As the 2013 Kentucky softball team entered the midway stretch of its challenging schedule it prepared to host its first Southeastern Conference series of the season against Mississippi State. After a Friday-night win in game one of the series, the Wildcats and Bulldogs squared off in a doubleheader the next day with Howard getting a start in leftfield in the day's first game.
The game started with Kentucky grabbing an early 2-0 lead in the first inning, but the Bulldogs rallied in the top of the second inning for a run and were threatening for more with a runner at second base and one out when Howard made the play of her career.
Mississippi State's Erin Nesbit hit a high fly ball down the leftfield line. Howard chased the ball all the way to the warning track and made a backhanded diving catch. A moment later, she jumped up and completed the double play by picking off the runner at second base and ending the inning.
The play later came in at No. 6 in SportsCenter's Top 10 and the video featuring it now has almost 3,000 views on YouTube.
Nearly a month later, Howard, who played in 35 of the team's first 46 games mostly as a defensive replacement, experienced the complete opposite of her ESPN appearance as she tore her anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee during practice, ending her 2013 season.
For Howard, the pain from the injury itself didn't come close to matching the frustration she dealt with afterwards. The injury and the surgery to follow forced her to watch helplessly as her team put together a historic season, winning more games than any other team in school history and advancing to the NCAA Super Regional.
"I didn't realize how much I loved softball until it happened," Howard said about the injury. "Having to sit out while everyone was simply running and you can't even do that. It was frustrating. But I know I have a few more years and I can work really hard and just make it count and let this injury be kind of a moment that happened, but won't define me."
The answer to whether the injury, which she is still recovering from in preparation for the 2014 season, would define her or not was not as clear this summer as it is now.
Howard, who is the youngest of three sisters, called her dad -- whom she credits for teaching her everything she knows about softball -- immediately after the injury instructing him not to tell anyone else. But not even 10 minutes later, Howard's middle sister, Kaylan, who was in her senior year with the Oregon Ducks softball team, conveniently called to check in and see how things were going. Howard knew her Dad didn't do as he was told, but she was glad.
"On the injury, I told my dad first and told him not to tell anyone. Of course 10 minutes after that phone call, Kaylan called me up and was like, 'How are things going?' I was like, 'Wow," Howard said. "But she kept me smiling and made me laugh the whole time."
That was the least Kaylan and older sister, Kymmy, would do. Howard went home to Riverside, Calif., for the summer to spend time with family and rehab the knee. While there she received the type of motivation and "tough love" she needed to get back on the right track.
"Her (Kaylan) and my other sister (Kymmy) were my doctors this summer," Howard said. "They took me to rehab and made me do stuff. My older sister, Kymmy, hid my crutches and stole my brace because I was babying it. She said, 'You should be walking on your own by now.' "
Howard's relationship with her sisters, especially Kaylan, spans far beyond just the tough love over the summer. When Kaylan received and accepted her scholarship offer from Oregon to play softball, Howard was in the eighth grade and took notice. That is when college softball became a serious thought and an avenue toward a degree for Howard, who admitted before then she was just focused on being a Disney TV star.
"I wanted to do acting and singing," Howard said. "I was in choir, but softball gave me a path to an education so I took it on. I didn't really know much about college softball until I was 14 and under. I played some softball before then but just rec-ball ... As soon as my sister got her scholarship, it kind of clicked, like, I can do something with this. I started to put in more work and at the end of my sophomore year, in the summer, Coach (Rachel) Lawson saw me in Colorado and ever since then I knew I was going to be a Wildcat."
After she enrolled at Kentucky in the fall of 2011, Howard decided she didn't want to go through her career alone and started a pen-pal type, traditional letter-writing communication with Kaylan. In her letters, Howard would ask her older sister, who was an impact player with the Ducks, about the nerves she had before games, what to expect about college life and academics. Howard said her sister always had the answers and to this day they still write letters to each other on a monthly basis.
"Since my freshman year we have written letters to each other," Howard explained. "I started off asking her what to expect my first game and all of that and ever since then it has been what is going on with your life? How is softball? How are classes?
"She pretty much told me that I would get nervous and excited, but to just treat it like another game no different than when I was playing in high school. Once I loosened up I knew what she was talking about and I felt like I had a really good year after that."
Although the two also communicate by more modern means, the letters remind Howard to keep working hard and to never let a setback, minor or major, end her love for softball. As her career-low momentum slips further and further in the past as her knee improves daily, her goal moving forward is clear and familiar.
"First, I want to get back to where I was before my injury," Howard said. "And it's not likely, but I would love to make ESPN again. That is a goal."