April 6, 2013

All-Area Girls Basketball Team: Maddie Howell's evolution includes another big honor

Howell was a defensive worker and a spot-up 3-point shooter as McCurty dominated the paint, Rector guided the team and Besley was the over-achiever with a knack for the ball. But Howell didn’t stay in the shadows long.

Over the course of her final two seasons with the Lady Catamounts, Howell went from sharing the spotlight with Chandler McKinney — the other starter from the state-title game team — in her junior year to becoming the area’s most complete player as a senior. Even more amazing was the fact that Howell played most of the season in intense pain after suffering an ankle injury in the first month of the season.

Nothing, though, was going to keep her off the floor for her senior year.

“I had to adjust because I was in so much pain, but I just love the game and wasn’t going to let it stop me,” Howell said. “I could play through and handle the pain.”

Even with the pain, she was one of the state’s best. Howell was a unanimous selection as the Region 7-4A Player of the Year by the region’s coaches, and she was honored as a Class 4A All-State first team selection by The Atlanta Journal-Constitu-tion. She adds another honor today as The Daily Citizen’s 2012-13 All-Area Girls Basketball Player of the Year.

“I was surprised when I was named to the All-State team and all of the other awards,” Howell said. “I am very honored about it. I am very blessed. I have to give all of the glory to God.”

Howell is joined on this year’s first team by the Northwest Whitfield duo of Halle Ford and Autumn Blackwell, Southeast Whitfield’s Megan Collins and North Mur-ray’s Erin Robinson. The team is chosen by the sports staff of The Daily Citizen with input from area coaches.

Howell’s story has been one of transformation over the past four years, but the one constant for her has been her enjoyment of the team. Whether she was merely the last name on the starting lineup or the first thing opposing coaches had to defend against, Howell saw everything as team first.

“It was great memories and I developed close relationships because of what I was able to do through basketball,” Howell said. “I will be really sad next year. I think teamwork plays a big part of it. You have to be able to communicate and listen to others. The pressure helps you grow and overcome things. It helps you to become a stronger person.”

Pressure was certainly something built on top of Howell coming into this season. Her main scoring partner from the 2011-12 season was gone, and her production in a junior season that saw her named to the All-Area first team was expected to become even more dominant. The 5-foot, 9-inch do-it-all player averaged 17 points per game and 9.4 rebounds as a junior. The expectations were even bigger this year.

And while the production remained basically the same with 19.5 points per game and eight rebounds, there were other de-mands as well. Dalton head coach Jeff Mc-Kinney said no matter what was asked of her, Howell delivered.

“She just wants to win,” McKinney said. “She would fill whatever role was needed if that is what it took for us to win. She was more vocal this year. She has always been on a leader on the floor, but she was more vocal with her teammates and even with talking to me this year.

“Maddie scored for us, rebounded the ball, handled the ball and played great de-fense,” McKinney said. “There wasn’t a hole in her game.”

Howell said she was anxious to fill a bigger role on the team this year.

“I just played my game and tried to bring all of my teammates together,” she said. “I have always been a leader by action, and this year I had to learn how to be a vocal leader. I don’t like to yell or anything like that. I just play my game and it all will come together, but there was a lot more communication on my part this year.”

Opposing coaches have seen the evolution in Howell’s game as well. Northwest Whitfield coach Greg Brown was an assistant and junior varsity coach when Howell began playing high school ball. The past two seasons, he has gone up against Howell as a head coach.

“She went from a role player to a pretty good player and into a great player,” Brown said. “The most impressive thing about her is she never forced anything. She just played and you would have never realized she had 18 or 20 points. Our defensive game plan all centered around her. She really put them on her back and really carried them. She is so versatile and tough to guard. She did a great job rebounding. She did everything you could ask for them.”

Part of her drive in her final season came from the way her junior year ended. The Lady Catamounts were one of the top seeds in the region tournament last year after going undefeated in sub-region play, but Gilmer toppled Dalton in the first round of the region tournament, denying the team a return to the state playoffs.

“I had a lot of motivation, and I had a little vengeance sort of come into it,” she said. “Last year was such an upset with the way it ended. We had a lot of heart this season, and we really gelled together and made it back to the playoffs.”

Howell said before this season she never really considered playing basketball in college and instead thought she would be a regular college student. But with the avalanche of postseason awards rolling in, she began to reconsider. While she said nothing was set in stone, she is still exploring her collegiate options and would like to major in speech language pathology.

“I probably started too late, but I started getting those awards and thought maybe I could play at college,” she said.

Here is the rest of this year’s first team:

Megan Collins, Southeast: No one player was more responsible for a complete turnaround from a program than Collins was for the Lady Raiders this year.

