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Published: Thursday, 3/18/2010

Waite's Howard first player from NW Ohio to win state's top award

FROM BLADE STAFF AND NEWS SERVICES

COLUMBUS - Ask Waite's Natasha Howard what fans will witness when she leads her team into the state semifinals this week, and she doesn't hesitate.

"The best player that they will see," she said, half insulted by the question.

She already is the best player in the state. Howard is the 2010 Associated Press Ms. Basketball in Ohio, as voted by a state media panel.

Howard is the first northwest Ohio player to be named Ms. Basketball.

Toledo has had two boys players selected as Ohio's Mr. Basketball - Jim Jackson of Macomber (1988 and 1989, the first two years of the award) and William Buford of Libbey (2008).

Everyone who knows Howard says she's soft-spoken, humble, and unselfish - the last person who might trumpet how good she is. Yet when it comes to the court, she's clearly confident in her abilities.

The 6-foot-3 senior, who has signed to play next season at Florida State, backed it up with stats. She averaged 24.7 points, 11 rebounds, and 2.6 assists during the regular season. She has guided the Indians (23-2) to the school's first visit to the girls state tournament. They play tomorrow in the Division I semifinals against Kettering Fairmont at Ohio State's Value City Arena.

"It means a lot to me after all the hard work I put in and all the camps I went to," Howard said. "It's kind of paying off for me now."

"I thank all of our coaching staff for helping me put in the work I needed to get better as a player," Howard said, "and I thank my teammates for helping me out on the court.''

Her coach, Manny May, said she can play anywhere from point guard to post. He gets winded listing the ways she can win a game.

"She's unselfish. She does everything that's required of a basketball player. Her game speaks for itself," he said. "She reminds me of Magic Johnson. She can play, can handle the ball, can score, and can pass it off for a layup. Plus, she's very coachable."

The first time he saw her play, he remembers she was just another beanpole kid who could dominate against other seventh graders simply because she was taller. But he also noticed she had some athletic ability and was smooth for a kid her age. Within a year, he invited her to come along with an AAU team he coached that was playing in Atlanta. It was an eye-opener for her.

"The other kids were all older than she was, and they were putting it on her," May recalled. "They'd say, 'You've got no meat on your bones! You're good, but you've got to get bigger and stronger and better.'•"

She apparently took their advice to heart. Howard, raised by a single mother along with an older sister and a younger brother and sister, just played basketball because she was good at it the first couple of years.

"I didn't like it at all," she said. "But then I got into junior high, and I started living the game."

Howard became committed and gradually became a dominant player.

As good as she is on offense, with silky moves around the rim, she's more of a weapon in Waite's lethal pressing defense.

"I like to play on the press and make the other team have to throw the ball over me," she said. "It's hard for them to pass the ball over my head because I'm pretty tall."

Howard has a 2.5 grade-point average. She chose Florida State, she said, because they had her best interests in mind both academically and athletically.

She also has lofty goals. She'd like to eventually play professional basketball. Even if that doesn't pan out, she'd like to become an entrepreneur.

"I want to own my own business," she said. "Like an athletics business - designing my own shoes and clothes."

If she becomes the next Venus or Serena Williams with her own line of apparel, odds are it will be the best people ever see.

"It's a tribute to all the hard work she did over her career," May said of Howard's award. "It paid off for her at this juncture in her life, and the teammates that surround her will share in this award. To accomplish this, they made sure she did what she needed to do on the floor as well as off the floor.

"I'm proud of her because of the way she is as a person. She is meek and mild, but she has confidence in herself and in her teammates. This award represents what kind of a person she is and has been for four years at Waite High School."

She will receive a plaque in the shape of Ohio.

Others considered for the award included Ally Malott of Middletown Madison, South Euclid Regina's Tay'ler Mingo, Twinsburg's Malina Howard, Hannah Robertson of New Albany, and Dayton Chaminade-Julienne's Samarie Walker.

Blade sports writer Steve Junga contributed to this report.



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