By Jeff Odom
Manuel provides offensive spark
Academy at the Lakes girls basketball coach Karim Nohra gave center Tatiana Manuel a challenge when she arrived from Brooks-DeBartolo this season — become a scorer.
The 6-foot-2 senior did just that in leading the Wildcats to their first trip to the state finals.
“I demanded it, and I said, ‘You’re big enough; you score,’” Nohra said. “I think before (while at Brooks-DeBartolo) it was rebound, blocks and give to the guard. Now, we throw it up to her on the break, she has to dribble more and shoot more.”
Manuel, who averaged 22 points in her last four games, including a team-high 27 in the state semifinals, said she liked her new role.
“I wasn’t used to it when I first came here,” Manuel said. “I was used to just standing under the net blocking shots and getting rebounds. This year, he’s asked me to do a lot more, and I’m comfortable with it.”
Nohra said he was pleased with Manuel’s performance in the postseason and added that things may have gone very differently without her.
“Would we have gotten this far without her?” Nohra said. “Probably not.”
Cohen enjoys the ride
Senior Timecia Cohen watched from the bench last season as the Wildcats won district and regional titles and made the state semifinals.
A torn ACL in her right knee ended her junior season before it began, and she vowed to return to the court and help lead her team back the final four.
“I didn’t know what it was going to take to get here again, but I knew that I really wanted to get here, and I was willing to do whatever,” said Cohen. “Honestly, it feels good to be in the same position we were in, and to go to the championship game was even better.”
Nohra commended Cohen’s ability to become a point guard this season after only playing forward previously.
“She came from Tampa Bay Tech, and played sparingly,” Nohra said. “Last year, she tore an ACL and didn’t play at all for us. To see her dribbling, passing, handling ability, defensive ability — she’s by far exceeded my expectations.”
Though the academy was unable to put a final stamp on their season with a state title, Cohen said she will always cherish what the team was able to do.
“I’m so happy, honestly,” Cohen said. “It was my first time coming here, and we made it as a team, and I feel good. It feels really good. I’m runner-up to the best team in the state, and it’s not bad having a silver medal around your neck.”
Mauger forever a program staple
When senior Andrea Mauger transferred to the academy as a sophomore, she brought with her something the program hadn’t experienced before — a winning attitude.
The forward picked up where she left off when she arrived from Wesley Chapel and helped turn around the Wildcats from a 0-15 doormat to a three-time district champion and state finalist this season.
“I think as a sports program as a whole, we’ve definitely made a huge statement from where we were,” said Mauger, who finished her high school career with four regional finals appearances. “Everything turned around when our (athletic director) Tom Haslam came in, and just the support and the attitude has completely changed from the beginning, and people know our name now. We’re not just that school on the schedule.”
Nohra, who came from Wesley Chapel the same year as Mauger, said right away he knew he could rely on her to help lead the team no matter what the task at hand was.
“In practice, I don’t necessarily have to be there because Mauger runs the drills and she knows exactly what I want,” Nohra said. “She’s been a thrill to coach the whole time, and she’s a tremendous leader on the floor.”
Mauger doesn’t take the credit for turning around the program. She gives it all to her coach who she was “honored to play for.”
“I feel like coach Nohra really changed the attitude of the girls basketball program,” Mauger said. “Honestly, I’m so proud and just so blessed to do this with the help of my teammates. I couldn’t have done any of this without them or coach Nohra, and it’s just been amazing. Most people don’t get out of districts, let alone go to two back-to-back states.”
Tale of two freshmen
Freshmen gaurds Janice Cassanello and LuLu Santiago felt pressure from Day 1.
From Nohra’s intense practices to the expectations of being a state championship contender, the duo thought they had experienced it all.
Then, they became starters.
“At first it was nerve-racking (playing for Nohra), because you have to get used to all of the yelling and screaming, but he really knows what he’s talking about, and he’s taught us a lot,” Cassanello said. “It was different for me, and the pressure was definitely there a little bit, but we got used to it after playing for so long.”
Santiago, who missed part of the season after breaking her wrist in December, could feel the weight bearing down on her early in the season.
“At first, it was overwhelming,” Santiago said. “It was a lot of pressure and a little stressful, but we overcame it and got better, and it’s been really exciting, and we have an amazing coach who has really helped us out and definitely set us straight.”
Nohra said it will be up to Cassanello and Santiago to help pitch in and fill the void left behind by his five graduating seniors.
—Sports Editor Kyle LoJacono contributed to this report
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