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Fabulous freshman: Natahnee Spencer

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LAPWAI, Idaho – Natahnee Spencer has begun her basketball career in storybook fashion. Her freshman year at Lapwai High School was one that young girls, or boys, dream of having.

Perhaps the only negative was losing the state championship by two points, 61-59, following the team finishing first in Idaho the year before. I asked Natahnee, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe, how well she had done in that final game. Her response was a quiet, modest, “I did okay.” Pressed further and asked how many points she had scored, her answer was again a quiet, “29.” In that game she also set the Idaho state record for most free throws attempted in a game – 20, of which she made 14.

That performance capped a remarkable season and led to her being selected as the “Player of the Year” for girls in 1A Division 1 basketball in Idaho. “It’s a great honor,” she said.

She also received an invitation to attend the prestigious Nike basketball camp May 1 – 2 in Oregon City, Ore. And if that wasn’t enough for a girl still in her freshman year, she was Sports Illustrated Kids’ SportsKid of the Month for May.

Coach of the Lapwai Lady Wildcats, or simply “Lady Cats,” is Shawn Spencer. He is also Natahnee’s father and speaking as her coach said, “For her age I think she has a really high basketball I.Q. She can distribute the ball, can score and plays defense. She kind of knows basketball situations.”

Speaking as coach and dad, he said, “This is a big honor to have the other coaches vote her as player of the year. She’s worked hard at it and been in the gym since she was about two.”

Rebecca Miles is the assistant coach. “When I began coaching with Shawn, Natahnee was just little, 6 or 7. I remember her coming to every single practice and even at that age she could run the court and do all the drills, especially the conditioning, as good or better than any of the top girls he had on the gym floor at that time. We’ve all been waiting to see her finally become a freshman. She has a lot of natural talent but a lot is just hard work and determination. Her work ethic is very hard to find in an athlete.

“It’s just been amazing to watch and see her as such a freshman. It’s going to be amazing to see what she will accomplish. Lapwai has so many high expectations. I’m looking forward to her growing and maturing as a leader now too.”

Miles has been deeply involved with the Nez Perce Tribe, having served on the council, and now as the executive director, represented the tribe at the White House, in court, but she says her great love is working with the young women on the basketball team. “If it paid a livable wage I would just do that because that’s how enjoyable it is. This group of girls is just fantastic. They have a basketball team I.Q. better than anybody right now.”

Athletic Director Mary Lynn Walker echoed many of her comments. “From the time she was two she had a ball in her hands – always. She was the manager when she was in elementary and middle school and did the drills with them and the practices. She certainly has had the opportunity to develop her skills over the years.”

I asked coach Spencer if he could recall any other freshmen girls ever having won the Player of the Year award. He wasn’t sure if there had been more than one other. Her name was Jaci McCormack, daughter of Joseph “Esky” and Marge McCormack, and the older sister of Natahnee. Jaci went on to a stellar career at Illinois State University.

Natahnee is still too young to worry about college but coach Spencer said, “She wants to go to the next level. We’ll wait and see what happens. She’s already getting colleges interested and questionnaires in the mail. There’s the concern that she plays at a small school but we play non-league games with bigger schools, 5A, 4A, and some 2A schools. Our non-league schedule is pretty aggressive.”

“She’s a good student and that makes a big difference,” Walker said. “She’s a nice girl. She’s a total package kid, she really is.”