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Published: Tuesday, 2/16/2010

Waite, Start matchups electrify city league

BY STEVE JUNGA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Question: How do you top a matchup of the decade?

Answer: Have a second one, and maybe even a third one, all within four weeks.

When the Waite girls basketball team hosted defending City League champion and Division I state runner-up Start at the Grant Murray Field House on Feb. 3, there was a buzz of anticipation courtside as the opening tipoff approached.

Most of a sellout crowd of more than 2,800 had packed into the Indians' home gym to see two of Toledo's best-ever girls teams square off. The visiting Spartans entered ranked No. 2 in Ohio, Waite at No. 6.

The game was televised live locally on BCSN, and college coaches from Florida State, Clemson, West Virginia, and Cincinnati were seated courtside.

"I was watching [the college coaches], and they could hardly believe it," longtime Waite athletic director Bob Utter said. "They were taking pictures of the stands with their cell phones because they really couldn't believe, for a regular-season game, the amount of people who came to watch.

"It reminded me of when Jim Jackson played at Macomber, and they played all of their games away and everybody was following them. That's the kind of crowd it was."

The starring role was Waite's superbly talented 6 foot, 3 inch senior, Natasha Howard, a two-time All-Ohioan who is headed for Florida State and who is generally regarded as the best female prep player Toledo ever has produced. She would not disappoint, leading the Indians with 21 points and 17 rebounds in a surprisingly comfortable 66-46 Waite win.

For the season, Howard is averaging 25.3 points and 11.2 rebounds per game. She had 37 points and 21 rebounds Thursday in a 64-37 win over Whitmer and 21 and 10 in a loss to Michigan powerhouse Detroit Country Day.

"The atmosphere at the school was phenomenal," Utter said. "The kids and the faculty and the community all got into it. There were fans there from all the different schools, and just basketball fans who wanted to see a good game. I think they got that."

In his 12th year as Waite's head coach, Manny May has overseen the climb of the Indians' program from a City League doormat into a bona fide league and state power. Led by three-time CL girls player of the year Shareese Ulis, Waite won three straight CL titles (2005-07). The Indians have been City runner-up the past two seasons. In 2006, they became the league's first public-school girls team to reach a regional in 21 years. This team might be May's best yet.

"It was electric," May said of the Feb. 3 experience. "We haven't had a crowd close to that since Shareese Ulis was here and we played Scott [for the 2006 CL title]. It was the place to be, and the atmosphere was a coach's dream.

"Both teams had a lot of fans. It was exciting and fun to be a part of that. It was one of the high points in my career. The girls rose to the occasion pretty well. They were pumped up and ready to play, but they didn't let their emotions get too high. They just went out at an even keel and executed the game plan."

Howard had plenty of support from her teammates, especially from Waite's next wave of basketball talent - juniors Shanice McNeal, a 6-2 forward (18 points, nine rebounds), and Brooke Hunt, a quick 5-5 guard (16 points, six rebounds, six assists).

"It was an opportunity for your hard-core basketball fans to see not only Natasha play, but some other girls who are also very good players," Utter said. "Natasha has that reputation of being one of the top two or three players in the country, and then you have Start - with the great [tournament] run they made last year, having everybody back except for Yolanda Richardson, and their great reputation as one of the top teams in the state.

"Both programs have played great schedules the last few years and have been shooting for the top. It all came together."

Start, which had completed the most challenging nonleague schedule ever tackled by a City League girls team, was not up to the task on this night. Slowed by the flu earlier in the week, Start's Ohio State-bound junior guard Maleeka Kynard was limited to nine points. Plus, the Spartans' next-most-productive player, 5 foot, 10 inch sophomore guard Jaymie Jackson, hit the bench for the rest of the first half after drawing two early fouls, then left for good midway in the third quarter after sustaining a shoulder injury. She had but four points after scoring 27 two nights earlier in a 60-50 CL win over Notre Dame.

Those are the facts from that game. But the impact of the event was more significant.

It was the largest crowd ever to watch a girls basketball game at a City League facility, and it served notice on the growth of the sport's female version in Toledo, which has had a statewide reputation for top-level boys basketball. Further, it displayed the resurgence of public-school girls basketball.

When Start reached the D-I state championship game in March, the Spartans were the first Toledo Public Schools girls team to reach the state's final four since Libbey won the Class AAA championship in 1981. Woodward had won the first girls Class AAA state title in 1976.

Since that time only Central Catholic (five times), most recently in 2008, reached state from the City League girls' ranks.

"If you would have asked me 10 years ago if that would've ever happened," Utter said of the Feb. 3 atmosphere, "I would've said 'No way.' Not just for Waite, but girls basketball has come so far.

"You probably have to credit [girls head coach] Steve Pfahler and Central Catholic. Back then, they were beating everybody so bad, in my opinion, he made everybody else get better or they were going to keep whupping on you."

If Waite (16-2, 11-0) beats Central (10-8, 8-3) in tonight's 6:30 p.m. CL playoff semifinal at Waite, and Start (15-3, 10-1) in turn tops Notre Dame (15-3, 9-2) in the 8:30 semifinal, the table will be set for another Indians-Spartans showdown in Saturday's 3 p.m. City championship game at Waite.

"We've got to play Central, and they've got to play Notre Dame," May said. "If we both take care of business, it'll be electric again because everybody will be anticipating the second matchup.

"I think our kids will step up and play hard, and I think Start will step up and play hard." With state tournament play starting with sectionals next week, Waite and Start could meet once more in the Division I district championship on March 6 at 7 p.m. at Perrysburg High School.

Contact Steve Junga at:

sjunga@theblade.com

or 419-724-6461.



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