HOWELL — Maeve St. John is, as an opposing coach described her, “the straw that stirs the drink” on the Howell girls basketball team.
And, at first glance, the evidence backs that assertion.
She is the team’s captain, leading scorer, one of its top rebounders, the school record-holder for assists and she also paces the Highlanders in charges taken, steals and blocked shots.
But, she said, her teammates keep her in line and focused, and that has made the difference in a Howell team that has beaten Division 1 powers Hartland and Wayne Memorial this season, with a possible rematch with Hartland in next week’s District tournament.
“I accept criticism a lot better,” St. John says. “Last year, I was definitely more hard-headed. I feel I’m taking so much more advice from my teammates, and they hold me much more accountable. They can help me be better.”
What she’s been good at this season is helping her teammates be better, finding an open teammate, which in turn opens up more shots for herself.
Asked if she prefers scoring to feeding her teammates, St. John is quick with an answer.
“Assists are way better,” she said. “It's fun watching your teammates score, going in and getting a bucket and hitting shots. That’s exciting.”
St. John is averaging 15 points per game, with a robust 7.2 assists per contest and nearly three steals per as well.
“She’s better at harnessing her energy, and not feeling she has to be the one who does it all,” Howell coach Tim Olszewski said. “Maybe it’s an increased trust in her teammates, but she’s understanding that if she can draw an extra defender to her, then one of her teammates is open.”
St. John also occasionally makes a flashy move for no other reason than she can, sometimes looking over at the Howell bench with a smirk on her face.
“If you’re not trying to have fun out there, you’re not going to have fun,” she said. “I’m always looking to have fun out there. I’m always competing, trying new moves. Sometimes, they work. Sometimes they don’t, and I’m on the bench. Either way, it’s fun to try new things, to see what you’re capable of.”
That keeps opposing coaches, and her teammates, on alert, especially when St. John sees an opening and whips the ball to a teammate that may or may not be anticipating the pass.
“That happens a lot,” teammate Molly Duerloo said, chuckling. “But we capitalize on that. Her (on-court) vision has become better.”
Make no mistake about it: St. John has that rare combination of talent, curiosity, and joy one doesn’t often see in a top player.
“Boy, can she play this game,” Olszewski said. “She’s one of those special, special players. She just is. I don’t know how else to say it. She’s got the ability and the head about herself, and it’s going to be wonderful to watch her for four years at Northwood, because I think she’s going to excel there.”
Brighton coach Paul Ash, after watching her in a game in mid-February, also was impressed.
“I love watching that kid,” he said. “I’d pay money to watch that kid play. She’s a real, real competitor. She’s a fun kid to watch.”
St. John has little regret when it comes to sending up long-distance shots (she routinely launches 3-point tries from well beyond the arc), but also has no qualms about driving the lane or going after rebounds.
“She just plays at a high level,” Hartland coach Don Palmer said. “She’s exciting, she’s aggressive, and those kids just follow along,”
In addition to leading her team in most statistical categories, she also works closely with teammates in practice and even during games.
“She holds everyone accountable in practice,” Duerloo said. “She pushes everyone to be the best player they can be. She picks me up during a game if I’m not going good. She’ll say, ‘Hey you’ve got this. Next play. Believe in yourself.’”
The support, St. John said, goes both ways.
“They hold me accountable,” she said. “There are definitely some looks, some cussing out, ‘Hey, let’s go.’ That kind of thing. It’s a mutual respect. I think this group is something special. We’re all so close. We have all these inside jokes. Bus rides are fun. We feel so confident when we’re with each other.
“My teammates fuel me,” she added. “You look at someone going 110 percent, if you’re telling them to do something and you’re only going 80 percent, you’re not going to get any respect or anything done.”
St. John has signed with Northwood University, where she is considering majoring in personal finance or sports management.
“I love a lot of business-related things,” she said.
Right now, her increased understanding of her role as point guard and the possibilities it presents is a key reason why the Highlanders have won 14 of their last 15 games after a 1-3 start.
“She’s understanding the bigger picture,” Olszewski said. “There’s a reason why that particular shot or action, even though it might seem small or trite right now, how it could have a massive effect on the outcome of a game. And I think she’s excelled in that this year, understanding those situations.”
And, he said, St. John has been much more communicative with her teammates in helping them understand.
“Maeve’s always had an excellent basketball IQ and could always read situations,” Olszewski said. “When we talk about her being a leader, it’s about calming things down as opposed to throwing kerosene on the fire. I’ve also noticed an increase in her keeping herself accountable. Many times this year, she’s said, ‘That’s on me, team.’ She’s stepped to the forefront, which is what leaders do. She’s done a great job harnessing that energy and knowing when to unleash it and when to bring it back in a little bit.”
For St. John, it’s not so much being the straw that stirs the drink as being the leader of a pack of Highlanders willing to follow her for as long as possible.
But not without a little whimsy. Late in that mid-February game against Brighton, she drove the lane into a group of Bulldogs and somehow drew a foul on a shot that was off the mark. As she emerged, she looked at Olszewski and grinned.
“It was a forced shot, more like, ‘Oooh I got lucky on that play,’” she said. “I felt like I got bailed out on that play, and I looked at him and we chuckled.”
Howell had the game well in hand at that point. What if the game had been close?
“He wouldn't have been smiling,” St. John said, then added with a grin, “I probably would have still done it.”
PHOTOS Howell’s Maeve St. John has shown she can do it all – drive to the basket, shoot from the perimeter and find the open teammate. (Photos by Dan Zeppa.)