By Kyle LoJacono
First final four
Wharton boys basketball has been one of the most dominating during its 16-year history with its 10 playoff berths, seven district championships and a 340-115 record.
But for all its winning, there is one achievement that has eluded the Wildcats (25-5) — that is, until the 2012-13 season.
Wharton captured its first regional title by defeating Orlando University 41-39 Feb. 23, which also sent the Wildcats to their first final four.
Senior guard Jaken Grier (10.9 points) said the squad was special from the start.
“We went 14-0 in summer league, and making the final four was our goal from then,” Grier said. “Coach (Tommy) Tonelli made sure we knew that Wharton had never won regionals. At practice he’d point to the banner and he’d tell us, ‘Guys, I believe this 2012-13 team can be the first.’”
Tonelli started the program in 1997 and coached Wharton for all but the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons when he was an assistant at his alma mater, the University of South Florida.
“I wouldn’t have left the position I had at USF for just any high school job,” Tonelli said. “This place is special and always has been.”
Senior forward/guard Sir Patrick Reynolds (16.4 points, 5.7 rebounds) said it was thrilling to help Tonelli get his first regional title.
“To see him so excited after was really a great thing,” Reynolds said. “I love coach to death. He’s truly a great coach.”
Senior point guard CJ McGill (17.0 points, 5.7 assists) added, “It really felt like we did something to pay him back for all coach has done.”
Junior forward Chase Litton (10.0 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.7 blocks) was a fifth-grader watching from the scorer’s table when the Wildcats played for their first regional title.
“That team in 2007 was the best team that ever played here, and seeing them not get it was shocking,” Litton said. “It was heartbreaking, but it showed me what it takes to get there. … My freshman year we got there to the regional final; we went to Dr. Phillips and couldn’t get the job done. To finally get the job done was a great feeling, mainly for coach.”
Tonelli said he didn’t feel any pressure lifted after his squad broke through regionals.
“There are a lot of outstanding programs with outstanding coaches that never win a regional championship or even a district championship for that matter,” Tonelli said. “I know a lot of good coaches who, for whatever reason, haven’t won, and that doesn’t take away from how good they are.”
Tonelli did let loose after his squad defeated University. Not only did the usually reserved coach have tears and emotions pour out, he even danced in the middle of the gym as the sold out crowd cheered him on.
Reynolds was happy for his coach, but less than pleased with his postgame execution.
“His dancing, we’re working that,” Reynolds said with a laugh.
Smallest player, biggest fight
McGill became one of a few in Wildcats basketball history to start every game as a freshman.
The 5-foot-8 point guard’s quickness and decision making made up for his short basketball statue. He worked to take his game to the next level leading into his sophomore season.
Then it happened.
McGill tore the ACL in his right knee during a 3-on-3 game in a showcase event. He went up for a layup and another player ran into his leg.
“When it first happened I thought I was never going to heal,” McGill said. “I cried almost every night. I thought there was no hope, but coach had a talk with me about staying focused for my last two years. “
The injury robbed Wharton’s No. 4 of his sophomore season, but he returned for the first game of his junior campaign. He said the ACL tear made him stronger.
“It’s a very humbling experience,” McGill said. “I learned a lot, especially about patience.”
McGill started every game as a junior and senior and ends his high school career with a 76-11 record. He also became just the fourth player in program history to reach 1,000 career points, with the milestone coming in the regional semifinals at Sarasota Riverview Feb. 19.
“I had no idea when it happened,” McGill said. “Coach gave us the postgame speech, and at the end he said, ‘Oh, and this No. 4 is the fourth player in Wharton history to get 1,000 points.’ I was excited, but really I just wanted to win. … I thought there was no chance for me to get to 1,000 points after the ACL.”
McGill gave a lot of credit to his mother Dayna for helping him get back from the injury.
“She’s been through everything with me,” McGill said. “For my first game back last year she was the first one to hug me after the game, and same thing after we won the regional finals game. She’s been through it all with me, and I couldn’t have done it without her.”
Litton said his most painful moment playing basketball wasn’t an injury.
It was sitting on the bench watching his squad lose in the first round of the playoffs last season.
Wharton rolled into the home contest off its third straight district title and with a 24-3 record. The Wildcats had visions of the final four in their minds, but upset-minded East Lake dashed those dreams 64-63.
The 6-foot-6 Litton was forced to the bench because of a criminal charge from the week before.
“I was sitting on the bench with coach Tonelli, and it was the worst feeling in the world,” Litton said. “There’s a difference between being injured and being in the situation I was in. It was completely my fault, and I had to pay for it. … When we lost that game I walked up to coach and I said, ‘I promise you next year we will be in Lakeland for the final four.’
“I told him I’ve got BFI — both feet in the circle,” Litton continued. “That means completely locked in, 100 percent all time. I felt like I had to do that to make up for last year.”
The title meant even more redemption for Litton.
The forward started as a freshman when the Wildcats made the regional finals. They trailed by 20 at Orlando Dr. Phillips but fought back to within one in the final minute. The Panthers stepped to the free throw line for a one-and-one.
“They missed their first free throw, and I didn’t box a guy out,” Litton said. “They got the rebound and we had to foul. They hit two free throws and we lost by three. I was thinking of that in the regional finals when I had that chance again.”
Litton didn’t let the opportunity slip away.
Wharton was clinging to a one-point lead in the regional finals against University in the final minute. Litton’s teammate Virgil Crump stepped to the line for a one-and-one, but missed the front half.
Litton slipped around University’s inside rebounder, snatched the ball with one hand and fired it back to a wide-open McGill, who was fouled and hit one of his free throws for the game’s final margin, 41-39.
“That haunted me for awhile, and I remember after the game assistant coach (Comer) Copeland said to me, ‘That was made for you,’” Litton said. “It felt like I made up for that play my freshman year. I did it for coach, I did it for my teammates and I did it for myself.”
Litton has finished all of his community service hours and has one more court meeting in April. After that, the charge will be permanently and completely off his record.
’Cats consistent presence
One of the most consistent of Wildcats isn’t a player or coach.
It’s Ishmael Perkins, a fan who never misses a home or road game.
Ishmael, a 16-year-old sophomore at Wharton, started sitting alongside the team last season.
Ishmael, who is wheelchair bound, said basketball is his favorite sport.
“I want to go into sports management to be a (general manger),” Ishmael said.
Ishmael’s father Kim said his son really enjoys being around the squad.
“He can’t play, so at least he can be a part by showing his support for the team,” Kim said.
The Wildcats players enjoy having Ishmael around so much that they had him hold the trophy they claimed by winning the Class 8A-District 7 title this year as they took a team photo.
“His mom messaged me before one of the games and said that one of his wishes was to get a picture with us,” Litton said. “I told her that we’d love to do that, because even though it was cool for him, it was even better for me to make him smile. He’s a huge fan of us, and I’m a huge fan of his.”
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker