TAMPA — In tiny Class 2A gyms or the cavernous Sun Dome, Tatiana Manuel is impossible to miss.
The rail-thin, 6-foot-2 senior is one of Academy at the Lakes’ focal points, in transition, in the post or on defense.
And the Wildcats can, in part, trace their return trip to the Lakeland Center for today’s 4 p.m. state semifinal showdown against Sheridan Hills Christian to the progress from the Brooks DeBartolo transfer.
“Would we have gotten this far without her?” coach Karim Nohra said. “Probably not. Let’s be honest.”
Although AATL has established itself as the North Suncoast’s top program, the Wildcats needed Manuel this season to earn a second consecutive state appearance.
Last year’s lineup featured strong outside shooting, but two of those guards, Amelia Oliver and Samantha Fernandez, graduated. That pushed the Wildcats to forge a new identity, starting with their newfound inside presence.
“She’s taken for granted, I think,” AATL forward Andrea Mauger said after her team’s practice at USF on Monday evening. “She’s what gets us going.”
Manuel’s success shouldn’t come as a surprise. She earned honorable mention all-Hillsborough County honors last winter and ranked among the state’s leaders with 7.6 blocks per game. Mauger calls her the Wildcats’ security blanket on defense because of her ability to cover up mistakes.
But before entering Pasco County, Manuel’s offense was a work in progress. In three years with the Phoenix, she scored 655 points. In one season at AATL, she has scored 413 points, and counting.
“That’s because I’ve demanded it,” Nohra said. “You score.”
Manuel credits Nohra for boosting her scoring, from 11.7 points per game last season to 15.3 this winter — second on the team to Mauger (17.8) — while shooting 61 percent from the field. Manuel hardly knew what an up-and-under move was before coming to the Wildcats. Now it’s part of her growing repertoire.
In Monday’s practice, Nohra harped on his star center’s offense — from how she runs the floor to how she should post up. After Manuel missed an early free throw, he reminded her to shoot the ball up, not just out. She swished the next one.
“He’s taught me a lot I should have known by the time I was here,” Manuel said. “He taught me how to run the floor better. He taught me some post moves I didn’t know. He taught me how to shoot better, how to dribble better.”
Those lessons paid off the most in AATL’s three playoff blowout victories. She had at least 20 points and 10 boards in each contest, including a 28-point, 17-rebound, six-block performance in Saturday’s region final.
After AATL sends the team off to Lakeland with a 12:30 p.m. victory walk, Manuel will be tested even more today against the Hollywood-based Sharks.
Sheridan Hills Christian features two 6-footers, including Natasha Patullo, who leads the team with eight boards per game and is second in scoring (15.9 ppg).