Basketball is always on the mind of Freedom High guard Megan Clark. It occupies her thoughts, her dreams, virtually every hour of her life, awake or asleep. She’s just as intense in a hard-fought, cross-town rivalry game against Wharton as she is in a 78-0 blowout of Leto (see story, next page).
“She never takes a play off, she will not take a play off,” Patriots head coach Laurie Pacholke says. “She goes 32 minutes, all out. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. She’s put herself in shape to go all out for 32 minutes.”
The level of dedication Clark exhibits is uncommon.
“People don’t realize that those are the little things that will help you be successful at the next level,” Pacholke says.
Clark’s level of dedication can be chalked up as obsession.
She wakes up before dawn, most days of the week, to hit the New Tampa YMCA for a 5 a.m. shoot around and practice session. She is almost always the first player to arrive at team practice, and the last to leave.
“She bought the WNBA TV package with her own money, if that doesn’t tell you something,” Pacholke says. “She just has a love for the game. I’ve seen that growth in her (more than in any other player) over the years.”
It wasn’t always that way for Clark.
In sixth grade, while at Liberty Middle School, she decided to try out for every sport she could, just to get an idea of what she liked. She played youth soccer but stepped up to track, volleyball, soccer and basketball that year. “I was bad, awful at basketball in middle school,” Clark said. “I just really liked playing it and thought I’d get better at it.”
And yes, she did.
Clark made the Freedom varsity team her freshman year, a significant feat considering the Patriots the year before made the State semifinals.
Pacholke remembers Clark coming to a game with her father and the post-game discussion revolved around how Clark might see the floor by her junior year.
Clark sped up her coach’s timetable. If she wasn’t at the YMCA in the morning, she was draining buckets at the local outdoor court in Tampa Palms’ Compton Park neighborhood.
When she stayed until the lights went out, she’d come home and shoot at the hoop in her driveway. She not only made the varsity team her freshman year, she scored 18 points in the third game that season.
“She’s a student of the game,” Pacholke says. “She has passion, athletic ability and that really sets her up. I knew then (after the 18-point game) that in her four years at Freedom, her growth was going to be even greater.”
Clark went from averaging 7.3 points per game as a freshman, to 9.7 as a sophomore, 14.7 as a junior and as of the Leto game, she’s averaging 23.6 points per game, third-best in Class 8A, this season.
“I’d say that in a span of four years, Megan has probably improved more than any other kid I’ve coached,” Pacholke says.
Playing At The Next Level
The hard work and dedication have paid off. Clark went to a summer camp at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville. There, she said that she had one of the best camps of her life and that she loved the facility, the players and the coaches.
She came away from that 2016 camp with her heart set on where she wanted to continue her career. The call came a week later. Clarke was taking a walk in her neighborhood when the phone rang. She recognized the number — because she had saved it in her cell phone— it was Tennessee Tech head coach Kim Rosamond.
“I knew it was Coach Rosamond,” Clark says. “She told me pretty quickly in the conversation that they wanted to offer me a scholarship and I (verbally) committed right there.”
Clark signed her letter of intent this past November and entered into a final phase of her prep career, one that few high school athletes get to enjoy.
“Those few months after a player has signed are really the first time in their lives they are playing for fun,” Pacholke says. “When you find the right place (to go to college), you’re going to know, and I don’t think Megan could have found a better fit than Tennessee Tech.”
Rosamond and Clark should develop nicely together. The current season is Rosamond’s first as head coach of the Division I program, which competes in the Ohio Valley Conference and is 6-12 overall. Clark is Rosamond’s first recruit.
With Clark’s team-first mentality and dogged determination, the future is bright for both athlete and program.
“If she (Clark) improved that much over the four years here at Freedom, I can only imagine how much she’ll improve over four years with a collegiate program,” Pacholke says.
Pacholke found herself in an unusual position during a game on Jan. 17 against Leto.
She was rooting for the Falcons to score a basket. Any basket.
Alas, it did not happen.
Final score: Freedom 78, Leto 0.
That is not a typo.
“I felt bad,’’ said Pacholke, who has coached in her fair share of routs in her eight years at Freedom, but last week’s shutout was a first.
“We were saying ‘Please shot go in, please shot go in, please shot go in’ in the fourth quarter,’’ Pacholke said. “We wanted them to get on the board. We definitely weren’t playing for a shutout.”
Pacholke said she was able, however, to use the game as a teaching moment for her players, who she felt had given up late in their previous game, a loss to Plant.
Leto may not have scored, but they kept coming.
“They had fight in them,’’ Pacholke said. “I think a lot of times that gets lost, but those kids, they never gave up.”
Leto has had a rough time of it against New Tampa teams. The Falcons previous worst loss was a 50-1 defeat against Wharton on Jan. 4.
“It’s such a tough situation,’’ Pacholke said. “Do you just stop playing? Do you not play? I look at it from my perspective, and I’m a very competitive person, so if I’m in that kind of situation, I’d be insulted if the other team just stopped playing.”
In retrospect, Pacholke says she wishes she had called up some junior varsity players for the game, but didn’t think of it.
But, she says she played her starters as little as she could with her small roster, and the team did not press or run the ball up the floor on every possession.
And, while it was the first time one of her teams ever shut out an opponent, she says she hopes it is the last.