Natalie Butler was confused. Midway through the third quarter of last Friday’s game against Annandale, the 6-foot-4 Lake Braddock senior caught an interior pass and put up a simple turnaround that nestled into the basket. It was a routine sequence for Butler, who couldn’t figure out why the crowd was going berserk as she hustled back up court.
When a timeout was called, she jogged toward the sideline to listen to coach John Giannelli go over a play or explain a new press. But her coach, wearing a smile from ear to ear, didn’t look ready to talk strategy. Instead, he pointed toward center court, where Lake Braddock Director of Student Activities Mark Martino was waiting with a plaque in hand.
Suddenly it dawned on Butler that she had achieved something that seemed well out of reach a few months ago.
“I thought over the summer that it would be great to get 1,000 points,” Butler said. “But then I looked at the stats and saw I was nowhere near 1,000, so I was like, ‘Okay, that won’t happen your senior year. That’s okay. Just try to work the best you possibly can.’”
Scoring 500 points in a single season is an impossible challenge for most, but it’s already been check-marked by Butler, even with at least two games left in the season heading into Friday’s season finale against West Potomac (6-14, 3-9 Patriot).
Joining the 1,000-point club is an even more daunting task for a first-year varsity player averaging 4.9 points per game. Such has been the transformation of Lake Braddock’s crown jewel in the paint, as Butler has gone from an ungainly sophomore learning the ropes to a dominant senior laying waste to every obstacle in her path. She entered this season with 544 points accumulated over the course of two seasons; in 19 games this season, she’s scored 500 points, making her the region’s leading scorer at 26.3 points per game.
“I always thought [reaching 1,000 career points] was a possibility, but I knew she would have to have a monster year,” said third-year Lake Braddock coach Leigh Janis. “I am really happy for her because it is such a special accomplishment and she did it in only three years.”
Though Janis has watched her star pupil grow right before her eyes, a layoff due to pregnancy kept her from seeing Butler reach her milestone. Her baby was born on Jan. 23, and she returned to the sidelines Thursday to prep the Bruins for Friday night’s game against West Potomac.
Janis’s absence didn’t slow the team down from a late-season tear that has seen the Bruins win 11 of their last 12 games. That stretch featured a season sweep of T.C. Williams, a team they hadn’t beaten in the previous 12 meetings between the two schools. The Bruins’ resulting 14-5, 10-3 record closely resembles the 14-6, 10-3 record of the Lake Braddock boys team, which also handed T.C. Williams an overtime defeat Tuesday night.
Cutting down on turnovers has helped the girls squad rebound from its rough 3-4 start to the season, but the biggest catalyst has been the team’s starting center. Butler’s size and rapidly improving skill set have made her an unstoppable force underneath the basket. In addition to her eye-popping scoring average, she’s averaging 17.8 rebounds and nearly 10 blocked shots per contest. She scored 40 of her team’s 52 points in a win against Annandale last month, and then scored 40 points again three days later in her team’s 76-65 win against T.C. Williams.
It’s a far cry from where she was two years ago, when she was just beginning to find her way on the basketball court.
“Even though I wasn’t the most talented player, I still had that drive to try to get better, to try to work on my coordination and things,” Butler said. “I was never the leading scorer or anything like that, so this is crazy to be honest. It’s sort of like a dream come true.”
When she started playing AAU the summer after freshman year, Butler was the last person off the bench, a 6’2” post player with plenty of potential but little to show for it. She began training intensively with her father, Vernon Butler, a former basketball star at Navy, where he played alongside future NBA great David Robinson. Pushed toward her breaking point by her dad, Butler began to shed weight and grow more agile while also improving her touch around the basket. Robinson coach TJ Wade also guided her development, helping Butler hone her ball skills on his Tar Heels AAU squad.
By the end of that summer, she had turned a corner. Basketball practice suddenly became something to get excited about, not something to dread. College offers quickly began to mount, as over 50 schools took interest in her the following year.
“Before, it was sort of like basketball was like a chore almost,” said Butler, who committed to play at Georgetown next year. “You’re still working, you’re still running, you’re still doing things, but you’re not seeing results. That can be very frustrating. But my dad was pushing me, and I’m so thankful for him. If he hadn’t done that, I don’t think I would have ever experienced what I’m experiencing now.”
It also didn’t hurt that she never seemed to stop growing. Butler recently marveled over a picture with fellow senior post player McKenzie Hunter, who stood level with Butler at 5-foot-10 in the freshman year team photo. Hunter is now 5’11”; Butler is 6’4” and might still be growing.
Her improving size complements a more physical style of play that comes largely from going up against her 6-foot-8 dad and 6-foot-4 younger brother, James, in the post. Still, if Butler wants to make an impact at Georgetown next year, she knows more improvement needs to be made.
“Right now in this league, I’m doing okay, but I know I need to be much quicker,” Butler said. “You look at guards that we play against — they’re very quick. I need to be quick, too. I’m watching CAA games, Big East games, ACC games — just watching their quickness in the post. My dad always talks to me when we’re watching it. Quickness is just such a big thing, and I never realized how quick you need to be at the post position.”
In the meantime, Butler and her teammates are determined to win their school’s first girls basketball district title since 1989.
“I think that’s our main goal, to give Lake Braddock girls basketball a name,” Butler said. “I think this year we have a great opportunity to do that.”