When everyone was finally together and it was time for tipoff, Freedom coach Laurie Pacholke was as anxious as anyone in the gym to see how it would all unfold.
The Patriots were billed as a virtual all-star team, a high school girls’ version of the Miami Heat: a rising sophomore who nearly averaged 20 points the previous year, two star transfers from Riverview High, and a deep and versatile roster to support them.
Then they started their first game of the fall league season.
“I got goose bumps,” Pacholke said. “Within the first three to four minutes, I looked over at one of my assistant coaches and said, ‘are you kidding me?’ ”
The Patriots went on to dominate most of their fall opponents and won the championship game without 6-foot-2 senior forward Faith Woodard, who was on a recruiting visit to Georgetown that weekend.
That performance — combined with the preseason hype — has set the stage for a highly anticipated season at Freedom, which is openly embracing chatter of becoming Hillsborough’s first public-school state champion since King in 1988.
“Oh, yeah, we talk about it,” sophomore guard Taylor Emery said. “I think we could win state. That’s our goal.”
That didn’t seem likely heading into the summer, when the Patriots were a few months removed from a season where Emery led the team in scoring (18.3 points) and was the only player to crack double figures.
It was quite a burden for a freshman.
“It’s very difficult,” Pacholke said. “The season wears on them.”
The Patriots won their first eight games, then dropped five straight and finished 18-10, tying for second in Class 7A, District 9. They went on to lose to Clearwater in the first round of the playoffs.
Pacholke still expected significant improvement from her team, which lost only three seniors — one who played meaningful minutes — and returned a promising nucleus of contributors around Emery. The team bonded over grueling summer workouts that included
Insanity, a mix of jumping, yoga, martial arts and strength training.
“If you can get through that, you can get through anything,” Pacholke said. “I was excited about what we had coming back. I knew their level of commitment and I knew where we stood.”
Thus, Pacholke was unprepared for the phone call she got from her athletic director during the summer: Woodard and point guard Monet Williams, who both played at Riverview last season, were enrolling at Freedom.
The addition of that duo, particularly Woodard, changed the paradigm for the Patriots.
Woodard averaged 21.4 points and 11 rebounds as a junior, earning first-team all-county honors. She also excelled at track, winning a Class 4A state title in the high jump after finishing second as a sophomore.
“With a kid that talented, you don’t know how they’re going to embrace new challenges,” Pacholke said. “But she’s been awesome.”
Williams and Whitney Turntine-Ivy, a senior transfer from Plant who was recently ruled eligible by the Florida High School Athletic Association, add even more depth to a backcourt that relied heavily on Emery.
So far, the Patriots have lived up to their billing as a powerhouse, winning their first two games by 42 (Alonso) and 48 (Durant) points.
Emery has enjoyed the star-studded support.
“It’s been stress relieving,” she said. “Now I know if I pass to one of my teammates, they’ll finish the play.”
Teams to watch
Freedom: With sophomore sensation Taylor Emery and the addition of senior transfers Faith Woodard and Monet Williams (Riverview) and Whitney Turntine-Ivy (Plant), the Patriots could be the county’s best hope for a state title.
Seffner Christian: The Crusaders are loaded with Sabrina Whiting and Peyton Walker and the return of Tesha Hanson, who spent last year at Riverview. It’s Lakeland or bust for Seffner Christian.
Tampa Bay Tech: More is expected of the Titans, who were knocked out of the first round of the playoffs last season. TBT has one of the county’s tallest and most athletic front lines with Erica Young (6-3), Brianna Thomas (6-2) and Shakela Smith (5-11).
Plant: The Panthers return four starters from a team that won 18 of its first 20 games before dropping three of four, including the first game of the 8A-7 district tournament. They showed they’ll be a force in a two-point loss to TBT last week.
Tampa Catholic: New coach Matthew Rocha inherits one of the area’s top programs from Nancy Kroll, who led the Crusaders to three consecutive final four trips and back-to-back state championships over six seasons. Rocha, who went 34-20 at Ridgewood, faces a rebuilding effort at a program that has grown used to success.
Steinbrenner: Senior star Bailey Hooker leads a deep and experience roster that returns seven seniors, including three starters. The Warriors, defending 7A-9 district champions, could challenge prohibitive favorite Freedom for the district crown.
Sickles: The Gryphons are poised to contend again despite the graduation of Bre Crum, The Times’ Player of the Year. The return of high-scoring senior Cassidy O’Brien, who moved to South Dakota after her freshman year, should prevent much slippage in the program.
Riverview: The Sharks would seem decimated after the spring resignation of Lelani Gordon, the only coach in the program’s history, and the loss of three top players. But they’re off to a strong start under new coach Jonathan Frueh and returnees Shatisha Dukes and Madison Greany.
Newsome: It’s possible the Wolves are ready to take the next step after surprising heavily favored Plant in the 8A-8 district semifinals. Lauren Boerger, a 5-10 junior guard, is the sort of multidimensional talent that could make Newsome a factor.
Academy of the Holy Names: If the Jaguars are going to finally topple 4A-9 district rival Tampa Catholic, this could be the season. Juniors Ashley McWilliams, the team’s top scorer, and Victoria Martinez, who averaged 8.0 points and 10 rebounds last year, give Holy Names a top inside-outside duo.
Players to watch
Brittany Betts, Sr., Tampa Catholic: Betts is the only remaining player from the Crusaders’ state championship teams in 2009-10 and 2010-11. The 5-5 point guard, a Rollins College commit, will be the focal point of the offense.
Taylor Emery, So., Freedom: Emery shouldered a heavy burden as a freshman, leading the Patriots with 18.3 points — the only player to average double figures — and 3.1 assists per game. She should be even more dangerous as part of a deeper and more talented team.
Aliyah Gregory, Jr., Strawberry Crest: The 5-11 standout does it all on the floor, from point guard to power forward. As a sophomore, Gregory averaged 20 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists and a block en route to an all-county honorable mention.
Tesha Hanson, Sr., Seffner Christian: Hanson is back at Seffner Christian after spending a year at Riverview, where she averaged 19 points and 4.0 steals a game while sharing the spotlight with Freedom transfer Faith Woodard.
Bailey Hooker, Sr., Steinbrenner: The 6-foot sharpshooter averaged 19 points and 6.0 rebounds a game for the 2011-12 7A-9 district champions. Through three games this season, Hooker is shooting 56 percent overall and 47 percent from beyond the arc.
O’Brien, Sr., Sickles: O’Brien returns to Sickles after spending two years at Aberdeen (S.D.) Central High, one of the top programs in the Midwest. She’s acclimated to the change well, averaging 16 points on 52 percent shooting in her first three games.
Peyton Walker, So., Seffner Christian: As a freshman, Walker led the Crusaders in points (18) and rebounds (13) per game and finished as a second-team all-county selection.
Sabrina Whiting, Jr., Seffner Christian: Whiting was a stat-sheet stuffer, averaging 16 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.0 steals and 4.0 assists per game for the 24-win Crusaders.
Faith Woodard, Sr., Freedom: The 6-2 Georgetown commit transferred from Riverview to Freedom for her final season, instantly turning the Patriots into state title contenders.
Erica Young, Sr., Tampa Bay Tech: A first-team all-county selection last year, the 6-foot-3 Young is arguably the county’s top post player. The Kansas State commit averaged 20.1 points last year, sixth among juniors in the state.
Joel Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @jdhometeam.