TAMPA — Freedom’s girls basketball turnaround began with a new coach feeling lucky just to have a handful of players show up to summer league games. It began at a lonely table on club day, when teams try to drum up interest before the school year starts.
First-year coach Laurie Pacholke admits at times she worried whether she’d have enough bodies to field a team here at Freedom, where last year the Patriots won just six games.
But now here they sit in mid January, talking about the playoffs, talking about being the best team in a district that includes county heavyweight Sickles.
The Patriots (16-2) enter Friday's Class 5A-8 tilt against the Gryphons winners of seven of their past eight and looking to avenge December’s eight-point loss to Sickles — their only setback in district play — while creating a two-team logjam at the top of the district standings.
It’s still a David vs. Goliath matchup. The Gryphons, armed with 6-foot-4 All-American center Amber Henson, against a gritty team with no seniors, just one player taller than 5-9 and a starting lineup of three juniors, a sophomore and a freshman.
The Patriots, however, have proven that what they might lack in size and experience, they more than make up for with increasing confidence and work ethic.
“We want payback,” junior point guard and team co-captain Kaitlynn Pacholke said. “Payback is due, so we’re going to push ourselves that much harder. They think they can beat Freedom because they did it last time. But we learned from what we did wrong, so this game, we can only get better. We’re expected to lose to them, so we can only prove people wrong. We’re still going to surprise people and we’re still going to give them something to talk about.”
Laurie Pacholke, who coached at Land O’Lakes the past three seasons, came to Freedom in the offseason to get closer to home. Her daughters, both on the team, grew up in Freedom’s district, and a new challenge awaited her in New Tampa.
“Nobody really expected us to do anything,” Pacholke said. “But they’ve come out and committed to working hard. They’ve shown they can play.”
She found quickly that there was talent in the hallways. Lindsay Taggart, one of just two returning varsity players and the team’s only 6-footer, fit well into the Patriots’ new speed-oriented game. And newcomer Shaunice Hobbs, a 5-foot-8 transfer from Brooks-DeBartolo, is the county’s second-leading scorer (19.5 points a game) behind Henson.
“I would say the difference has been working hard and pushing ourselves,” said Hobbs, who is averaging 8.7 rebounds and 3.8 steals a game. “I think that’s the key to success. We push ourselves no matter what, to the limit. We really don’t have a choice with Coach (Pacholke), but that’s a good thing.”
In Freedom’s first meeting with Sickles, the game was tied at the half until the Gryphons’ experience, and Henson, took control.
“I didn’t know much about them because most of their players are new,” Sickles coach Mark Key said. “They’re scrappy, they’re well coached. We didn’t play our best against them the first time. We know we’ve got to bring our game or else they can drive you a little crazy.”
Take away the Sickles game, and the Patriots have beaten district opponents by an average of more than 31 points. They also took two of three games in the Lady Dunbar Invitational over the winter break.
Still, they’ve been waiting for one game: tonight’s rematch.
“I don’t think we’re going to earn respect until we beat Sickles,” Hobbs said. “We need to show people that we’re serious about this and it’s totally different from last year. I think we can surprise people still. We’re still surprising people.”