LAND O’LAKES — Imani Thomas and Audra Leipold make eye contact as they dash across the court. They know each other’s style, and their predictions are accurate enough to lead their team’s attack.
They’re also two of the youngest players in Pasco County.
Academy at the Lakes, currently on its third consecutive playoff run, faces Sarasota Christian in Tuesday’s state semifinals.
This would be an impressive feat on its own, but it was somewhat unexpected because four of AATL’s players aren’t in high school yet.
“You have an extremely young squad playing in the final four of this tournament,” coach Karim Nohra said. “I really was not expecting us to reach this peak so quickly.”
Thomas is a freshman, Leipold is in eighth grade, and both have been game changers in their first year with the Wildcats.
“Both of them have been averaging double figures in points,” Nohra said. “Imani’s right around double figures in rebounds.”
Nohra said repetitively teaching fundamentals until they come naturally to the girls has been his biggest focus.
Leipold wanted to play for AATL because she’d heard of Nohra and knew he would push her to learn the basics. She didn’t know she would find a partner on the court in Thomas.
“We knew we had to play strong and work together well,” said Leipold, who is averaging a team-best 17.6 points per game.
Thomas never thought she would score more than 12 points in one game. She had 27, as well as 15 rebounds, in the region final.
“(My teammates) lift me up,” she said. “At halftime, we just talk to each other. We lift each other up.”
Nohra said his team’s youth has caused it to be overlooked. “We’re the young pups,” he said. “They’re just learning how to play the game of basketball.”
And now they’re at state, he added.
The Wildcats set a fast pace on the court. Their goal in every game is to score at least 60 points. They’ve won by an average of 34 in three postseason rounds.
Another objective has been to score within four seconds of the other team hitting a shot.
“The bottom line is: we get the ball, and we go,” Nohra said. “I would say the fact that nobody cares who’s scoring is a huge factor.”
Thomas thought the team would be stopped at the region finals. She didn’t dream they would be in the final four.
“Coach Nohra kept us in,” she said. “He told us to screw our heads on and go out there and play like we’d never played before. And we did.”
The Wildcats practiced at the Sun Dome on Monday evening. They wanted to play on a bigger court in preparation for Tuesday’s game at the Lakeland Center, which has caused depth-perception problems for past teams.
Leipold said the Wildcats know a lot about Sarasota Christian and are ready for the match.
“Coach Nohra knows what he wants to do. He always knows what he wants to do,” she added.
Nohra acknowledged the Blazers sport an older starting lineup, and he’s not sure how his girls will react to the pressure of state.
“Can we beat Sarasota Christian? Yes. Can Sarasota Christian beat us? Yes,” Nohra said. “So, it should be a pretty good game.”
Where: The Lakeland Center
Admission: $10 per session; parking is $8 per day.
Class 2A: Academy at the Lakes (20-5) vs. Sarasota Christian (22-7), 10 a.m. Tuesday
Class 5A: Land O’Lakes (23-4) vs. Bradenton Southeast (29-1), 10 a.m. Friday