TAMPA — The pieces were there for a deep playoff run: a rising sophomore who averaged nearly 20 points the season before, the head coach’s daughter at point guard and a roster teeming with more-experienced and versatile players.
Freedom was almost certainly going to be better than the season before, if only because of the expected maturity and improvement from players already on the team.
Turns out, that was only the foundation for a juggernaut that came together over the summer.
Three seniors, including Georgetown-bound forward Faith Woodard, transferred in to Freedom and promptly turned the Patriots into contenders to claim Hillsborough County’s first public school state title in 25 years.
“This really speaks volumes for the kids who were already here,” Freedom coach Laurie Pacholke said. “Even before any of those kids moved in, we knew we were going to be good.”
The Patriots’ new players — Woodard and Monet Williams from Riverview, and Whitney Ivey-Turntine from Plant — have meshed exceedingly well with the old ones, forming a powerhouse that defeated all of its local opponents, ranked among Class 7A’s top three teams and has moved within two victories of the school’s first team state champion.
They will face Gainesville Buchholz in the state semifinals Friday, and if they win, play the winner of Haines City-Davie Nova in the final Saturday night.
If they complete their climb to the state championship, the Patriots (25-3) will offer a gold-medal rebuttal to those who doubt on-court chemistry can be developed in a few short months. Even among those in their own locker room.
“This has exceeded my expectations, honestly,” said Neena Pacholke, the head coach’s youngest daughter and a senior point guard. “I don’t think I could have believed that we would be at Lakeland right now.”
That certainly seemed reasonable heading into the summer, when the Patriots were a few months removed from a season where then-freshman Taylor Emery led the team in scoring (18.3 points) and was the only player to crack double figures.
The Patriots won their first eight games then dropped five straight and finished 18-10, tying for second in 7A-9. They went on to lose to Clearwater in the first round of the playoffs.
Laurie Pacholke still expected significant improvement from her team, which lost three seniors — they averaged a total of 9.8 points — and returned a promising nucleus of contributors around Emery.
The nucleus got a little bigger and a lot more star-studded over the summer.
Ivey was the first, and probably least-heralded, player to transfer to Freedom. She spent only a year at Plant, her first in Tampa after moving from Edwardsville, Ill., near St. Louis.
When the lease on their South Tampa home expired, Ivey’s family sought more affordable options in the Tampa Palms area and decided on a two-bedroom apartment. Ivey embraced the change, reasoning that she didn’t have that much keeping her at Plant.
“It wasn’t that big of a deal,” she said. “I was new here anyway. I figured I could have a new experience and make more friends.”
Ivey had already joined the Patriots’ summer workouts when news filtered out that Woodard and Williams, who led Riverview to a 21-5 record and playoff berth the previous year, were seeking a transfer to Freedom.
Woodard and Williams were also looking for a change, so much so that they were willing to leave where they spent their first three years of high school.
“There was a lot of drama,” Williams said, declining to go into much detail.
“I just felt like it was time to move on,” Woodard said.
As expected, news of their transfers was greeted with whispered accusations of recruiting around the county. Those rumblings were often echoed at games throughout the season, when opposing fans mockingly referred to them as “free agents.”
Pacholke shrugged off those charges, saying the county school district approved the moves and that she did nothing wrong.
“People are always going to try to knock you down,” she said. “I wouldn’t even talk about this if I felt I had something to hide or to be ashamed about. But I didn’t. I’m extremely proud of this team.
“At the end of the day, we have to worry about us.”
That defensive posture has played to successful results on the court, where Freedom has won games by an average of 26 points and lost only during out-of-area winter tournaments.
But it was during those tournaments where the team bonded the most, occasionally with all of the players piling into a single hotel room in Fort Myers to laugh and gossip and confide in one another.
“Everyone put their guard down,” Pacholke said. “That’s why you play in those kinds of events and play that kind of a schedule. You learn a lot about yourselves in those situations.”
That bond showed up Saturday, when the Patriots needed contributions from all of their senior transfers to pull out a one-point victory over defending state champion Sebastian River in the region final.
Woodard scored 25, including the go-ahead basket with 13 seconds left; Emery had 19; Ivey added 15; and Williams had six points and five assists, including one on Woodard’s winning shot.
It was the sort of all-around effort forged in long bus rides, out-of-town hotel rooms and loud gyms in small towns.
“We’ve all grown really close to each other,” Ivey said. “And we’re all peaking at the right time.”