By Gary Nager

The annual basketball “Battle for New Tampa” between Paul R. Wharton High on Bruce B. Downs (BBD) Blvd. and Freedom High in Tampa Palms has seen its share of close matchups, but the Freedom girls (now 20-2 and 8-0 in Class 7A-District 9) and Wharton boys (20-3, 10-0 in District 8A-7) teams both proved their dominance in this year’s respective battles, both of which took place at Wharton’s gym on January 23, where a packed house saw the Freedom girls and Wharton boys continue their respective marches towards State titles.

Coach Laurie Pacholke’s Patriots more than doubled up the Wildcats (9-12, 4-6), coached by Chad Reed, by a 63-31 score. Pacholke’s combination of senior Faith Woodard (21.5 ppg), who has accepted an athletic scholarship from prestigious Georgetown University after receiving more than 30 letters from Division 1A schools, and sophomore sensation Taylor Emery (21.4), who also is being bombarded with scholarship offers, was too much for Wharton, which was led by senior Allison Mitchell’s 14 points.

Pacholke, whose Freedom teams have won at least 19 games all four years she has been the coach, says this year’s squad “is definitely my best group yet. We haven’t lost to a Hillsborough County school all year.”

And, although she said she wouldn’t look too far ahead at a possible State title, the coach of the 44th-ranked overall team in any class in Florida said she did expect to be playing in the District title game at home as this issue reaches you (on Friday, Feb. 1).

“Steinbrenner (High) is our toughest competition in the District,” she says, although Freedom already has beaten the Warriors twice during the regular season (but by a combined total of only 11 points, a far cry from the average margin of victory for the Pats, which is outscoring opponents by nearly 30 points per game). “The one thing we can’t afford to do is look past anyone. We have to come to play and I know we will.”


Tonelli Keeping ‘Cats Hot

Meanwhile, the Wharton boys throttled the visiting Patriots, 71-47, despite Freedom senior Brandon Patchan’s 27 points and double-digit rebounds. The Pats couldn’t match the ‘Cats (who also are ranked in the top 50 teams overall in the state) speed for speed, as most of the game was played at a frenetic pace and Wharton’s pressing defense forced plenty of turnovers.

Of course, the Wildcats have had tremendous success every year that coach Tommy Tonelli has led the team — which is every year since 1997, except for two seasons (2007-09), when he returned as an assistant coach at his alma mater, the University of South Florida. Tonelli had been a three-year starter at USF and is one of the school’s all-time leaders in assists and steals. The Chicago native posted a record of 213-73 (for a .750 winning percentage) his first ten years at Wharton, and his ‘Cats have done even better (94-15, .862, and the school’s only State hoops title, in 2011) since he returned from his stint at USF.

And, this year is no exception, as Tonelli’s ‘Cats, who start four seniors and experienced junior Chase Litton, have decimated local competition by an average of 20 points per game, with the team’s only losses by 6 to Largo, by 10 to 21-1 Tampa Prep and by 11 to Orlando’s Lake Highland Prep.

Although Tonelli also won’t allow his ‘Cats to look past anyone, only Plant and Alonso (both 6-4) have winning records in Wharton’s district and the Wildcats already have beaten both schools handily twice this season.

Patriot Boys No Slouches

Although coach Cedric Smith’s Patriots (now 13-4, 6-2 in District 7A-9) couldn’t run with Wharton, the Pats already handed District leader Chamberlain (16-5, 7-1) it’s only league loss this season and split a pair of one-point contests with the Chiefs. The Pats also split two close games with third place Wiregrass Ranch High (17-5, 5-3) this year, so there’s no doubt Freedom has a great chance to make some noise in the District tournament this weekend.

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