|Nate Howard, right, is long, that's just all there is to it.
Mass-Dartmouth athletics photo
By Brian Lester
Nate Howard not only shined as a basketball player while in high school, but he also happened to be a star on the volleyball court, playing on two state championship teams. And every once in a while, the 7-foot standout center at Keene State still lets his volleyball skills show through while he is playing basketball.
Well, at least according to his coach, Ryan Cain, they are evident.
“We’re still trying to break him of the habit of spiking the ball every time he blocks a shot,” Cain, the interim bench leader of the Owls, said with a laugh. “He’s getting better at it, but we still have some work to do.”
Cain, of course, is joking about the habit, but he is serious when he talks about the impact Howard has made for the Owls, who are gearing up for their first appearance in the Sweet 16 since 2007.
“He is a terrific center and his presence on both ends of the floor is a big part of our success,”
Cain said. “He has great ability at tracking down the ball, whether it’s rebounding, blocking a shot or going after a loose ball. If there is a loose ball, he’s the first person to dive for it, which is something you don’t see that often for a guy his size.”
It may surprise some that an athlete the size of Howard isn’t at a scholarship school showcasing his basketball talent.
It wasn’t that he didn’t get interest from bigger schools, however.
“I got a few D-I offers but I didn’t think they were the best fit for me,” Howard said. “I like the campus here and I play with a great group of players. It’s a lot of fun and I’ve been able to accomplish a lot.”
Howard, averaging 10.3 points and 9.7 rebounds per outing, is having one of the best seasons of his career, particularly from a defensive standpoint. The all-time leader in blocks at the school has swatted away 73 shots this year, the most in a season in his career.
“The big thing I focus on is protecting the rim,” Howard said. “I like to make an impact on defense. I also feel like I’ve improved on my post moves and I’m making plays I didn’t make early in my career.”
Cain said Howard’s style of play sets the tone for his team’s defensive effort as a whole.
“It gives the other guys an opportunity to play more aggressive,” Cain said. “Every team at this point has great knock-down shooters and a stud wing player, but we can be aggressive guarding them because we know if someone puts the ball on the floor, Nate is there to protect the basket.”
It’s hard to miss the presence of Howard, who seems to be playing his best at the right time of the year.
The Owls certainly got two solid performances from their star center in the opening two rounds of the tournament as they won a pair of thrillers, edging Stockton 72-71 in overtime before defeating Middlebury 74-72.
Against Stockton, Howard scored nine points, grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked six shots, including a jumper by Marcus Harmon with five seconds remaining.
In the win over Middlebury, which avenged an 83-74 regular-season loss, Howard finished with 14 points, nine rebounds and four blocks.
The fact that he is a senior has fueled his motivation to play his best.
“I feel like I’ve had a pretty good tournament so far and I’m playing every game like it’s my last,” Howard said. “I’m trying hard to make sure the next game isn’t my last game.”
The line on Howard
Nate Howard had a couple of pretty good games for Keene State in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, particularly in terms of rebounding and shot-blocking.
The Owls could have easily fallen in either of the first two rounds. In fact, Howard missed a pair of free throws with 20 seconds left against the Panthers.
“I was a little nervous after I missed them,” Howard said. “But I had faith in my teammates.”
Cain was confident his team would come through in the pressure-packed moment even after it missed out on a chance to extend the lead. The Owls forced the Panthers into three missed shots in the closing moments of the game.
“I wasn’t nervous because we pride ourselves on playing great defense,” Cain said.
Cain said his team also takes pride in refusing to quit even when the odds are seemingly stacked against it. Take for instance the game against Stockton when Keene State trailed 61-57 with a little over a minute left in regulation.
“We didn’t even blink an eye. We never doubted ourselves for one second,” Cain said. “Our guys have shown a lot of character all year and even when we are down, we believe we can get back in it. We know that when we play up to our potential, we can accomplish anything.”
Cain is a former standout at WPI and played in the Sweet 16 in 2005. He can relate to the thrill his team is experiencing as it continues its run through the tournament and noted that being mentally ready for the next game is crucial. That next game is Friday night against Christopher Newport at Oswego State.
Howard can’t wait to play and is ready to do what he can to keep the Owls alive on the tourney trail.
“Playing in two close games already (in the tournament) really helped our confidence and we know it’s a matter of being ready to play our best,” Howard said. “It’s an amazing feeling to still be playing. We don’t want it to end.”