Ken Angel could see the signs last year.

As an assistant coach for Freedom, he and head coach Cedric Smith watched a Patriots team that lacked confidence for most of the season. It wasn’t until the stretch run of the regular season that Freedom found its footing, winning four of its final six games, and the losses were by a combined five points.

Freedom’s Bernard Reynolds drives to the hoop in a 55-22 win over Wiregrass Ranch

Smith resigned following the season and Angel has stepped in as head coach. And, Freedom has picked up right where it left off in 2018.

Buoyed by five senior starters and a deep bench, the Pats are off to a 10-1 start.

Freedom’s only loss? To Wharton, naturally.

Tonight, those two teams clash at Freedom at 8 p.m. with a potential No. 1 seed in the district on the line, but just as important: New Tampa bragging rights.

“That game means a lot to the boys,” says Angel, whose squad has dropped the last five meetings in the series by an average of 15 points per game, including the 73-54 decision a little over a month ago. “Anytime we play Wharton, it’s been a big game.”

Darin Green leads Wharton in scoring.

The Wildcats (11-2) entered the break with an 8-0 record, ranked No. 1 overall in Hillsborough & Pasco-Pinellas counties by the Tampa Bay Times and looking like a Florida Class 8A state title contender. They dropped two games at the Nature Coast High Christmas Tournament, but bounced back with wins over Naples Golden Gate (99-65) and Plant (54-45).

The win over the Panthers was a Class 8A, District 8 win. The Wildcats are now 8-0 in league play, and a win over Freedom will move them closer to the regular season title.

Freedom is right behind Wharton at 7-1 in the district. It will be the biggest game between the two teams in years.

Wharton guard Jasper Floyd.

While Wharton’s hot start is no surprise — the ‘Cats boast silky guard Darin Green, jr. forward Carr Thiam, jr. point guard Gio Reyes, and two seniors (forward MacKinley Theirse and guard Jasper Floyd) — the Pats’ opening month has been better than anticipated.

After back-to-back 9-win seasons, Freedom has already eclipsed that number before the season is even half over. All of the Patriots’ wins but three have been by double figures, and they are currently on an eight-game winning streak.

“We put a lot of time in the gym during the summer, so I’m not that surprised,” Angel says. “We worked really hard. I’m happy for the guys. They’re playing really tough basketball.”

Angel doesn’t like singling players out, because he says it has been a family-approach that has been yielding the early results.

The contributions, however, are coming from many different player. Seniors Nick Butler, Kevin Rodriguez, Trevian Hinson, Xavier Betancourt and Jalen Royster all played exceptionally well in December. 

Hinson has been an unsung hero, leading the team in steals while his scoring average inches closer to double figure with every game, Rodriguez is averaging close to a double-double in points and rebounds, and Royster had his breakout game with 20 points in a 55-22 win Dec. 12 over Wiregrass Ranch.

“We’re trying to get back where we were a few years ago,” Angels says. “We’ve still got room for improvement, but we are getting there.”

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