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Toledo, Ohio & Lake Erie

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The 23-2 Waite girls basketball team left for Columbus March 18 to face 22-2

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Kettering Fairmont in a Division I state final four semifinal after rocking Perrysburg 54-31 for the Norwalk regional crown.

“We’re ready to handle whatever comes our way,” said coach Manny May prior to his team’s departure.

The Indians left for Value City Arena in the immediate wake of senior 6-3 forward Natasha Howard officially becoming Ms. Ohio Basketball — awarded to the state’s top ladies high school player.

The Florida State-bound Howard (23.6 pts., 11 reb., 2.6 asst., 4.1 steals) is the first girl from Lucas County to earn the prestigious distinction. Prior to her, only Libbey’s William Buford (2008) and Macomber’s Jim Jackson (1988, 1989) brought the state’s best prep player status to Toledo.

“She’s been putting in the hard work and it’s starting to pay off for her,” May said of Howard’s latest achievement. As a McDonald’s All-American, she might just wind up as the national player of the year.

“She’s a kind and respectful kid who loves to do good things for her teammates and other people.”

In the meantime, May was tabbed the D-I co-coach of the year along with Fairmont’s Tim Cogan.

“Hats off to my coaching staff and all the good people in my life for helping me become successful,” May offered.

This is the Lady Indians’ first venture to the state final four, but the stars seemed aligned for them to finish the ultimate task and bring back their first state title to Northwest Ohio.

Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame had built a five-year dynasty at the top of D-I girls pyramid, including defeating Start in the 2009 state final, but did not even make it to Columbus this season.

Waite and Fairmont were making their respective first trips, as is Columbus-area Reynoldsburg, which knocked off top-ranked Pickerington North to advance. Canton McKinley faced Reynoldsburg in its fourth final four appearance and second consecutive.

Waite faced Fairmont in the first semi with the Bulldogs (23-3) and Raiders (21-5) slated second, and then the winners faced each other in the state title contest March 20.

SportsTime Ohio provided live televised broadcast of the title game.

With four public schools left vying for the state crown, D-I was assured of its first non-private school titlist for the first time since Beavercreek (Greater Western Ohio Conference) won in 2003.

Also hailing from the GWOC, the Dayton-area Firebirds were no flash in the pan. 10th-year Coach Cogan had amassed an impressive 122-25 mark with Fairmont over the past seven seasons, including this year’s 22-2 squad. They knocked on the final four door in the Southwest regional five times in that span, but didn’t get the answer until now. It was always Mount Notre Dame owning that bracket.

A University of Dayton recruit, senior 6-2 post Cassie Sant is a dominant force inside whom Howard and junior 6-2 Shanice McNeal knew they had to do battle with at both ends of the court.

A freshman, point guard Chelsea Welch has May’s respect, too.

“They’ve got an outstanding post player and their freshman point guard can get the ball up court real nicely,” he said. “(The Firebirds) are outstanding both offensively and defensively).”

Senior 5-7 guards Jessica Beatty and Amanda Turner average five points apiece and junior Holly Carey plays a strong wing role for the Firebirds.

But May said his girls are as prepared as they’ve been all season with five days of practice centered on focus and calm.

“We’ve been practicing like normal just getting prepared for our next opponent,” he said. “We’ve been concentrating on making sure we’re fine-tuned.”

And the Indians were planning to stick with what got them this far.

“Our plan is to do what we do, play good offense and good defense and push the ball up-tempo,” May said. “We need to shoot good free throws.”

Howard, McNeal, seniors Mariah Haynes (11.2 pts., 3.9 reb.) Courtney Jackson (5.7 pts.,, 3.2 reb., team-high 4.2 asst.) and junior point guard Brooke Hunt (6.5 pts., 3.5 asst.) may have gotten some serious Hoosiers-esque butterflies once they entered into Value City Arena and realized just how huge the biggest stage really is.

The D-I co-coach of the year said he knew exactly what to tell them.

“I’ll just tell them to take it easy and stay relaxed,” May pointed out prior to leaving, “and that they need to remember the dynamics of the court are no different in Columbus than they are in Toledo.”

If everything fell into to place and Waite hosted the state title hardware Saturday night, May said it could have a huge impact on the current crisis in Toledo where the school board has threatened to cut out all athletics and numerous other extracurricular programs as a method to decrease or eliminate a $30 million budget deficit.

“I think us winning the state title would electrify the city and the east side and bring it closer together,” May said. “It would electrify the elections and bring about a different atmosphere to NW Ohio in the face of a downtime economically and socially here right row.”

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