Patriots have Land O’ Lakes feel to them
By Kyle LoJacono
NEW TAMPA — Freedom may not be the first team that jumps to mind when it comes to traditional basketball powerhouses, but this year’s team might change that.
“The schools had a couple of successful teams before, so I’m not sure what the best start ever is,” Freedom coach Laurie Pacholke said. “I’d say it’s one of the best starts in school history though.
“We had to change the whole perception of Freedom basketball, because a lot of people thought it was a joke before.”
The Patriots (16-2) are no joke and currently are in second place in Class 5A District 9.
“It’s very exciting how well the team has started this season,” Freedom athletic director Elijah Thomas Jr. said.
The Patriot’s record would lead most to believe Pacholke has been molding the team for years, but it is actually her first season in New Tampa. She spent the last three years coaching Land O’ Lakes, where she helped guide the Gators to two playoff appearances.
Pacholke was not the only family member to join the Patriots this season. Her oldest daughter, Kaitlynn, went to Land O’ Lakes for her first two years.
“We live in New Tampa, but because I was at Land O’ Lakes she got to go to the school too,” Pacholke said. “In that way it’s been a homecoming for her because she played at Liberty Middle School. My younger daughter, Neena, is a freshman with me now too. I loved coaching at Land O’ Lakes, but when the chance to coach closer to home came I had to take it.”
Co-captain Kaitlynn said of playing for Land O’ Lakes for two years, “It was good playing there, but it’s great to be able to play in my hometown. The fans were great in Land O’ Lakes, but it’s different to have the support of people you’ve grown up with cheering you on from the stands.”
While Kaitlynn, point guard, and Neena know their mother’s system better than most, it is still not easy being the daughter of a coach.
“It has its ups and downs,” Kaitlynn said. “We already had a strong relationship, but she does push me and Neena harder than the other players. She doesn’t take it easy on us and she’s even harder on me because I’m older. Sometimes I want to be treated like everyone else, but I know she just expects a lot out of me.”
Freedom is not the tallest team around, with only Lindsay Taggart as tall as six-feet. To make up for its lack of height, the Patriots rely on speed, quickness and getting the ball to the open player.
“On any night we can have four or five different players drop double-digit points on the opponent,” Pacholke said. “Not many teams can cover that many kids. We also have very fast guards, and good guard play is what wins in high school basketball.”
The Patriots have four players averaging more than nine points per game through the first 16 games: Shaunice Hobbs with 19.5, Kaitlynn with 14.5, Taggart with 11.6 and Shade Williams with 9.1. Hobbs leads the team with 113 rebounds, while Kaitlynn tops the squad with 111 assists.
“I love being able to get everyone the ball,” Kaitlynn said. “It’s a reward to be able to set them up and I’d much rather get an assist than hit a shot on my own.”
Taggart has a team-high 58 blocks and also pulled down 101 rebounds.
“It’s different for me because I’m still getting used to playing down low,” Taggart said. “Last year I played mostly small forward. The good thing is I can step out and hit a jumper, which is usually hard for the other center to cover.”
Abby Alger played center for the Patriots last season.
All of Freedom’s speed and Taggart’s post play has put them near the top of the district, but a team from Citrus Park has just as many playmakers as the Patriots.
“Sickles has already beaten us once and we play them again on Jan. 15 in our building,” Pacholke said. “They have a talented team over there with Amber Henson dropping 20 plus points each night.”
Amber is the sister of John Henson, who played for the Gryphons in the 2008-09 season before going to play at the University of North Carolina. Amber is averaging 23.5 points per game through Sickles’ first 16 contests — the most in Hillsborough County.
“Sickles is our big rival and I hope to play them again,” Taggart said. “We have to stay focused though or we’ll get knocked out before we face them.”
The 5A-9 district tournament will be at Sickles from Feb. 2 to 6.
Player year position
- Shaunice Hobbs Jr. PG
- Shade Williams So. G
- Kaitlynn Pacholke Jr. PG
- Neena Pacholke Fr. SG
- Lindsay Taggart Jr. C/F
- Sarah Decosta So. G
- Kela Holland Sr. F/G
- Mahalia Bolds So. F
- Lauren Repp Fr. F/G
- Ashle Thompson Fr. C/F
- Sitia Neeley Fr. G
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