When Tom Haslam took the athletic director position at Academy at the Lakes around seven years ago, the school had varsity teams. But, a lot of their games were against junior varsity opponents.
With a high school enrollment of slightly more than 100, the talent pool was limited. In some sports, around half of the school’s schedule would be games against a rival school’s lesser squad.
“We were just trying to start somewhere, and get competitive games,” Haslam recalled.
They started small, but they didn’t stay there.
Academy at the Lakes is now seen as a premier athletic program in class 2A competition, and it was recognized as such by winning the Carey E. McDonald Award, given to the state’s top 2A private school athletic program.
The award, presented by the Florida Athletic Coaches Association, recognizes the school’s accomplishments during the 2014-15 school year.
To turn things around, Haslam initially focused on a couple of key areas.
He wanted to upgrade the coaching staff, and was able to hire men and women with a strong track record at other schools. The change produced results for some teams rather quickly.
The second change seems a bit unorthodox. He upgraded the Wildcats’ uniforms.
“It may sound like a minute thing, but it’s not. Kids have to feel good about themselves, and they have to feel important. And, I thought that was one thing that was an easy fix that we could do right away and make an improvement,” Haslam said. “It doesn’t sound like much, but if you’re a 16- or 17-year-old kid, it’s important.”
Haslam switched the school over to Nike uniforms, giving them a sharper look.
That change yielded results, too.
The student athletes more-closely resembled their opponents, giving them a boost in confidence, and giving the program a more successful image that they soon would duplicate on the field and on the court.
To be recognized as a top 2A school, a school must be successful across a variety of sports.
While some schools have a good team or two, Academy at the Lakes has found success in several sports.
During the 2014-15 school year, eight of the school’s individuals or teams reached the regional or state level of competition.
The success isn’t limited to this year, either.
The girls’ basketball team has reached the final four in each of the past four seasons. The girls’ softball team has won four straight district championships, and also reached a final four. A swimmer at the school won a state championship, a boys’ doubles tennis team won a district title and a girls’ doubles tennis team won a state championship.
With that much success, all of the academy coaches want to continue their winning ways in their respective sport.
And that includes Haslam, who coaches boys’ basketball, in addition to being the school’s athletic director.
“You don’t want to be the coach that hasn’t got your program going yet,” Haslam said. “I feel some pressure, you bet. I like that. I think that’s the way it should be.”
Haslam’s team certainly is contributing to the school’s overall athletic success.
The boys’ basketball team has reached the regional finals three of the past four years, and made it to the final four last season.
Now that the academy is an elite program, staying that way presents its own challenges. Haslam is hiring new coaches to improve the sports that are lagging, and he also must retain the talented coaches on his staff.
With a track record of success, games in some sports frequently reaching capacity attendance and a high school student body that’s grown beyond 160, Haslam’s goal is to keep moving forward and continue improving.
That includes the uniforms.
No longer content with just one brand of apparel, their current agreement allows teams to choose between Nike, Adidas and Under Armour.
The school’s schedule also includes stiffer competition than teams have faced in the past. As the program has grown in strength, its opponents have become challenging, sometimes including schools such as Mitchell and Land O’ Lakes high schools.
In addition to winning the Carey E. McDonald Award, Academy at the Lakes also placed third overall for the FHSAA Floyd E. Lay Sunshine Cup All-Sports Award, which includes more than 100 eligible 2A public and private schools.
Haslam finds the recognition gratifying, since he has a hand in all of the sports at the academy.
But, the athletic director credits the men and women he’s hired to lead the Wildcats with shaping the school into a perennial athletic success.
“To me, it’s all about the coaches. We’ve got some great people leading our kids, and I’m smart enough that once I get a good coach, I stay out of their way,” Haslam said. “I’ll take a little bit of credit for getting them there. But once they’re there, they’re the ones winning these games and molding these kids.”
Published December 16, 2015