By Kyle LoJacono
The Academy at the Lakes boys basketball team set an expectation last season.
That year, the Wildcats (4-4) went 17-10, the first winning season in the program’s six-year history. They also made their first trip to the postseason and made the Class 2A regional finals.
The growth has been something fourth-year academy coach and athletic director Tom Haslam has been looking for.
“The first year we got drubbed,” Tom said. “In the middle of games, we were looking for a back door to sneak out of. We got beat thoroughly, and not because of lack of effort. We just weren’t ready. Second year got a little better, and then last year we made a big jump. We challenged for the district championship. To get to the regional finals you have to be a little bit lucky, but you have to be good too.”
Tom’s son Ethan Halsam, a sophomore guard, has been along for that growth the last three years.
“When I was in eighth grade we weren’t really expected to win,” Ethan said. “We wanted to give the other team a good game and not get blown out. This year we’re expected to win. It’s become part of the culture, and not just in basketball, but in every sport. It’s really exciting.”
The excitement comes with new pressures.
“It’s a lot different because in the back of our mind we don’t want to lay an egg,” Tom said. “We have a tougher schedule, and we’re playing a lot of big schools. The potential to not put up a good record is looking us in the face, but hopefully that makes us work harder. The idea is to get to Lakeland for the final four, and you’re not going to do that unless you’re battle tested.”
The academy brings back four of five starters, losing guard Jarrett Harvey (8.4 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists*) to graduation. The squad gets a pair of junior transfers in point guard Malik Hall from Wiregrass Ranch and 6-foot-7 forward DeAndre Williams from Wharton.
“Those two new guys are potential starters, but losing Jarrett, his numbers weren’t huge but his leadership was,” Tom said. “As of yet we haven’t replaced that leadership.”
Hall gives the Wildcats a true point guard and Williams provides legitimate size, which they lacked last season.
“I played with Malik at Wiregrass for a couple years before I transferred here last season, so it was good to have some experience with him,” said junior guard Tony Arrington. “He’s a good player, and we got a big man, DeAndre, and he’s got good size and can catch down low and finish. We know how to give him the ball, and of course we’ve got a lot of shooters.”
Hall gives Tom more versatility with his lineup.
“Last year it was Ahkil McGill at point some nights and it moved around,” Tom said. “Malik really fills that role. He can score and plays at high level AAU in club. He also frees Ahkil up to play other positions, which he’s pretty good at.”
Williams playing more under the basket lets forwards Mikey Mauger and Evan Gordy stay more on the corners for easier rebounds.
“It takes a little bit of pressure off us to rebound too,” said Mauger, a sophomore. “It makes things easier.”
The additional size is something Tom welcomes, but he sees the squad’s strength on the perimeter.
“We’re still guard oriented, but we should be better on the inside, especially with defense,” Tom said. “We should defend better, but DeAndre has a lot to learn. He’s got a lot of talent, but he’s still new to the game. Once he starts to develop those instincts, he should be a force.”
Williams is averaging 9.4 points and 6.6 rebounds, but the majority of the Wildcats’ points come from the guards.
Ethan is leading the squad with 20.1 points per game while adding 4.8 rebounds and 2.0 steals. He had 864 career points before the academy started play in the Seffner Christian Tournament Dec. 21.
Hall is putting up 8.0 points and 3.1 assists, and guard Abaz Igwe is averaging 7.8 points and 3.3 rebounds.
“Our guards are interchangeable,” Mauger said. “They can all score and can handle the ball. It’s really fun to watch.”
Ethan said when those guards and post players come together, it’s something special to see.
“We’ve got a lot of new parts and new talents, and when they blend together it’s virtually unstoppable,” Ethan said. “We’ve got a good point guard, we’ve got good big men, we’ve got good shooters and we’re athletic and fast at every position.”
Tom said the team’s first goal is claiming the program’s first district championship, followed by a return to the regional finals.
“But to do that, we’ve got to get tougher,” Tom said. “Right now we’re not tough enough. We’ve got to defend and rebound tougher. We’ve got to be tougher on each other in practice. Right now we’re not doing that. We’re physically good enough, we’re tall enough, were fast enough. We have the skill to be a really good team, but if we don’t get tougher we won’t do anything.”
The academy starts play in the Shorecrest Prep Tournament Dec. 27. They will play in the Class 2A-Disrict 8 tournament Feb. 4 to 8 at Citrus Park Christian, with the final Feb. 8 at 7 p.m.
*Last year’s stats
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker
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