SHRUB OAK, N.Y. – High school basketball practice officially starts in November, but if you want to be successful, the work starts long before then.

The Lakeland Hornets enjoyed their best season in 11 years, earning the League II-C title, finishing 17-5, which included winning a game in the opening round of the Section 1 Class A Tournament for the first time since 2009.

Leading the Hornets were their All-Section seniors, Augie Karaqi and Jack Kruse.

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Preparing them for success at Lakeland was the time they put into playing outside of the varsity season, as both played for NY Extreme Hoops.

“I’ve been playing AAU since I was in seventh grade,” Karaqi said. “Coach Kristi Dini, the founder of NY Extreme hoops, is where I got my start. Coach John Taboada has been coaching me since eighth grade. Coach Dontae Harris hopped on as an assistant coach, beginning of my sophomore year.”

Working on your game instead of your tan during the warm weather months is vital to success when it gets colder.

“It’s very important to play in the summer, because if you don’t continue to work on your game, the people who are playing in the summer will become better basketball players and you’ll be left struggling to compete,” Kruse said.

Karaqi said a huge reason for his success with Lakeland was his time spent playing for NY Extreme Hoops.

“NY Extreme Hoops was a big part of why I was able to have a successful season at Lakeland,” Karaqi said. “We were able to play against really great competition and learn to deal with difficulties. The games challenged us because we had tough losses and tough games individually, but that only helped us become better players. Not everyone gets a trophy and playing time; it has to be earned.”

Kruse echoed that sentiment.

“AAU helped in the successful season at Lakeland because it made me a more skilled and disciplined basketball player,” Kruse said.

Besides working on their skills, playing together for NY Extreme Hoops helped Karaqi and Kruse develop the rapport between one another.

“Jack and I have known each other on and off the court,” Karaqi said. “We went to elementary school together and we have been playing basketball ever since seventh grade, when I first joined NY Extreme Hoops. Since we have been playing together for so long, we knew each other’s strengths and weakness, and that helped us on the court.”

All that time on the court together helped Karaqi and Kruse develop a non-verbal connection.

“Playing AAU with Augie helped us have good chemistry, because we both understood each other’s styles very well,” Kruse said.

Karaqi enjoyed the travel that comes with playing AAU ball.

“My best memory playing for AAU, was all the away tournaments, staying in hotels, with my teammates and coaches, and just being boys and having fun,” Karaqi said.

Karaqi said that his favorite city to play in was Albany.

“We finished seventh out of 52 teams in the Gym Rat Tournament against really tough competition,” Karaqi said of his experience playing in the state capital.

Kruse also enjoyed the camaraderie with his NY Extreme Hoops teammates.

“The best memory from AAU was hanging out in hotels with my teammates over the years,” Kruse said. “I would say I really enjoyed playing either in Albany or Boston, just because there was so much to do when we weren’t playing.”

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