Along with a new coach in Mike Durham, Collins led Southeast to 15 victories and a third-place finish in Sub-region 7B-4A this season after winning just one game during her junior year. She did it by becoming the area’s top scorer and rebounder, averaging a double-double for the year with 17 points and 11 rebounds per game. During the season, she reached a career milestone with her 1,000th point.

Collins is also one of the most complete athletes the area has ever produced. She was named the 2012 All-Area Volleyball Player of the Year, and captured the Spring Female Athlete of the Year after winning the region championship in golf during her sophomore year. In her high school career, she has been named to various All-Area first teams on six different occasions with the spring team yet to be announced.

This is Collins’ second year in a row on the first team.

Autumn Blackwell, Northwest: The old joke surrounding basketball hall-of-famer Michael Jordan was that only person who could have held Jordan under 20 points was his college coach Dean Smith because of the style of play Smith used at North Carolina. Northwest coach Greg Brown laughed, but the same could be said about Blackwell and the style of play the Lady Bruins use.

“She was our best offensive player and the best offensive player we have had in six years, and that is saying a lot when you think of some of our players in the past,” Brown said. “She could have averaged 20 to 25 points per game, but that is not our style of offense. She could create and share and is a very solid all-around player.”

Despite the Lady Bruins’ share-around style, Blackwell still made a big individual impact. She averaged 12 points and 2.9 steals per game from her guard position. She was the team’s leading scorer on a team where “balance” is less a cliché and more a stated reality. More than a scorer, though, Blackwell’s 5.5 rebounds per game from the guard spot led the team.

“It was funny because her rebounding picked up in the second half,” Brown said. “She is super quick and super athletic. She is always around the ball, and she is a good passer. She doesn’t get a lot of credit for that, but she really has a good all-around game, and her best basketball is in front of her.”

This is Blackwell’s first selection to the first team

Halle Ford, Northwest: In an area where seemingly every team uses full-court, pressure defense, having a capable point guard isn’t just a luxury. It is a prerequisite for success. Ford, a junior, fit the bill well for the Lady Bruins.

Much like Blackwell, Ford could be one of the most dominant scorers in the area, but that wasn’t what she was asked to be. She still managed 9 points per game, but her 4 assists and 3.3 steals in each outing were even more important. She shot better than 30 percent from behind the 3-point line, and she was always in charge of the Lady Bruins’ offense, rarely coming out of the game unless she was in foul trouble which wasn’t often.

“There is no doubt about her leadership,” Brown said. “She was a returning starter coming in and I knew we would have to lean on her at times this year. She led by example, especially in tight situations. She either made the play or made the shot or made the key pass that made the play.”

Her play this season was a big reason why the Lady Bruins finished second in the region and made a return to the state playoffs after a two-year absence.

“Whether it was defensively making a big steal or breaking the press and setting up our offense or just running that offense, she did so much,” Brown said. “When your point guard is that way and you have that much confidence in them, that proved how valuable she is.”

Erin Robinson, North Murray: Since McCurty’s graduation, a true post player has been lacking in the area. And even though she is still a little undersized at 6-1, North Murray’s sophomore post is undeniably the best “back-to-the-basket” player in the area.

As part of a four-player rotation in the block for the Lady Mountaineers, Robinson’s numbers lack pop in that she averaged just 9.4 points, 7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game. But she had the ability to work to the hoop in either direction, and when you consider that he playing time is cut a lot given the players coach Keith Robinette rotated in the block, her value increases.

“I’ve got several posts that have developed well, but Erin definitely stepped up her game this year,” Robinette said. “Her understanding of the game really helped her, and she was a dominant force. She is on an AAU team in Atlanta and she will have several opportunities to develop. She is 6-1 and has that post mentality. She blocked more shots, increased her rebounds, but she still has a lot of improvement to go, and it should be fun to watch as she just gets better and better.”

That is the biggest upside for Robinson, and Robinette intends on using her full talents next season.

“If we weren’t such a balanced team, she might average a lot better numbers,” Robinette said. “It may be that way next year with us losing two of our post players. You might actually have a good inclination of what we are planning on doing with her next year.”

Honorable Mention: Christian Heritage — Rebecca Leonard (Sr., G), Sarah Massengale (So., P), Alexis Poag (Jr., G); Coahulla Creek — Macey Fossett (So., F); Dalton — Brooke Thomas (Sr., G), Taylor Behr (Sr., G);  North Murray — Abigail Bradley (Sr., G), Hannah Hensley (Sr., F), Meagan Spivey (Sr., P), Casey Chapman (Sr., G); Northwest Whitfield — Kaitlin Wade (Sr., F); Southeast Whitfield — Tavi Parris (Sr., G), Crickett Wyatt (So., F).

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