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Wesley Chapel girls basketball team morphs style but finds familiar success

Shantel Houston, left, and her Wildcats teammates rattled off 14 wins before their first loss under new coach Karim Nohra.

KERI WIGINTON | Times

Shantel Houston, left, and her Wildcats teammates rattled off 14 wins before their first loss under new coach Karim Nohra.

WESLEY CHAPEL — The first time for anything usually comes with a side dish of anxiety.

Karim Nohra stood before Wesley Chapel's girls basketball team in August for the first time and leveled with them.

There would be no easing his way into the job; he was going to radically restructure the program.

Five months later, neither the coach or his players are 100 percent comfortable with the other.

"I told them we are changing the philosophy of the program from what Coach (Warren) Jones did to what I do," Nohra said. "We are going to be more of a pressing team. We are going to be more of a running team. That was slow to come around. They were a little resistant."

Attend one of Nohra's practices and it's clear there's still a long way to go. That's a weird sentence when you consider the Wildcats began the season 14-0 before falling 50-35 to Mitchell on Friday. They rebounded Saturday with a 56-37 win over Avon Park to stand at 15-1.

So consider Nohra an early favorite for coach of the year honors after Wesley Chapel's unlikely winning streak in the wake of the school's greatest season to date. The 2007-08 season ended with the program's first region final berth and a 24-5 record.

But the departures of Jones, the prized coach and architect who had turned a perennial loser into one of the North Suncoast's most feared programs, and all five starters left many to guess this would be a down year.

Anyone with the notion this season's team would jump out to a 14-game winning streak simply sounded ridiculous.

"I was shocked," Nohra said of the unanticipated success. "… I thought we would go down somewhere along the line."

So how did it happen?

Nohra faced an uphill climb from that first meeting in August, just days after being hired. While most successful programs begin offseason work shortly after the previous season, Nohra didn't begin until school started.

"Some girls didn't like it at first," sophomore guard Hannah Noble said. "They were used to Coach Jones and his ways."

Wesley Chapel lost months of offseason work, which has turned a seasonal sport into a year-round commitment at most top programs.

Consider Gulf, which at 14-3 is considered one of the most successful programs in recent years under coach Mike Quarto.

"In the paper (Quarto) said he picked up 40 games between April to August," Nohra said. "That's a lot of games. A whole (high school) season is 25 games."

And Wesley Chapel?

Jones, who is now an assistant with Saint Leo's women's team, had built a solid pipeline at Wesley Chapel. His last two teams began their seasons with marks of 13-1 and 16-1, a far cry from a program that began 0-51 before winning its first game in the 2001-02 season.

But this was the first time in a long time Wesley Chapel lost all five starters. The Wildcats did what they could last summer to stay in shape not knowing who would guide them.

Nohra caught one of their summer games before he was hired.

"They were playing, but they weren't playing under me," Nohra said. "They weren't playing under the new system. … They were freelancing for the most part. (August is) an extremely late start."

Nohra, who had compiled a 340-131 record coaching Tampa Catholic and Cambridge, has two sides to him: compassionate and fierce. Both were on display at Tuesday's practice as he harped on missed layups.

He counted the missed layups in Friday's game, seven in the 15-point loss only drove home the point he made earlier in the week.

"One of my girls called me a bully in practice, pretty much because I bullied them into what they are," Nohra said. "They haven't gotten … that bully mentality yet. I was kind of shocked I was called a bully. Then I thought about it. Isn't that what sports is about, imposing your will on another team? That's what I've been trying to preach to them."

Izzy Gould can be reached at izzy gould@me.com or (727) 580-5315.

Video look-in

The Times visits a Wesley Chapel practice last week when the girls basketball team was still undefeated. See the video at tampabay.com/video

Wesley Chapel girls basketball team morphs style but finds familiar success 01/10/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 10, 2009 10:35pm]
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