes."
Howard hones her skills with a busy offseason basketball schedule. That work has paid dividends.
"It comes easy to me now," Howard said. "I feel blessed. God gave me this height and everything else I needed to play basketball.
"I want to be a good leader and a play a good role. I don't try to do everything on my own. I try to fit in with my teammates. It's hard to do both at the same time."
Aside from the visual evidence of Howard's grace on a basketball court, the numbers support the wow factor she often creates. Like when she soars high to snare a rebound with one hand, dribbles coast to coast through traffic, and finishes with a layup an instant later.
In her last five games this season, which included the CL playoffs and three state tournament games, Howard posted 28 points and 19 rebounds against Notre Dame, then 22 and 14, respectively. In the City final against Central, she hit 17 and 10 in three quarters against St. Ursula, 20 and 12 versus Start in the district semis, and 22 and 20 in a 65-64 district final loss to Central.
That five-game run averaged out to 21.8 points and 15 rebounds. And those are just points and rebounds. The blocked-shot threat and intimidation factor in general are more difficult to measure but no less valuable.
For the season, Howard's marks of 17.6 points and 12 rebounds topped the City League. As a freshman she was first in scoring and second in rebounding when she garnered All-Blade honors and was All-City and all-district.
The numbers are deceivingly low considering coach Manny May's use of the entire roster in most games, and the fact that Waite played one of the state's most challenging nonleague schedules. Included were the likes of perennial state powers Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame, South Eucild Regina and Columbus Africentric.
"She's 6-3 and she's phenomenal," May said. "She's probably one of the best players in this city for a long time. When other coaches prepare for us, they have to prepare for Natasha in the paint, and you also have to prepare for her bringing the ball down the floor and being outside shooting the jump shot.
"That makes everybody else around her better, because she can kick the ball back to her teammates for open jump shots or layups. She commands a double team and sometimes triple team down in the post."
May has also been impressed by Howard's willingness to learn.
"She's very coachable," he said. "She's still growing up. What I like is that she's a sophomore and she's not trying to mature too fast. She's taking it slow and enjoying the moment. She's always treated everybody the same, and she doesn't want anybody to treat her any different.
"She could lead our team to a state championship if she puts her mind to it, gets her teammates to buy into it, and does what she needs to do."
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