By Kyle LoJacono
The Freedom girls basketball team went 6-15 five seasons ago, the fewest win total in the school’s 10-year history.
Coach Laurie Pacholke was brought in the next year to help restore the winning ways of a program that had made the postseason five times in its first six campaigns.
The Patriots missed the playoffs during her first season at the helm, but improved their record to 19-6. They have made the postseason the last two years, but just making it beyond districts won’t satisfy anyone at Freedom in 2012-13.
The Patriots are focused on the Class 7A final four in Lakeland.
“There’s no secret our expectations are to get to Lakeland,” Laurie said. “As much as you say it in the past as a goal, this year, really because of the talent and commitment that we have, it’s a realistic goal. They know if we don’t reach it, then it’s a letdown. That’s our only acceptable outcome, but I’ve got the kind of kids who will step up to that challenge.”
Part of that mentality comes from the fact that Freedom loses only one starter, Shadé Williams, from last year while bringing back a trio of seniors who were freshmen during Laurie’s first year in guard Neena Pacholke (7.5 points) and forwards Lauren Repp (3.9 points, 2.6 rebounds) and Ashle Thompson (3.1 points, 2.7 rebounds).
The group is used to their coach’s ways and is ready to take the program to a level beyond the regional quarterfinals, where their season has ended the last two seasons.
“We weren’t really happy with what we accomplished last year, so we want to have a better year this year,” Repp said. “We’ve tried to outdo what we did the year before and set higher and higher goals. We won districts my sophomore year, but it hasn’t been enough for any of us.”
The Patriots also return sophomore Taylor Emery, who led the team with 18.3 points and 3.1 steals while adding 3.2 rebounds as a freshman. The 5-foot-9 guard said she still feels like she must show she belongs.
“I feel like I have to prove myself every day,” Emery said. “There’s still competition for playing time. … I have a little bit more confidence, but we’re a new team, so I know I have to step up my game even more to get to our goals — states.”
Freedom is also bolstered by a pair of senior transfers from Riverview in point guard Monet Williams (9.3 points, 5.4 assists, 3.5 steals, 2.5 rebounds) and 6-foot-2 forward Faith Woodard (21.4 points, 11 rebounds, four steals, 3.1 blocks, three assists).
“There’s a little pressure, but nothing we can’t handle,” said Woodard, a Georgetown University commit. “Yes, we have a target on our back, but can definitely get it done.”
Woodard said that confidence comes from seeing her teammates’ efforts.
“Just practice has been amazing,” Woodard said. “Coming from Riverview, this is just a totally new team. Everyone goes hard. It’s just wonderful.”
Neena, Laurie’s daughter, said she already has chemistry with Woodard and Williams because they played on a travel club team as freshmen and believes they will fit right in.
“It’s kind of overwhelming just thinking about getting them this year,” Neena said. She added, “It’s kind of weird to think how long we’ve known each other, but now we’re all on the same high school team.”
Point guard was a position the Patriots was looking for answers at last year. They lost two-year starter in Laurie’s daughter Kaitlynn, who led the squad with 15.3 points, 8.8 assists and 5.3 steals during their district championship run two seasons ago.
Williams is still working back from her second ACL tear in less than a year, the latest happening in June during rehab. Laurie said they are working her back slowly, but is excited about adding her to the mix with junior Bella Gibson (3.3 points, 1.7 assists).
“Getting Monet is huge,” Laurie said. “Once she gets healthy, she’s kind of like Kaitlynn. She’s a hard-nosed kid who’s a great floor general. I don’t think she ever got the credit at Riverview, but I think she can come into this team and do what we need. Also, Bella did a great job coming along. I’d have to say we’re much more confident in our ball-handling skills this year.”
Laurie is also psyched about what Woodard adds at both ends of the court.
“Faith is one of those kids who is just so versatile,” Laurie said. “Yes, she’s a post, but she can also go out on the wing. Defensively, she can guard anybody, so she allows you to do so many things. Offensively, she’s just a matchup nightmare. … Having her alongside Taylor really helps because it’s more balanced. To have all that on (Emery’s) shoulders as a freshman was tough. In our fall league with her and Faith I could tell it’s going to be fun.”
Laurie said she is as excited to tip off the season as her players are.
“I’m chomping at the bit,” Laurie said. “Even having to go through tryouts was tough because you can’t do the teaching in tryouts that I want to jump right into. We’re going to use that excitement to build on. I’m telling them they’ve got to get out of their comfort zone. I’m excited about challenging this team, because I don’t have to worry about our 13th or 14th kid slowing things down because everybody is at that high level.”
Freedom hosts the 7A-9 district tournament Jan. 28 to Feb. 1, with the final Feb. 1 at 7 p.m. The Patriots open the regular season at Alonso Nov. 13 at 7 p.m.
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker