By Kyle LoJacono
Freedom flag football has been one of the most consistently successful programs since Hillsborough County adopted the sport in 2007.
The Patriots have reached the playoffs every year, won two district championships and also finished as runner-up twice. The program went 9-1 last season with the only loss coming in the district finals.
The expectation to win is constant for Freedom, but this year the positive pressure falls on a new cast of characters. The Patriots bring back one fulltime varsity player, junior slot receiver/defensive back Ashle Thompson.
“I have to be more of a leader,” said Thompson, who caught two touchdowns with three interceptions last year.
Thompson is used to being on successful teams at Freedom, playing for the volleyball and girls basketball programs that both made the playoffs the last two years.
“You don’t want to let your school down,” Thompson said. “You have to be on top of your game. We don’t lose much in flag football, so when we do people talk about ‘oh you lost.’ They expect us to be the best.”
One of the biggest voids the Patriots must fill is the production of Briahanna Jackson, the reigning All-Laker/All-Lutz News Player of the Year. In her senior season last year she racked up 18 passing and 18 rushing touchdowns while adding a program-record 1,023 rushing yards and 23 interceptions.
One option at quarterback is junior Missy Dunbar, who moved up from junior varsity at the end of last year.
“Bri was really good,” Dunbar said. “She focused on making us a team by working with everyone.”
Dunbar developed her ability to throw while playing softball with the Lutz Leaguerettes. She said she won’t be able to move the way Jackson did and will instead work to get the ball to her playmakers.
“She was really good, so I’ll just have to do my best and not try to be Bri,” Dunbar said.
Dunbar will have many young options to get the ball to.
“We haven’t had the quantity of freshmen with this kind of athleticism since one of the first years,” said Dennis Derflinger, the only coach in program history. “It’s interesting to see how they get used to the game pulling flags, running routes and the speed.”
Freedom has 11 underclassmen, including four freshmen, on the 15-member varsity roster. The Patriots will need those new options to replace graduates like Jackson, along with leading receivers Katie Cerillo and Lindsay Taggart who had 524 combined yards and nine touchdowns.
“We lost a lot of talent, but we tend to do that every year,” Derflinger said. “This year will be different because we only have three seniors on the roster, so this group should be around for a couple years. … We’ve got a lot of girls who can catch, and they seem to have a knack for getting open by running their routes. I don’t know if we’ve had that before to this level. Before kids would get open by just running away from defenders. I see them thinking about the routes.”
One of the new options is sophomore Hanna Seybold, who is playing flag football for the first time.
“The school has a good reputation for flag football,” said Seybold, who will likely play wide receiver and defensive back. “I hope we can continue that so more girls will come out and play too. Making the playoffs every year is a great accomplishment. We have such good coaching and our athletes are giving it everything we have to keep that up.”
Freedom lost key players from last year, but so did District 16 opponent Alonso including quarterback Carlee North. The Ravens made the state finals the last two years.
Derflinger sees the district, which includes area schools like Steinbrenner, Gaither and Wharton, as very competitive.
“Last year Alonso was the team to beat in our district, and we came on strong as the year went on,” Derflinger said. “There weren’t many extremely close games for either of us throughout the year. This year we’re looking at a lot of one-touchdown games, two at the most, with most of the teams in the district.”
Freedom kicks off the season hosting Lennard on Tuesday, March 20 followed by home games against Leto and Gaither on March 26 and 29, respectively. The Patriots’ first road contest is at Steinbrenner on April 2. All matchups start at 7:30 p.m.