TAMPA — When district foes Freedom and Steinbrenner met recently in a girls basketball game, Freedom won 44-37 — the Patriots’ first test of the season.
But was it enough of one?
Coach Laurie Pacholke doesn’t think so. She expects to see the Warriors two more times, and while she anticipates tough games, she wants tougher and will seek those out this winter break.
Freedom, like most of the best high school teams in Tampa Bay, will hit the road for basketball’s second season for some of the state’s most competitive tournaments. The goal: to become battle tested for the stretch run of a potential state title season.
“I know I have to really push our schedule at Christmas,” said Pacholke, whose Patriots are 10-0. “Those are the games that really push us to our limits.”
While this holds true for the good boys teams as well, the local girls teams seem to be in more dire need of competition.
A slew of offseason transfers to Freedom, Lakewood and Seffner Christian have clearly distanced the trio as the best in Tampa Bay.
The results prove this out.
Freedom has won by an average of 40 points — including two wins by 47, one by 48, another by 71 and even a forfeit win.
Seffner Christian is 11-0 and winning by an average of 44 points, including two victories by 60, one by 62 and another by 69.
And Lakewood, at 9-1, led a team 63-0 at halftime before going on to win 87-3. It was the Spartans’ fifth win by at least 60 points this season.
All three are state championship-caliber teams, but Lakewood’s Necole Tunsil said if they didn’t have a chance to play these tougher holiday games, those titles would be harder to come by.
“We’re good, but I don’t think we’ll get a true evaluation of what this team is made of until we play these games,” she said.
The Spartans already got a jump on toughening up the schedule when it played Palatka around Thanksgiving, losing when they played poorly down the stretch.
Tunsil said it was the first time many of her starters had to play that late in a game.
“We had to put together a full game,” she said. “It was unfamiliar territory.”
The players look forward to the better competition as much as the coaches.
When Freedom rolls into Fort Myers for the prestigious Queen of Palms Invitational, it’s the first time Georgetown signee Faith Woodard will compete against someone who is her equal, if not better.
“I’m definitely looking forward to it,” the senior center said. “Locally, we know all these teams and have been playing them for four years now. Sometimes (winning by a large margin) becomes a little redundant. Going to Fort Myers is something to look forward to.”
Tunsil said challenging her players in practice can be difficult when a 60-point win is looming the next day. But for the next few weeks, she expects to see what the Spartans can do when pushed.
“We were just talking about that. Some of our girls have expressed frustration of preparing for a game you know you will win by a large margin,” she said. “These are top players. They take basketball seriously. They didn’t sign up for this. They want exciting and fun and challenging.”
The holiday season is a chance to provide just that.
“These Christmas tournaments can either make or break your season,” Pacholke said “You can stick around here and play more cupcake games, and you might get out of districts, but it won’t help you get out of regionals.”
Seffner Christian, a Class 3A team, will play 7A Gainesville Buchholz, which has only lost to undefeated teams this season, in its first-round game at the Queen of the Palms. In the second round, it could meet either perennial playoff team Plantation American Heritage or Kentucky power Ryle.
Freedom will follow up a tough Queen of Palms draw with games against undefeated Gainesville and Winter Haven in Gainesville.
And two-time defending Class 8A state champion and nationally-regarded Dr. Phillips awaits Lakewood at the Florida Prospect Invitational. Two weeks later, the Spartans will host defending 2A state champion Florida A&M and others.
For Tunsil, she needs no convincing the tough holiday schedules will yield results in February.
In 2010-11, she reminds you, the Spartans lost holiday games to Atlantic, Kentucky Ryle and Miami Norland.
In February, Lakewood won its last three games on the road by an average of 13 points — including the Class 4A state championship.