Marsha Howard knew she was bound to have some life-changing experiences when she crossed the border from Illinois to attend the University of Wisconsin in the summer of 2015.
Those changes would impact her athletically, as a member of the UW women’s basketball team, as well as academically and socially. And as she would quickly learn, it would also have a lasting impact on her dietary habits.
“The first thing I heard about it when I signed was the cheese, always the cheese,” Howard said. “Now I feel like I’m a big cheesehead. I ask for extra cheese on everything now.”
Howard, a 5-foot-11 forward from Chicago, has been fulfilling her appetite in all areas of life as she approaches her final game at the Kohl Center tonight.
Howard, along with teammates Kelly Karlis and Lexy Richardson, will be recognized in Senior Night ceremonies before the Badgers (13-15, 4-12 Big Ten) take on Ohio State (13-12, 9-7).
For Howard, the four years at UW have marked a period of significant growth in all areas of her life. The basketball portion is the easiest to measure, as she’s gone from a lightly-used reserve whose freshman year was cut short by a knee injury to an All-Big Ten-caliber player as a senior.
Howard has scored in double figures in her past eight games, averaging 20.8 points over that span and scoring a career-high 30 points in a loss to Michigan.
For the Big Ten season, with two games remaining, she ranks ninth in scoring (15.5), eighth in rebounding (7.8), fourth in field goal percentage (.503) and fifth in steals (1.9).
“Marsha is playing really, really well for us, scoring the ball in different areas,” coach Jonathan Tsipis said. “You hope that your seniors play with an unbelievable sense of urgency, understanding their time is quickly winding down.”
Howard recently became the 26th player in program history to score 1,000 points, a feat that was recognized before the most recent home game against Illinois.
“It’s definitely a blessing, being able to achieve that,” Howard said. “Just working hard enough that I could achieve that goal, believing that it was possible and thanking my teammates after every game for finding me open looks. Credit to the entire coaching staff for believing in me to help get the job done.”
It was the presence of a different coaching staff that was largely responsible for Howard choosing UW over Marquette for her college destination. She was uneasy about going to Marquette following a coaching change there, but also felt a connection with then-UW coach Bobbie Kelsey.
“At Wisconsin there was a black female coach, which you don’t see often,” she said, “and being able to play under her was a blessing.”
There was a coaching change after that one season, with Tsipis replacing Kelsey.
Howard has thrived under Tsipis and her production has grown year by year. After averaging 2.1 points in 15 games as a freshman, she emerged as a starter during her sophomore year, averaging 7.5 points and 4.9 rebounds. She improved those numbers to 12.4 points and 6.9 rebounds as a junior, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten.
This season her game has reached a new level, with her numbers jumping to 14.8 points and 8.7 rebounds.
Along the way, she’s also grown as a student and a person. She attracted some national attention for her ongoing National Anthem protest, an experience that has taught her to stand up for her beliefs.
She’s also on track to graduate in May with a degree in sociology and hopes to eventually work with kids, perhaps as a social work or counselor, and also would consider coaching someday.
First, though, she would like to continue playing basketball professionally overseas.
“I have grown tremendously from a senior in high school to a senior here now about to graduate,” she said. “Just as a person, being comfortable with myself and living in my shoes. With Wisconsin being a big academic school, being able to get a degree from here is amazing and it’s something that definitely holds weight. Just the experience I’ve had here, the people I’ve gotten to meet, the friends I’ve gotten to make, is something that is unforgettable.”
Through it all she’s tried to always keep in mind the advice she received from her parents, Riley Vercher and Marsha Smith-Vercher, when she headed off to Madison.
“My mom and my dad’s message was to make it the best four years of your life because, one, it will go quick, and two, you won’t get it back,” she said. “So just go up there and have fun, learn as much as possible and continue to chase your dream.”