By Kyle LoJacono
Laying the foundation
Freedom girls basketball was at one of its lowest points five years ago when it went 6-15, the fewest wins in the program’s 10-year history.
A trio of freshmen came to the program the following year and began turning the Patriots around. And now, forward Lauren Repp, forward/guard Ashle Thompson and guard Neena Pacholke are seniors on the first squad in program history to make the final four.
“I couldn’t tell you after my freshman year that we’d be going to the state tournament,” Neena said. “It’s weird because it doesn’t feel real. … Walking through the halls I feel like I can walk a little higher being a part of this team.”
Coach Laurie Pacholke, Neena’s mom, came in with those three after leading Land O’ Lakes for three seasons.
“I don’t even know that words can describe what those three mean being committed to what our goal was with the program,” Laurie said. “They’re three kids who come in here and set the tone because they know how we run practices, and they’re the key. They stuck with the culture and continued the culture.”
The trio’s role has changed as the program attracted talented players while others developed.
Neena (3.0 points, 2.0 assists) still started this year, but her points per contest dropped from 7.5 last season. She’s focused her attention on defense and passing.
“Teams still know she’s a shooter, and she stretches the defense out,” Laurie said. “She sees the floor well, and her defense is something she’s been committed to.”
Thompson (3.0 points, 2.4 rebounds) and Repp (3.5 points, 2.1 rebounds) came off the bench, and Laurie commends them for accepting that role.
“Lauren may see 30 minutes, she may see two minutes or she might not see the floor, but you’d never know by the look on her face,” Laurie said. “Those are the type of kids you need for us to be where we’re at today. … Ashle is very versatile. She can step out and guard guards and she can guard a post player. She’s just super, super athletic, and she knows when we put her in we need her to stop someone and get rebounds, and that’s what she does.”
Thompson said there’s a lot of pride being a part of the turnaround and leaving the program in good shape.
“I feel like we put Freedom on the map, and it’s a great foundation because more people are going to want to come here,” Thompson said. “The program can only go up.”
Changing the culture
Laurie remembers what Freedom basketball games used to be like.
“You could hear crickets chirp in this gym,” Laurie said. “They didn’t have great parental support, so to go from that to what these fans are like now, that’s probably the proudest thing is getting the student body involved and being proud of something.”
The first step was changing the culture.
“We needed them to commit to being a basketball player and not just a kid who plays basketball,” Laurie said.
Repp said the expectations became apparent from Day 1.
“The day I ended middle school I came here for practice,” Repp said. “Once we started conditioning I was a little scared because it was very intense. It was a lot harder than any practice I’d done. … Coach brought that intensity and discipline.”
Repp said the biggest change the last four years hasn’t been the work because “coach always makes us work this hard.” Now it’s about the number of people interested in Freedom basketball.
“It’s a good feeling, especially to have so many people talking about our team,” Repp said. “Our school didn’t have that much team spirit, so to have so much support at our games was really good. It’s something to be proud of.”
Freedom got three big senior additions in the offseason when forward Faith Woodard and point guard Monet Williams used Hillsborough County’s School Choice program to transfer from Riverview and guard Whitney Turntine-Ivy’s family moved from Plant’s district.
The three not only gave Laurie three impact players, but also illustrated the growth of the program during the last four years.
“They could have chosen to go to any school in the county, but they wanted to come here,” Laurie said. “I told the girls they’re going to come in and take some starting spots, but because of the foundation they’ve laid the last three years is why they came here.”
Woodard (22.1 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.9 steals, 1.9 blocks) said the decision to transfer was an easy one.
“I knew a little about the school, but I really knew coach Pacholke and Neena,” Woodard said. “I knew their character and how Neena was raised, and I was really comfortable with that.”
Turntine-Ivy (6.3 points, 2.1 rebounds) said the squad was very welcoming, which helped them mesh quickly.
“The first five minutes of our first fall league game I remember making a pass, and ever since then we’ve been off and running,” Turntine-Ivy said. “We fit together like that.”
The three didn’t just bring talent and stats. They also brought high expectations.
