By Kyle LoJacono
A 40-15 record, two playoff berths and a pair of regional finals appearances — that’s the combined season for the Academy at the Lakes boys and girls basketball teams this season.
Not only did the Wildcats have banner years but they also bested all their neighbors. No other school, private or public, in either Pasco or Hillsborough counties sent both basketball teams to regional finals.
Academy athletic director and boys basketball coach Tom Haslam put it simply: “It’s really good to be at the academy right now.”
Back up two years and the programs look very different. In 2009-10 the girls hit rock bottom, finishing 0-15.
Everything changed when Karim Nohra took over the winless Wildcats, turning them in one season into a 19-5 squad that won a district title and reached the regional finals.
The academy took another step this season, going 23-6, winning back-to-back district titles and claiming the first regional championship in school history.
It was also Nohra’s first trip to the final four in his 20 years of coaching. The Wildcats lost to eventual Class 2A state champion Tallahassee FAMU in the state semifinals, but Nohra said the state semifinals trip might help the program become a perennial power.
“I think hopefully this may launch us a little bit next year, and I know I’d like to get back here that’s for darn sure,” Nohra said.
Nohra had to work in two new starters this year. Senior guard Amelia Oliver transferred from Sunlake, giving the Wildcats a big threat from behind the 3-point arc.
Oliver scored a team-high 18.9 points per contest. She also became the first player in program history to score 1,000, finishing with 1,121 for her career.
Senior guard Samantha Fernandez also came to the academy this year, transferring from Oldsmar Christian. She used her quickness to average 13 points, 8.4 assists and 5.6 rebounds
“There were a lot of changes coming here,” Fernandez said. “A lot more discipline than I’ve had before. It was tough because coach Nohra demands perfection, but in the end I’m a much better player. I’m so happy to have come to Academy at the Lakes.”
Nohra added, “Sam and Amelia brought tremendous ability to our program. They had to get used to me. They had to get used to the system. They’ve never been really expected to do as much as I expected them to do. It took a while. I’d say it came together in the Seffner Christian game on Jan. 5. That’s when everything all came together and I thought, ‘wow we’re going to make a heck of a run,’ and we did.”
Nohra said fellow senior starters in center Yvanessa Vincent, who came from Jefferson last year, and forward Alexis Holler, along with junior forward Andrea Mauger were the reason for the success.
“You can’t ask anything more from a group of girls other than work your butt off please for me, and do what I ask and we’ll get to where we need to be,” Nohra said. “To their credit they did.”
Mauger, who posted 15.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and four assists per game, came from Wesley Chapel High as a sophomore and has seen a complete transformation in the program the last two years.
“We have all the support from the school,” said Mauger, who also scored her 1,000th point this year. “When we left for the final four in Lakeland everyone came outside to see us leave. It’s so different from when I first got here when no one thought anything of the girls basketball team.”
The boys’ change into a playoff squad happened this season. The squad went 7-18 last season, which had been the most wins in a year.
The squad went 17-10 this season, making its first playoff appearance. The Wildcats lost to Orlando Christian Prep in the regional finals, but Tom said making the elite eight is a sign of things to come.
“We’re such a young team, so getting to the regional finals is great because it gives them all experience,” Tom said. “Most of our players are juniors and sophomores, so this is just the beginning of what these players can do.”
Guard Jarrett Harvey is the only senior who gets significant playing time for the boys.
The Wildcats’ leading scorer Ethan Haslam, Tom’s son, is only a freshman. The guard poured in 18.8 points per contest while adding 4.3 rebounds, 2.9 steals and 2.2 assists.
The squad also got a boost from Freedom transfer Abaz Igwe. The junior guard/forward added 9.1 points to the academy attack to go along with 4.3 rebounds and 2.5 steals.
“It’s exciting because the kids want to play here,” Tom said. “It’s taken a couple years, but now there’s excitement with the program. I wish we could start next season right now.”