Since their third loss last year to eventual state runner-up Start in the district final, the Waite girls basketball team has been all business in its approach to basketball this season.
Now, 12th-year coach Manny May's Indians, ranked sixth in the state, look to close the deal beginning with tomorrow's Division I state semifinal against Kettering Fairmont (22-2) at6 p.m. at Value City Arena in Columbus.
“Looking back over the season, to get to this point where we are now, the kids bought into something last summer,” May said. “After we lost to Start in the district championship game, they took a week off and then went back to work. They never stopped working.
“They bought into a system of being sisters with father figures [coaches] around them.”
If Waite prevails tomorrow, it would meet the winner of the other semifinal — ninth-ranked Canton McKinley (22-3) vs. Reynoldsburg (21-5) — in Saturday's 8:30 p.m. state final.
Of the final four teams, only McKinley has been this far before (1984, 1995 and last year), finishing as runner-up in 1984.
The last state basketball champion from Toledo was the Scott boys team, which won the D-I title in 1990.
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Libbey picked up the last girls title, winning a Class AAA crown in 1981. The only other Toledo girls team to win a title was Woodward, which captured the very first championship in 1976.
The Indians, led by 6-foot-3 All-American senior forward Natasha Howard, accept the challenge and hope they are up to it.
Howard was named Ohio's Ms.Basketball, the first player from northwest Ohio to earn that honor.
The Division I player of the year is averaging 23.6 points, 11.0 rebounds and 4.0 steals per game. With 591 total points this season, she has 1,688 in her career, a record for any Waite player, boy or girl.
What does Howard see as the key factor in her team's success?
“The communication,” she said. “We've been playing together for three to four years now. We've gone to tournaments in the summer, so we have that bond from the summer and all season long.
“We put in the hard work. Last year we were just lackadaisical. This year we wanted to focus on one thing, and that was making it to the states. Everybody put their mind into it and put in the work.
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“Beating Start three times was a good thing, because last year they beat us three times. There was a chip on our shoulder during the whole season, and we put everything into it.”
The Indians have proven to be much more than just Howard, a three-time All-Ohioan. She gets plenty of post help from 6-2 junior Shanice McNeal, a third-year varsity player who has improved greatly this season. McNeal adds 13.2 points and 9.1 rebounds, and forms a formidable front court duo.
“Shanice McNeal has meant a whole lot to this climb,” May said. “She has the back side for Natasha on defense and on offense, she's stepped up on our press and had a lot of steals on the back end, and she's just outright hustle.
“She's the Dennis Rodman of the team. She gets better every week.”
What makes the Indians' 1-2 inside punch even more potent has been the perimeter threat provided by the guard trio of senior third-year startersMiriah Haynes and Courtney Jackson, and junior Brooke Hunt.
This threesome has also been effective with the three-ball, combining for 55 3-point field goals for Waite, which has outscored opponents by an average of 68.3 to 43.6.
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The 5-9 Haynes has scored at an 11.2 clip and pulled down 3.9 rebounds.
“You've got to have the right mind set,” Haynes said. “We've got the talent with Natasha, first of all, and we all have different things we can do.
“We stay together as a team and there's no selfishness. If a player's hot, we feed them the ball. We work together with defense, and the offense just comes for us.”
Haynes believes preparation is crucial.
“Right now, going to state, we have to be mentally ready,” she said. “Not only that, but spiritually as well, because it really does help. You have to stay focused to work hard, especially when we have crucial times in the game where we've got to be smart on the court.”
The 5-7 Jackson has contributed 5.7 points, 3.2 rebounds and a team-high 4.2 assists along with court leadership.
“It's just chemistry,” Jackson said of Waite's success. “When you know where they want the ball, it's going to be easy.
“You've just got to know your teammates. It's been a great season, just working together and building ourselves up. It's great knowing what we're capable of.”
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Jackson and Howard have been friends and teammates since third grade at Pickett Elementary, through Robinson Junior High, and four years at Waite.
“Not many people make it there so for us just to make it there and represent Toledo is good. It's been a long time,” Jackson said of the city's title drought. “We're going to work hard and hopefully we can bring it back.”
Hunt adds 6.5 points and 3.0 assists, and senior Fantasia Combs, junior Jasmine Hamdan and sophomore Catherine Craig have been the most utilized subs.
Waite's rise to prominence under May was not without its low moments. The coach recalls the leaner days when his team won just two games in his first season (1998-99), and was blistered 120-13 in one game by Central Catholic.
But the latter half of May's run has been solid, with the Indians taking three straight City League titles 2005-07 led by three-time CL player of the year Shareese Ulis, who is now playing at the University of Cincinnati.
They added a fourth City crown in six years by beating Start 44-43 in this year's CL final. Waite also won 66-46 in league play, and 54-42 in the D-I district final.
“To beat a team as good as Start three times, with the leadership they had on the floor, is a testament to the seniors we have,” May said “They really wanted to get back and play against them again and prove they were the better team this year. It was like what Yolanda Richardson did for Start last year.”
At the regional, the Indians cruised to wins over Lorain Southview (73-34) and Perrysburg (54-31).
Now, the last barrier is a state title, which would be the first for Waite in any team sport.
The first roadblock is a defensive-minded Fairmont team that has topped foes by a 48-34 average per game.
The Firebirds are paced by 6-2 senior center Cassie Sant, who averages 13.0 points and seven rebounds per game. Senior forwards Holly Carey (7.0 points) and Amanda Turner (4.7 points), senior guard Jessica Beatty (5.2) and freshman guard Chelsea Welch (10.0 points) round 10th-year coach Tim Cogan's starting lineup.
Oddly enough, the last time any Waite squad reached an Ohio High School Athletic Association state semifinal was in 1966, when the baseball team lost in the Class AA semifinals against Kettering Fairmont West.
“It's going to be exciting and fun playing in front of a whole bunch of people,” Howard said. “We want to represent Toledo and show everybody that we can win a state title. It's been a long time.”
Contact Steve Junga at:email@example.com 419-724-6461.