LONDON — With 63 percent of his team’s offense graduating from last season, South Laurel coach Chris Souder knew it was important to have Bree Howard returning this season.
During her junior campaign, Howard had been known more for her outside shooting, but with the trio of Ally Collett, Amerah Steele, and Sydnie Hall graduating, Souder admitted having Howard return was crucial for his team.
“Bree had more big-game experience than anyone on our team and there is no replacement for experience,” he said. “Being the lone senior is really tough because until you are a senior, you don't understand the sense of urgency you all of a sudden have. Also, trying to recreate or match what we did last year is a tough spot to be in. Bree and I have had several meetings about how to lead and how to win the locker room.”
When game-time approached this season, the competitiveness of both Souder and Howard showed during games.
“Bree and I definitely have a love/hate relationship,” Souder laughed. “Bree is a very tough-minded young lady and I love that about her but it sometimes gets her in trouble. Bree isn't afraid to speak her mind and sometimes her timing isn’t the best, but at the end of the day, she knows I am going to do whatever it takes to push her to the max and drag every ounce of what she has out of her.
“She also knows as hard as I am on here, I will always have her back," he added. "I guess to explain our relationship the best she says after she gets her college degree she is going to come back and coach with me! That would not surprise me one bit! I put a lot on Bree's plate during games so when things are not going too well, I usually go straight to her to try and fix them. That also comes with the territory of being the lone senior and the most experienced player. Bree definitely keeps me on my toes during practices and games.”
Souder admitted a lot of positives have come out of Howard being 'tough-minded'.
“Her strengths are definitely her toughness,” he said. “She doesn't care to sacrifice her body and is literally not afraid of anyone or anything. Bree has really grown during the course of the season in terms of leadership. The (region) championship game was proof of how much she really has matured. She struggled in the semis and our conversations leading up to the championship night, she promised me that she will have her head straight and be ready. Boy, was she ever.
“She also asked to call a crucial timeout late in the championship game before she shot the most important free throws of her life because she was a little fatigued,” Souder added. “In the past, she would have just shot the free throws and maybe missed because she was afraid to admit to me she was tired. Few would notice that type of growth but I certainly noticed and appreciated it.”
Howard’s improved play has paid dividends for her and teammates during the 13th Region Girls Tournament. She played a huge role in South Laurel's 63-57 win over North Laurel in Monday's title game.
“Her play coming into the regional tournament was really crucial to us making a serious run,” Souder admitted. “In the regional championship after the first three minutes of the game, we felt like Bree controlled the tempo of the game for us offensively. Her ball-handling and decision-making down the stretch were huge and I think that is where her big game experience really took over for her.
“Bree also knocked down crucial free throws that iced the game,” he added. “Bree missed some free throws in an early-season loss to Whitley County and the growth and maturity I spoke of early, really allowed her to learn from and not let happen again. She even admitted that crept into her mind as she was getting ready to shoot those free throws and that she would not let that happen again.”
Souder said he expects Howard to continue to lead the way when South Laurel faces-off against Franklin County in first-round action of the KHSAA Girls’ Sweet 16 next week.
“All she needs to do is be Bree,” he said. “Don't try and do too much and allow the game to come to her. She has earned this championship, so be that tough kid and be the toughest she can be, and her team will follow.”