By Kyle LoJacono
The 2011-12 campaign was one of the best in the history of Wharton boys basketball — during the regular season.
The Wildcats (17-2) went 24-4 last season en route to their third straight district championship to make the playoffs for the 10th time in the program’s 16-year history, but fell 64-63 at home to East Lake in the first round of the postseason. Wharton had a layup attempt hang on the rim before rolling off as time expired, which only added to the pain.
“It was disappointing to lose like we did, but we had a great season,” said 14-year Wildcats coach Tommy Tonelli. “Certainly don’t want that regional loss to diminish what we accomplished throughout the season. There was a lot to be proud of. Just ran into a good East Lake team. They played well, and we probably didn’t play our best that night.”
Junior forward Chase Litton said that early exit has spurred the squad to its fast start.
“The players who are back, we don’t want to go out like that again,” Litton said. “That’s not us. We’re not a first round and out team. We want to go to states, and this team has more chemistry and togetherness and willingness to do what it takes. There’re no individuals. We just play well together.”
Wharton lost a pair of starters from last year. Guard Troy Holston left the school and center Patrik Hauri graduated, but the Wildcats got an infusion of talent in 6-foot-7 small forward Drew Vanderbrook, who transferred from Freedom.
“He’s a 6-7 player with good skill level,” Tonelli said. “He shoots the ball very well for his size and brings some good elements for our team.”
Wharton also gets back a fully healthy CJ McGill. The senior point guard was on varsity as a freshman, but a torn ACL in his right knee robbed him of his sophomore campaign. He returned to the court last season, but was still getting back to top form.
“This time last year I was always in pain after games and in practice, but now I don’t even have to ice it,” McGill said. “It’s 110 percent better. … This year I try not to think about it. Last year I thought about it all the time. Now I’m totally confident.”
Senior forward/guard Sir Patrick Reynolds said McGill has returned to pre-injury level.
“I’ve known CJ since fifth grade, so I can tell he is completely back,” Reynolds said. He added, “He can hit shots when nobody thinks he can. Like NBA-range shots.”
Litton added, “CJ plays outside of his mind. When he’s on he doesn’t miss. When he’s off he doesn’t give up. He just keeps fighting.”
Tonelli said McGill’s quickness gives the opposition fits, as does the versatility of Reynolds.
“Sir Patrick can play basically any position on the floor, and he has this season,” Tonelli said. “He’s a tough matchup. He can shoot the ball, he can post up, he can drive the ball. He’s got a lot of versatility as a player and makes things difficult. There’s times when he’s a little undersized against the guys he’s going against, but he’s such a tough, hard-playing kid that what he lacks in height he makes up for in his ability and intelligence as a player.”
Reynolds said it was an adjustment learning to play every position.
“My first year I wasn’t that kind of player, but once I started getting a feel for all the positions and matchups I started liking it,” Reynolds said. “I naturally play more like a guard than a big man, but I’m more like a big man than a guard with my height. It’s very in-between, but I really love being able to do it.”
Reynolds added that the combination of Litton and himself in the post is something most squads don’t have answers for.
“Me and Chase, I think that’s the best big man combo in Hillsborough County,” Reynolds said. “No body can touch him. When he’s in the high post, and I’m in the low post, no body can stop that.”
The Wildcats are riding high now, but they know firsthand how quickly that can change after last year.
“We’ve just got to continue to improve every practice and every game,” Tonelli said. “When we play as a team on both ends of the floor the way I know we’re capable off we’re as tough as any team we’ll have to play, but if we don’t play that way our margin for error is very slim.”
If they play together, Wharton may do something never accomplished in program history — earn a final four berth.
“I think this team can do that, especially if we stay together and play together,” Litton said. “We can’t have the type of team where one guy is trying to get his and just wants his points. We haven’t had that, and if we keep playing together there’re not a lot of teams that can play with us.”
The Wildcats play in the Class 8A-District 7 tournament at Bloomingdale Feb. 5 to 8, with the final Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. They travel to district rival Newsome Jan. 18 at 8 p.m.
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.