Imani Thomas has had to adapt —and lead — in the face of mass exodus.
The Academy at the Lakes senior, like others, wasn’t even sure if the private school would field a basketball team prior to the 2016-2017 season.
The program had lost its uber-successful coach — Karim Nohra— who “retired” then wound up at Carrollwood Day School. It lost its most prolific scorer — junior Audra Leipold (24.8 points per game) — who defected to Seffner Christian Academy. As if that wasn’t enough of a blow, the program, too, lost a pair of battle-tested seniors — Janise Cassanello, Lulu Santiago — from last year’s 2A state runner-up squad.
“It’s basically a new team, a new environment,” said Thomas, a two-time Florida Association of Basketball Coaches All-State selection. “It’s very different.”
“It’s more pressure on the (players) that came back,” she added.
Including Thomas, the team returns Nini Chester and Loren Wells, also seniors.
Everyone else — including head coach Todd Huffman — is new.
So, too, is the style of play — slower and more deliberate.
They’re finding a way to make it work, however.
Despite the turnover — and just seven healthy players — the team stands at 6-2 (as of Dec. 9).
Much of that record can be attributed to the efforts of Thomas, a 6-foot power forward many consider as one of the premier frontcourt players in Tampa Bay.
ESPN’s high school girls basketball recruiting service — HoopGurlz—pegs Thomas as a three-star recruit and the nation’s 68th best forward for the 2017 class.
Dan Olson, proprietor of Collegiate Girls Basketball Report, describes Thomas as a “strong, physical interior prospect with nimble footwork and soft touch in the block.”
Others suggest it’s Thomas’ ability to rebound and score consistently that makes her such a force in the paint.
“She’s just really dominant,” Chester said. “She knows how to keep the ball in her hands and keep pushing through any type of defense. She’s willing to get that ‘And-1.’”
AATL’s first-year coach is equally effervescent in his praise of Thomas, citing her back-to-the-basket skills and on-court leadership.
“She is incredibly intelligent, a very smart player,” said Huffman, a former assistant men’s basketball coach at Hillsborough Community College. “She understands the game, and reads and reacts to situations with split-second adjustment.”
That comprehension of the game is a rarity, he added.
“There are players that…either have sense like that or don’t,” Huffman said, “and she possesses both the skill sets that you can develop as a coach and from a teaching standpoint to make her better.
“She has a lot of that ingrained in her DNA, so to speak.”
Considering half the Wildcats roster is new to the sport, Huffman acknowledged his first season has had its share of challenges.
But, having core players — like Thomas — has made the transition run more smoothly.
“The kids that are out there…have done a fabulous job of developing chemistry and really working hard to do what we as a coaching staff have asked of them,” said Huffman. “I just think they’re such a joy to coach, regardless of who has experience — like Imani’s experience — versus some of the other players that may not have played before.”
The work is starting to show.
Since early setbacks to Carrollwood Day School (63-to-19) and Bishop McLaughlin (48-to-46), the Wildcats have reeled off six straight wins, including a 25-point victory over Land O’ Lakes High School on Nov. 28.
“We kind of lost our confidence in the beginning,” Chester said, “but, we’re starting to come back around.”
That starts with Thomas, who averaged 12.6 points and 12.8 rebounds per game last season, and has over 1,000 career points.
“She has had to take a leadership role,” Chester said, “and be patient with the younger girls who are trying to learn…”
Thomas, meanwhile, has her sights on playing basketball at the U.S. Naval Academy next year.
Until then, she has one goal.
“Make it to states,” she said.
Published December 14, 2016