Point guard Nari Garner (left) and forward Megan Clark will be counted on to fill a big void and keep the Patriots atop the district standings this season. (Photo/John C. Cotey)

Most coaches would be fretting over the loss of a player who averaged 35 points a game, a player who became Hillsborough County’s all-time leading girls’ scorer and was the undeniable and unstoppable thrust of the offense last season.

Not Freedom girls basketball head coach Laurie Pacholke.

Oh sure, the loss of everyone’s Player of the Year Taylor Emery, who signed with Tulane University, will hurt a little. And the transition to a more balanced offense is sure to hit a few bumps along the way.

But Pacholke doesn’t think those bumps will derail what she expects to be another solid season.

“I’m super excited,’’ she said. “You know, last year we always had Taylor with her 30-35 points, and someone else with 15 or so and it was a different player every night. Now those (other) players will be able to showcase their talents more.”

Basketball season tips off next week, with the Patriots playing at Spoto and the Wharton girls opening at Alonso, both on Nov. 12.

The Wharton boys host Strawberry Crest the following week in their season opener Nov. 17, and the Freedom boys open the next night at Leto.

You can expect much of the same from the New Tampa squads again this season. While the Wharton girls have hovered under .500 the past few seasons, the other three teams have enjoyed making it at least as far as the regional final, with the Wildcat boys and Patriot girls going to the state semifinals, and have combined to win 295 games and lose only 103 the last five seasons.

The Wharton boys haven’t won fewer than 20 games since 2008-09.

However, the Freedom girls have the biggest shoes to fill this season.

With Emery gone after a 26-3 season, Pacholke will lean on returning 5-foot-7 senior Nari Garner and a cast of teammates that the coach says is ready to breakout.

Garner, a slick ball-handler who averaged 5.7 assists last season, is one of Hillsborough County’s top point guards and a team leader.

She will be counted on to fill up the hoop a little more this season in Emery’s absence. Garner didn’t have to score a lot last season but had games of 21, 20 and 18 twice on the way to averaging 10.8 points and is capable of more.

“I think anybody will tell you in high school basketball, as long as you have good guard play, you’ll be okay,’’ Pacholke said.

Garner will have help from 5-8 junior forward Megan Clark, but will have to wait until the end of December. The all-around talent averaged 9.7 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.1 steals a game last season, but Clark tore her ACL at the USF Team Camp in June.

Senior forward Makayla Gentry will be much improved, Pacholke said, and the coach is eager to see what players like juniors Ashley Bell, Taraja Leon and Olivia Gonzalez do in potentially expanded roles.

And Pacholke says the defense, usually very good but underappreciated, will be a weapon again.

The Patriots are still the team to beat in Class 7A, District 8, where Steinbrenner, Sickles and Plant are expected to be their top competition.

“We’re still going to be really good,” said Pacholke, whose team will play its first game at home Nov. 20 against Sickles. “I think because Taylor was so good, you didn’t really get to see what our younger kids can do. But they are good. I think you’ll see that this year.”

Pacholke adds, “It’s a whole new vibe, we are looking forward to it.’’

Head coach: Tommy Tonelli
Last year: 24-5
District record (8A-7 in 2014-15): 9-1
District outlook: The Wildcats’ new District 7A-8 will be even tougher this year, with the addition of a Sickles team that is probably the District’s favorite. But, the Wildcats and Freedom should both be in the playoff race.
Key returners: G/F Evan Trice (Sr., 6-2), F Josiah Crawford (Sr., 6-3), G Matthew Tonelli (Sr., 5-11), F Devontres Dukes (Sr., 6-4), PG Tray Gildon (Jr., 5-10)
X-Factor: F Dae’Son Barnes (So., 6-3).
Season Outlook: Since returning for his second stint as Wharton head coach in 2009, Tonelli has averaged 23.6 wins a season. The Wildcats should approach that mark again this time around, too. Trice (12 ppg, 4 assists, 4 rebs) and Crawford (9 ppg, 6 rebs) will lead the way after a big offseason in which Wharton captured the Southeast Basketball Academy (SEBA) Summer League title. Gildon will run the point and Tonelli said the shifty guard has shown tremendous improvement this offseason. Gildon will be backed up by the coach’s scrappy son Matthew Tonelli, and Dukes can be a force inside. Barnes could be a special find for the Wildcats as he moves up from junior varsity. In fact, Barnes could be one of a few jayvee players from last year’s 15-1 squad to have on impact on varsity.
The schedule: The Wildcats open the season Nov. 17 hosting Strawberry Crest, and also play Nov. 18 (at Wiregrass Ranch), 20 (at Plant) and 21 (host Newsome).

