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LAND O’LAKES — The Academy at the Lakes girls basketball team will be playing in the school’s first region final tonight, but for everyone involved, it’s not exactly clear how the Wildcats have gotten to this stage.
Academy is just one year removed from going 0-15.
The addition of three transfers — Andrea Mauger from Wesley Chapel, Vanessa Vincent from Jefferson and middle school import Marjorie Rivera, who also happen to be the Wildcats’ top three players — has helped considerably, but the team still finds itself short-handed most nights.
Only eight players suit up for Academy. That number was trimmed to seven when Vincent partially tore the meniscus in her right knee in the season opener (she returned in time for the district tournament). That means the Wildcats have no help off the bench if the starters aren’t performing adequately. Or if someone gets in foul trouble. Or if someone, like Vincent, gets injured.
In a regular-season game against Keswick Christian, the Wildcats had only five players available because of sickness and injuries. The Wildcats had to cancel a game against Academy of the Holy Names for lack of available bodies.
The team is so short on depth that coach Karim Nohra has to enlist the help of a couple players from Academy’s boys team just to scrimmage 5-on-5 during practice.
There are no seniors and absolutely no playoff experience.
Players often miss layups during games (Nohra counted seven in the Wildcats’ region semifinal win over First Baptist Academy). At times, they have no idea what they’re doing on defense. And for that matter, the offense can look just as unorganized.
Nohra repeats over and over during practice, “in the playoffs, you’ve got to make free throws, got to make layups and got to play D.” The Wildcats did only one of those three — make free throws — adequately against First Baptist.
Yet here they are, one win from the state semifinals. The Wildcats’ incredible playoff run is a tribute to the coaching of Nohra, who picked up the 400th win of his prep career this season and has now made it to the region finals seven times at four schools.
“How did we do this?” Nohra repeats, thinking for a few seconds before picking his words carefully. “Bottom line is, I would say, that we have coached to the max that we can coach this team, as far as putting them in positions. We have choreographed their every move. What we do is choreographed chaos. …We have coached every single step of the way without eliminating a single fact. …
“We’re showing them every single step of every single possible move. Now, why do I have to do that? Because they are so inexperienced and have no basketball knowledge at this point.”
Tonight, the Wildcats face Trinity Christian Academy, which is led by power forward Danielle McCray, a senior who averages 22 points, 14 rebounds, and five blocks and has signed with Mississippi.
The Wildcats won’t be nearly as tall as Trinity Christian. They won’t be as quick and their athleticism will pale in comparison, Nohra tells his team during practice.
On paper, Academy has no chance against Trinity Christian. On the court, with Nohra coaching and his players listening to his every word, the Wildcats are as dangerous as any team Trinity Christian will play this season.
“If we can contain (McCray) a little bit and play good defense,” Nohra says, “we’ve got a shot.”
Which is what every team Nohra has ever coached has: a shot.