The most successful winter sports program at Freedom High in Tampa Palms this season might very well be the school’s wrestling team.
Not historically strong, the Patriots had a breakout season in 2016-17, and are primed for even better things this winter.
Head coach Derrick McCoy has been at the helm for five years now. He remembers when he took over the program in 2012 and had just six wrestlers. Prior to the Thanksgiving Break, McCoy had 29 certified wrestlers with four more in the process, bumping his total squad number up to 33.
“This will be the first year all of the weight classes are filled, and all but the 106-lb. class have more than one guy in them,” McCoy says.
Last season, the Patriots were the Class 3A, District 7 runners-up, scoring 152.5 points, just behind champion Steinbrenner, which had 155.5. They were fourth at the Hillsborough County Championships, had nine regional qualifiers, three state qualifiers and senior Alex Kiester placed fifth at the Class 3A state meet.
All were program firsts.
Last season also was the first that McCoy had the services of an assistant coach. Mike Neuman, a collegiate wrestler for the University of Iowa, was a full-time assistant to McCoy last year, and the extra coach is just what the budding Patriots team needed.
“Before, it would be just me and like 20 kids,” McCoy says. “Now we’re able to break up into groups, so the extra help is great.”
Keeping pace with program firsts, Kiester, Freedom’s top wrestler, has become the first Patriots wrestler to commit to a college program — Queens University in Charlotte, NC.
“I think if he really pushes it, he could be a finalist at State this year,” McCoy said. “He’ll have to focus on the State champ from last year (Brevin Balmeceda of Miami South Dade).”
Kiester is set to move up from 145 pounds to 152 this year, and while much of his competition from last year also will move up, the second, third and fourth-place finishers at 145 pounds from 2016-17 have graduated.
Senior Jerry Miller will slot into Kiester’s old weight class at 145, and the pair are training partners. Miller got knocked out in what is known as the “blood round” at Regionals (the elimination round in wrestlebacks that determines whether you advance to states or not) last season, but McCoy expects Miller to qualify this year.
Senior Dawson Baker at 170 lbs. is another wrestler McCoy expects to make States. Baker suffered a season-ending injury at Districts, but McCoy cites him as one of the hardest workers in the room. Sophomore Blake Schroyer at 120 is another solid State prospect; he was a Regional qualifier as a freshman but drew State runner-up Michael Bush of Sarasota in the second round and was sent to wrestlebacks.
Senior 132-pounder Zion Factora was a backup to senior State qualifier Tommy Barker last season, but could break through to States himself this year, and 220-pound junior Andres Procel has grown into his body for his junior year.
Wrestling in the 195-pound class but weighing just 190 last season, Procel is up to 219 with just 12% body fat heading into 2017-18.
McCoy is hoping to advance four wrestlers to States this year and has put together a solid schedule to battle test them. The Patriots will actually host two 6-way duals this season, and the 3A-7 District tournament. The Patriots also will host cross-town rival Wharton on Dec. 13, where Freedom will be heavy favorite.
HOOPS, THERE IT IS:
After a nice three-year run in which Freedom averaged 20 wins and advanced to the playoffs twice, the Patriots were hit hard by graduation and stumbled to a 9-12 record last year.
Much of the drop-off was attributed to the tough competition in Class 8A, District 8, where the Patriots posted a 7-8 record.
However, head coach Cedric Smith thinks his boys are due to have a much better season in 2017-18. It starts with returning four-year starter and 6-foot-9 center Alek Rojas.
“Alek is the one guy who has played since his freshman year,” Smith says. “We’re fortunate to have that big guy that allows us to play like a traditional basketball team. It creates matchup problems when teams try to play zone (defense).”
The starting point guard from last season, junior Nick Butler, returns as well.
“Nick got an unbelievable education from the previous point guards (Nasir Core and Keyshon Reddish) ahead of him,” Smith says. “You want your point guard to be an extension of the coach.”
Very little experience returns otherwise for the Pats. Junior scoring guard Trevian Henson is back, but players like forwards Jeremiah Ashe and Dante Johnson are new and raw, and will be counted on to help get the Patriots claw back to the top.
“We got our butts kicked last year and the guys are more hungry to work and to listen this year,” Smith said. “This group reminds me of the first group that won the District in 2012-13. Their eyes are open, they’re listening, they want to get better.”
Freedom is 1-2, including a 65-52 loss to Wharton.
GIRLS HOOPS STARTING OVER
The Freedom girls basketball team had a great season a year ago, going 17-8, even if it was underlined by an early exit in the district playoffs.
Megan Clark led the team, averaging 23.3 points per game, but now laces up to play for Tennessee Tech University.
In fact, the Patriots girls graduated roughly 90 percent of their offense, but Coach Laurie Pacholke is getting solid production already from junior guard Emoni Thomas, who scored 29 points in season-opening win over Hillsborough, and Regan Roger, a 6-1 wing who added 18 against the Terriers.
Roger is one of five Freedom players 5-10 or taller, so size isn’t a problem. But, finding the players to run the floor like Pacholke likes will be, at least in the early going.
SOPH COACHES SEEK SUCCESS
The Freedom girls soccer team had a pedestrian 6-6-2 season last year, but it was also head coach Jen DeMik’s first year at the helm.
The Patriots recovered from losing their first four games, going 6-2-2 the rest of the season. They started 2017-18 on the right foot, winning their first games as Allie Freihofer led the way. The freshman put three goals in the net in the first two games of the season, and she is one of seven Patriots to already score, though the Patriots fell to 2-2 heading into this week.
Boys second-year coach Cornelis Van Der Luit brought the Patriots up from the cellar last year, going 7-7-2 after a 3-12-2 mark the year before, but seven seniors from last year’s squad have graduated. The Patriots are 2-4-1, and are coming off 6-0 win over East Bay.