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Bouncing Back from Adversity

Sprinting up the court on a fast break, Jakia Howard ’24 looks for a lane to the basket. The defense tries to double-team her, but her teammate sets a screen, and Howard drives inside for a layup.

A star athlete on the Potsdam Bears’ women’s basketball team, Howard finished her final season with 1,192 points—third most in the history of the program. Leading the Bears with a career-high 17.0 points-per-game this year, she was also named to the All-State University of New York Athletic Conference (ALL-SUNYAC) second team, for the second year in a row, while finishing with the second most points-per-game in the entire conference.

Also, a force on the glass, she pulled down 9.1 rebounds-per-game this season, fourth most in the league, while securing 12 double-doubles over 23 games. As the team captain, Howard led by example, setting the tone during practice and games. 

“I have really enjoyed my time at SUNY Potsdam. I got to meet a lot of new people and the team was great. We worked well together, and the chemistry was there. I learned as much from them as they earned from me,” she said.

Howard’s success began at Nottingham High School, back home in Syracuse, N.Y., where she was selected as female athlete of the year and most valuable player during her senior year. Her multifaceted skill set caught the attention of SUNY Potsdam women’s basketball coach Brittany Cohen, and in 2019, Cohen made the trip to Syracuse to see Howard in action.

“It only took me five minutes into watching her high school practice to know that Jakia was going to be a special player. Her motor is unmatched, and she never takes a play off."

Brittany Cohen Women's Basketball Coach

Howard was invited to the College to tour the campus, interact with the team, and learn more about the Potsdam community. “I walked around the campus, and I really liked how everything was close together. Something just glued me here,” Howard said.

She enrolled at the College in the criminal justice program, and quickly formed a comfortable routine on campus with morning classes, weigh-lifting sessions, working with the trainer, going to work, and then wrapping up the day with basketball practice. Every Friday and Saturday night during the season, she was on the court facing off against other SUNYAC opponents at home or on the road.

Her success on the court didn’t come without adversity. The SUNY Potsdam senior sustained injuries and battled illnesses during her four years at the College. She broke her finger and her foot during practice, injured her shoulder, quadricep, and groin and sprained her LCL (lateral collateral ligament). She bounced back each time under the leadership of the physical trainers on campus. But, she also battled health illnesses ranging from the flu and kidney stones, to more recently, in the middle of her final basketball season, discovering that she had Celiac disease. 

“I had a lot of health issues that sent me to the hospital. And after I found out that I had Celiac disease, I had to start watching what I was eating,” Howard said.

After her diagnosis with Celiac disease, Howard received comfort and guidance from her teammate Mikayla Shipley ’25, who also has a gluten intolerance. Shipley helped Howard transition to a gluten-free diet, and they bonded over the shared dietary restrictions—regularly visiting the 3 Bear's Gluten Free Bakery & Café in downtown Potsdam for lunch or dinner.

 “No matter how many times life tries to knock you down, you just need to get back up and keep going,” Howard said. “I’ve gone through so many injuries and sicknesses, but I just kept bouncing back. The more you go through, the stronger you become.”

Jakia Howard '24

Howard is now completing her degree in criminal justice at SUNY Potsdam, but her career aspirations align with the field of health care. In addition to her own health issues, she has seen the effects of diabetes on her family as both of her grandmothers have been battling the disease for years. Whenever she’s back home in Syracuse, Howard takes on the role of a caregiver, working with one of her grandmothers to replace a patch on her arm that allows them both to track blood sugar levels on their phones. “I just like helping people. Honestly, I’ve known that I wanted to be a nurse my entire life. My grandmother was really the one that got me into this,” Howard said. 

With an undergraduate liberal arts degree in hand, and one of the most notable athletic careers in the history of the SUNY Potsdam women’s basketball team in the books, she is looking ahead to a rewarding career where her skills from the court—teamwork, commitment, leadership, and perseverance—will impact her work ethic in the future.

“She is one of the best athletes I have ever coached, and she is somehow an even better person off the court,” Cohen said. “Her presence on the court will be missed, but I will miss the off-the-court moments the most. I will always cherish our chats before practice and getting to know her wonderful family over the years.”

Article and photos by Jason Hunter