Head coach: Chad Reed
Last year: 8-19
District record (8A-7 in 2014-15): 3-7
District outlook: The Wildcats’ district added some top teams, making the Wildcats playoff hopes a little harder to reach as Freedom, Sickles and Plant will be the co-favorites.
Key returners: F Lauren Wall (Sr., 6-0), C Sabrena Eye (Jr., 6-1), G Diamond Wells (Sr., 6-0), G Ashley Jones (Jr., 5-8).
Season Outlook: Reed inherited a program that was just 1-21 the year before he got there and turned them into a 21-5 team his first season. Since then, the Wildcats have not finished over .500 and last year tumbled to a 8-19 finish, the worst under Reed. The Wildcats lost leading scorer Nicole Wolard to graduation, but second leading scorer Wall (9.2 points, 5.2 rebounds) is back for the ‘Cats. Wells, who averaged a team-best 9.7 rebounds to go with 8.2 points a contest, also is back. Wall, Wells and Eye are all 6-feet tall or better, giving the Wildcats some value along the frontline, although Wall also led the team in three-pointers. Jones will play point guard for the Wildcats, who improved as last season went on and only lost by two points to Plant in the district tournament.
The schedule: The Wildcats play seven games in November, all against teams that won at least 16 games last season and went to the playoffs. The Wildcats open on the road at Alonso (Nov. 12) and play their first home game Nov. 13 against Plant City.

Head coach: Cedric Smith
Last year: 22-7
District record (7A-8): 10-0
District outlook: Freedom will be reunited with rival Wharton in district play this season, making the two meetings between the teams this season must-see basketball in New Tampa.
Key returners: G Sheldon Odunna (Sr., 6-3), G Nasir Cole (Sr., 6-0), PG Dylan Angel (Sr., 6-1), C Alex Rojas (So., 6-8).
X-Factor: F Chase Creasy (Jr., 6-4).
Season Outlook: Last year, the Patriots spread the ball around, as 17 different players scored. Well, 15 of those players were underclassmen, giving Smith the most experienced team he’s ever had. It could prove to be his best team, as well. Odunna continues to show great improvement year-to-year and is the team’s best player, averaging a team-high 16.1 points last season. Smith says he is one of the best guards in the county. He shares the backcourt with Cole and Angel, and guard play is one of the Patriots’ strengths. Freedom has a host of long wings to fuel the defensive side, like senior Jamal Byrnes and Quenden James, and Smith said Creasy is good enough to be a starter but he needs his offense off the bench. After reaching the regional final in 2013-14, Smith and his Patriots are ready for the next step.
The schedule: Freedom opens up on the road with a game at Leto (Nov. 18) before the home opener Nov. 20 vs. Sickles. Oh, and then it’s Wharton on Dec. 1.

115 — combined victories the last five seasons (23/year) by the Wharton boys basketball team.
108 — combined victories (21.6/year) by the Freedom girls basketball team the last five years.
15 — players who made at least one free throw for the Freedom last year.
13 — all-time playoff appearances by the Wharton boys, the most of any boys or girls hoops team in New Tampa.
6 — consecutive playoff appearances by the Wharton boys, including a state semifinal appearance in 2013.
3 — all-time playoff appearances by Freedom, including the last two seasons.
50.6 — percentage of the Freedom girls’ team’s points scored last year by Taylor Emery (1,020 of 2,012).
10 — all-time playoff appearances by the Wharton girls, one more than Freedom.
12 — of February, when the girls Class 7A State final four begins.
1 — of December, when the Wharton & Freedom boys & girls teams will square off at Wharton in the “Battles for Bruce B. Downs”
19 — of February, when the boys Class 7A state final four begins.


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