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TIMES ALL-NORTH FL MVP: Saunders paced Comets

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CARTHAGE — Zakiya Saunders moved to the area about a year-and-a-half ago, and she hated it.

Then she started playing basketball, and has grown so fond of her surroundings and the Carthage girls basketball program that she refuses to give up her uniform, wanting to keep it as a symbol of her highly successful two-year run with the Comets.

And while the 5-foot-8 senior said she won’t be able to graduate until she reluctantly turns in her No. 33 jersey, there is no taking away her title of 2012-13 Times All-North Most Valuable Player for Frontier League girls basketball.

“I hated the school. I hated everything,” said Saunders, who moved to the area in November 2011 from Fort Lee, Va., when her father, Master Sgt. Vincent Saunders, was stationed at Fort Drum.

“I didn’t want to move here at all, I was kind of mad at my parents for having to move here. But (they) always told me to think positive and make the best out of everything. So I came and played basketball and the team got together, and that’s where everything started to feel better for me, because I guess it’s the environment I like to be in.”

Saunders immediately found a comfort level with her teammates and coach Randi Smith, and posted a triple-double in the first game of her Carthage career to give fans a taste of the well-rounded game they would witness from the player they would come to know simply as ‘Z.’

The athleticism, the ability to shoot and score off the dribble, the rare natural vision and passing ability, and the defensive instincts and intensity — all of the traits that grabbed Smith’s attention the first time she saw Saunders play in an open gym session.

“I was pretty excited at that point but the more that I got to know her, the more excited I was about what she was going to bring to our program,” Smith said. “Because a lot of times, you can get kids that come in with her type of ability, but they don’t have the work ethic, they don’t have the mental focus, they don’t have the team concepts that we preach here at Carthage. And ‘Z’ came in with all of those things already.”

This season, Saunders averaged a league-best 19.1 points to go with 11.7 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 4.9 steals and 1.5 blocks per game. After a 1-3 start, Saunders led Carthage to a 13-7 record and its second straight trip to the Section 3 Class A semifinals — the farthest the Comets have ever advanced.

During the team’s seven-game win streak that ended with the sectional semifinal loss, Saunders upped her scoring average to more than 21 points per game, including a season-high 29 in the league’s “A” Division championship game.

In each of her two years — with four different starters around her — Saunders led Carthage to a combined 29 wins, a 17-5 league record, and at least a share of the Frontier League “A” Division regular-season title along with the divisional playoff title.

Smith said that Saunders became a “second coach on the floor,” both during games and practices, and turned into a mentor for the program’s younger players.

“I’d prefer to be more remembered as someone who was able to help out the team,” Saunders said. “I’m always trying to help out people and people on the team, teammates in general, even when we’ll go the gym now. I don’t want people to think that I was here for myself.”

Saunders, who will play Division I basketball for the University of Albany next year, has also been nominated for several awards in the Carthage school district, including some for character education.

“She’s left quite an impression on our community, on the school, and obviously on our program as well,” Smith said.

Saunders has just one thing left to give the Carthage girls basketball program — her uniform.

“I can’t pick favorites, but I’m going to,” Saunders said. “This was one of my favorite basketball seasons, hence the fact I don’t want to give up my jersey. I love the family environment that we created here and I hope it stays that way.”

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