“We had a bull’s-eye on our backs, and we knew a lot of people were watching to see what we could do,” Woodard said. “We wanted to show that we don’t just have some of the best players. We’re one of the best teams.”
Laurie said she’s heard all the questions about how the three came to play for the Patriots.
“People can say what they want to say about the kids coming in, but that happens when you do something that people want to be a part of,” Laurie said. “People want to be part of something special. They knew it was going to be tough coming here. … We just focus on each other and don’t worry about what other people are going to say.”
The versatile Ms. Emery
Taylor Emery exploded onto the area’s basketball scene last year as a freshman when she averaged 18.3 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.1 steals.
The sophomore guard wasn’t content, and dedicated her offseason to taking all parts of her game to the next level.
“This summer my dad (Emmett) took me out to the park to work on my ball handling, my shooting and trying to get me to be an all-around player,” Emery said. “Then coach has been on me about working on defense, so I got offense from my dad and the defense from coach.”
The results have been 20.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.7 steals and 3.0 assists this year.
One of the largest additions to her game has been turning defense into quick offense with her ability to get steals seemingly at will.
“I think I’ve always had that feeling when to go for a steal, but I haven’t been in top-notch shape to be able to jump out and grab it,” Emery said. “Since then coach has been working on my speed, and so has my dad. … Last year I was getting steals by hand checking, but now I don’t have to do that and don’t have to worry about getting called for those fouls.”
Laurie said she always saw Emery’s instincts.
“That’s what makes her so special,” Laurie said. “Last year defense wasn’t a top priority for her, but we talked with her about if you get it done on the defensive end it makes things easier offensively. That’s really showed this year with her bringing all her tools together.”
Emery also evolved offensively from a player who primarily scored by driving to the basket to one with a dangerous pull-up jumper.
“You don’t see that sweet of a touch at the collegiate level,” Laurie said. “That’s just hours and hours of work. She’s got such a quick first step and can take anyone on the dribble, and when she pulls up there’s not a lot you can do.”
Emery said hitting a jumper is now her favorite part of the game: “When you’re on a fast break and it’s you and a defender and they’re expecting you to drive to the basket, to stop and pop at the free throw line and, bam, hit that jumper, that’s the best feeling.”
Fighting through adversity
Williams didn’t know what she’d be able to do her senior year after tearing the ACL in her right knee twice in 2012.
She put in the work in rehab and returned to the court in a game for the first time Nov. 27, and since then she’s averaged 3.7 assists and 2.4 points.
“I didn’t think I’d be able to have this kind of season,” Williams said. “I’m not fully back yet, but I’m about 75 percent back. … The biggest thing is I’m still a little scared. I’m trying to get that confidence back.”
Williams also had the challenge of learning new teammates after transferring from Riverview.
“Point guards have to know their teammates to make those passes, so it was good for me to be able to sit out and see how my teammates played,” Williams said. “As I got in the games it got easier and easier.”
Woodard, who has played on the same team as Williams since eighth grade, said getting her back took the squad to another level.
“When we didn’t have her we were an above-average team,” Woodard said. “We were still good, but she sets us apart. She’s the point guard. Her basketball IQ and her passing are just unbelievable.”
Laurie used Williams off the bench because of the instant energy she infused.
“She is an absolute spark plug coming off the bench, and it gives us a different look,” Laurie said. “She’s one of the toughest kids you’ll ever meet, and she gets better as the game goes on.”
Williams had some of her most explosive performances of the year during the playoffs.
She scored a season-high 10 in the regional quarterfinals against Clearwater, and followed up with eight and six in the semifinals and finals versus Steinbrenner and Sebastian River, respectively.
All six of Williams’ points came in the fourth quarter of Freedom’s 74-73 win over Sebastian River. She said the close game reminded her of when her Riverview squad lost 45-43 to Winter Haven in the regional finals during her sophomore year.
“I just didn’t want the same thing to happen as my sophomore year. I felt like I had to step up whether the knee was good or not,” said Williams, who also had five assists and seven rebounds against Sebastian River.
“It’s been a long year,” Williams said. “It hasn’t really sunk in yet that we did what we did this year, and to have that after the knee, it’s really special.”
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker
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