Leading by Example : Nakase Delivers Big Things Despite Her Small Stature


There is no formula to determine who should be player of the year. One can't just input points, rebounds and assists into a software program and get a printout with a name.

Sure, statistics go into it. But there are other things too. Intangible things. Choosing a player of the year after the basketball season is something one just knows.

And this year, one should know it's Natalie Nakase.

At 5 feet 1, Nakase is one of the county's smallest players.

She is also its biggest.

Today, she is The Times Orange County player of the year.

A point guard who played four years at Marina, Nakase's level of play brought team success. With her at point guard, Marina went 89-25 (.781). Playing in the perennially tough Sunset League, the Vikings have gone 28-12, including a 9-1 record this season, and won two league titles.

And even though there have been some fine players alongside her, Nakase never has shied away from trying to lead despite her stature.

No time was that more evident than this past season, when she led Marina (28-5) to the Southern Section Division I-A championship. If there was anyone who doubted her credentials as the county's outstanding performer before the semifinal game against Ventura Buena, there could be no doubters after.

Nakase scored 18 points and helped Marina to its first title game. But there was so much more:

* She made a three-point play that gave Marina the lead, helping spark a 21-point run that essentially decided the outcome.

* On Marina's next four possessions, Nakase had three assists (accounting for seven points). Five of her six assists were during the decisive run.

If that wasn't enough, Nakase followed that performance with the best game of her high school career in Marina's 67-58 victory over San Clemente for the title.

With Marina ahead, 48-47, in the final seconds of the third quarter, Nakase scored Marina's next 11 points, including nine in a row, as part of a 19-2 run that decided the outcome.

As the spotlight grew, so did Nakase's will to win.

When opponents drew close to the Vikings, it was Nakase who made the pass to Chanda McLeod under the basket. Or made the steal that ended with Karyn Fierts' layup. Or made the drive to the basket that almost always ended in a layup or a trip to the free-throw line.

She shot 71.1% from the free-throw line during the regular season, 73% in the playoffs.

She shot 39.2% from the three-point arc, 57.1% in the playoffs.

She shot 48.5% from the field, 48% in the playoffs.

She's a money player.

Nakase's performance outshone several this season. In most seasons, there are a couple of viable candidates for player of the year.

This season, there were plenty of candidates for obvious reasons:

* Colleen Turnbull's big-game performances.

* Monique Mathews' steady dominance.

* Anna Lembke's remarkable consistency.

* Giuliana Mendiola's big shot-making ability.

* Chelsea Trotter's presence inside.

* Lindsey Davidson's leadership and all-around game.

Yet, when it came down to it, Nakase was the one. Seven times she had at least 10 points and 10 assists, and only three times in 33 games did she fail to get 10 in either category.

She finished third in all-time assists (835) in the Southern Section (fourth statewide), second in Orange County to state leader Nicole Erickson (873), formerly of Brea Olinda.

Nakase averaged 13.8 points, 8.5 assists, 3.5 steals and 3.2 rebounds. She went down fighting too. In the Southern California Regional semifinal against eventual state champion Harbor City Narbonne, she had 13 points, six rebounds and six assists against a team whose shortest player in the game was seven inches taller than Nakase.

Narbonne Coach James Anderson kept his starters in for the entire game though his team won, 67-40.

"I've never played against a player as smart as Natalie--she can dictate any game she wants," Anderson said. "Until Natalie goes out of the game, my starters aren't coming out of the game."

Which may explain why, with 40 seconds left and Nakase walking off the floor for the last time, Anderson was among those giving her a standing ovation.

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