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Bigger, aggressive junior pivotal to Citrus success

Under a minute, game tied.

The old Walter Howard never would have hoisted one from outside.

As a sophomore, he would have meekly dished off to someone else. Heck, as a freshman, he would have been lucky just to be on the floor.

But Tuesday at Central, Howard squared up and fired a 3-pointer with the game on the line.

True to his new self, Howard made the shot, giving Citrus a key district win and pushing its record to 10-3.

The success of the team alongside Howard's growth is no accident. In a year, the junior has grown from 6-foot-1 to 6-5, and his game has grown even more.

"Last year, I didn't really have the self-confidence that I have this year," Howard said. "I was scared a lot in the games. I'd pass it off instead of trying to take it to the hole, creating a play."

This season, he's creating all sorts of problems for opponents. Howard averages slightly more than 13 points, just behind team-leading Donnie Ross, and Howard pulls down a fraction below 10 rebounds per game. Should he, say, add another 20-plus rebound performance against Lecanto next week, as he did in a December game against the Panthers, Howard would be averaging a double-double for the season. Now that's growth.

"I don't know how much stronger he actually is, but he's physically bigger and that helps him a lot," first-year Hurricanes coach Tom Densmore said. "He can play inside or outside. He's a good combination player. He can step out and hit the three, or he can take the biggest guy on the floor to the hole."

Actually, such assertive play would come as no surprise to Citrus fans. Howard showed off similar play-making skills on the football field, stepping in as a first-year starting quarterback to lead the 'Canes to their first playoff victory in 30 years. After that experience, basketball suddenly appeared more conquerable.

"He's fearless now," said teammate R.J. Cobb, who took handoffs from Howard in football and now often passes to Howard in basketball. "Football's made him such a tougher person. His mindset's so different from what it was last year. He can basically overcome anything after what he did during football."

A year ago on the court, Howard primarily played a defensive role. He still excels at that but can score and, as Densmore said, "puts back a lot of other people's misses." And yes, Howard is not afraid to put up shots from behind the arc. In fact, he averages about four attempts.

Now, it's no surprise to see them go in.

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