By Kyle LoJacono
The Academy at the Lakes boys basketball team watched as their girl counterparts won a district championship and reached the Class 1A regional finals a year ago.
The deep playoff march came a season after the girls went 0-15. The Wildcats (11-6) boys heard all the talk and praise directed toward the other side of their gym, which helped inspire them to the best start in the program’s six-year history.
“You bet it spurred them,” said third-year academy coach Tom Haslam, who is the school’s athletic director. “It puts a little pressure on you to work harder. For one thing they get all the articles written about them; get a lot of pats on the back. I think our guys wanted that. It also showed them they can go from being not very good to very good in a short period of time.”
Freshman guard Ethan Haslam, Tom’s son, added, “We used what the girls did as an example. Going from 0-15 to regional finals is just unheard of. Change can happen, and you just have to believe.”
The Wildcats went 7-18 last season, but they feel a fast turnaround is possible given a new commitment to the program.
“I thought we’d be better because this past summer was the first time we played in a summer league,” Tom said. “Our nonfootball players played in a fall league, so just by getting them together more I thought we’d be better. Our numbers are a lot better, too. We’ve got 16 players between varsity and JV now, and the most we’d ever had was 12.”
The squad only lost one player to graduation and got a few new players, including Freedom transfer Abaz Igwe, a junior forward/guard.
“We’re really starting to connect and run plays in game,” said Igwe, who is averaging 9.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.1 steals. “We’re going to be great I think. Having time together in practice is already helping, and I see us getting better.”
Tom said six of their players also played six-man football for the academy’s squad that reached the state quarterfinals. Having to practice without some starters threw the Wildcats into a bit of early disarray.
“We got our football players back and played a game two days later,” Tom said. “Then we had Thanksgiving, midterms, Christmas, so with our whole team we haven’t had a lot of practices and our execution wasn’t there yet.”
Senior guard Jarrett Harvey, who has 8.6 points per game, is one of those football players. The running back came to the private school last year and helped get the football team to a 10-2 record this season and to back-to-back postseasons.
“I feel like everything is getting better with sports here,” Harvey said. “Not just football and basketball, but soccer, baseball, everything. This whole program is changing and I’m glad to be a part of it.”
Things may already be turning for the Wildcats. The squad defeated Zephyrhills 48-43 in overtime on Jan. 5. Ethan, who is posting a team-high 18 points and 3.7 steals, hit a 3-pointer as time expired to send the game to the extra period.
Ethan, Igwe and Harvey said they felt things starting to click in that contest.
“We came back to tie it at the end and won in overtime,” Harvey said. “Ethan hit a big shot. I think everyone started to get their basketball mojo going.”
Tom wants to see the offense flow better but thinks it will with more practice and as the young squad matures.
“We have two seniors, and only Jarrett gets significant playing time,” Tom said. “We’ll be young again next year. Our first seven guys have one senior and one junior. The rest are freshmen and sophomores.”
Tom knows the squad has a long way to go if it is to reach its first postseason, but has difficultly hiding his excitement when talking about what is possible.
“Everything is great right now,” Tom said with a huge smile. “We’re in a lot of games and we’re going to win a lot more games. The last two years I loved the kids, but it was hard to go out and get beat the way we were losing. We got beat badly a lot of nights, and that’s not happening now. It’s just a different atmosphere, and the kids feel better about themselves.”
The academy is ranked second in Class 2A-District 8 behind only Cambridge Christian (16-2). The Wildcats host the district tournament Feb. 7-11. The championship is on Saturday, Feb. 11 at 7 p.m.
–All stats as recorded to Maxpreps.com by coaches.
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