By Kyle LoJacono
Winning is expected for the Wharton boys basketball team.
The Wildcats (18-3) have averaged 20.5 wins the last six years while claiming three district championships and making the postseason five times.
Wharton’s winning ways go back even farther. Since the school opened in 1997 the program has five district titles, nine playoff berths and no losing seasons.
Except for two seasons from 2007-09, the Wildcats have been led by Tommy Tonelli. The program has a 281-83 record with the help of Tonelli’s focus on detail and disciplined play.
“We’ve been really fortunate from Day 1 to have good teams and good players,” Tonelli said. “We’ve had some really good players come through Wharton and it’s equated to good teams.”
For Tonelli, building that tradition comes through the junior varsity (JV) program.
“This year’s JV team is off to a great start at 8-2, and most of these guys have gone through our JV program,” Tonelli said. “They’ve all bought into Wildcat basketball and how we do things. We have a lot of pride in maintaining that winning tradition.”
A strong JV program has helped Wharton continue its winning ways no matter how many seniors it loses, which has been clearly illustrated with the 2011-12 team.
Last year the Wildcats reached the Class 6A regional finals and finished with a 23-6 record. Departing from that squad were forward Xavier Owens and guard A.J. Astroth, who totaled 20.5 and 16.3 points per game as seniors, respectively. Both signed with Division I colleges, Owens at Mounty St. Mary’s University and Astroth will join Vanderbilt University next season.
Losing such talented players along with three other seniors did not lower the expectations.
“I feel like there was no dropoff,” said senior shooting guard Jereth Kirkland. “We did have some fantastic players, but in practice last year when second team was in I saw the potential. I knew we’d be able to have just as solid of a team.”
Kirkland and senior forward Patrik Hauri were picked by Tonelli as team captains. Both said it was strange being leaders at first, but have since warmed to the role.
“I wasn’t used to telling people what to do, and I was always thinking am I doing the right things in practice as an example,” said Hauri, who came to Wharton two years ago from Switzerland. “I want them to see me going hard so they go hard. … It’s an honor for me to be a captain. Any one of these guys could have been it, so it’s great for me to get to serve my team.”
Along with establishing new leadership, the Wildcats had to incorporate new starters. One of those is junior point guard CJ McGill, who missed last season after tearing his right ACL.
“It happened before the season at a showcase playing 3-on-3,” McGill said. “I went up for a layup and I hyperextended it, and then one of the other players went into it. It was bad.”
McGill said the injury is the hardest thing he’s gone through.
“It’s a blessing to be back playing because the whole process of surgery and physical therapy was so hard,” McGill said. “It got to my head and I thought I was never going to play again. To have a record like we have, it’s just amazing to me to be out there with my team.”
Another addition is junior shooting guard Troy Holston, who transferred from Freedom.
“I knew it wouldn’t be easy because coach Tonelli is a tough coach,” said Holston. “I knew I’d have to work really hard to get on the floor. … When I was at Freedom we always had a losing record. Now I’m here and it’s like a relief to be on a winning team. I just love it.”
Wharton hasn’t just won in the regular season this year. It has also claimed a pair of tournaments — the Berkeley Prep and Northeast holiday events.
“That was really great for our team,” Tonelli said. “Any time you can go out and play teams outside of your area and win two competitive tournaments it’s a great experience. You see how you stack up.”
The Wildcats have locked up the No. 1 seed in the Class 8A-District 7 tournament at Durant Feb. 7-10. The championship is on Friday, Feb. 10 at 7 p.m.
–All stats as recorded to Maxpreps.com by coaches