TAMPA — The customary hug Thomas Tonelli got from his dad after a Wharton victory transcended the traditional postgame embrace.
Normally, it’s a glorified chest bump, a quick convergence of arms and upper torsos that emits kinship while sparing the pride of a 17-year-old surrounded by his peers. But this time, self-consciousness was abandoned. The son felt his dad’s arms clamped around him.
“I don’t really get many of those at home or just like, in general,” the younger Tonelli said, “but when he hugged me he wasn’t letting go.”
Sometime Saturday night, the two will hug again in the Wildcats’ locker room. Odds are, the embrace will be even longer, the squeeze more intense. Thomas’ forecast calls for tears.
“Oh, without a doubt,” he said.
These days, sentiments are spiking like the price of premium unleaded in the father’s world. Two Februarys after losing his own dad, Tommy Tonelli, 48-year-old founder of Wharton’s boys program, finds himself within a chest pass of the only goal to elude his resume.
With a win Saturday night at home against Orlando University (17-11) in the Class 8A region finals, Wharton (23-4) clinches the first state tournament berth in the history of the program Tommy Tonelli began from scratch 16 years and more than 300 victories ago.
The fact the oldest of his three kids will be in uniform only adds to the surreality of the whole thing. Should the Wildcats prevail, Tommy’s own blood will join a scenario that already promised tears and sweat.
“It’s emotional, man,” the elder Tonelli said. “Emotional.”
Not a drop of it is lost on the rest of the Wildcats. Fittingly, they’re embracing it.
“That’s who we do it for,” senior point guard C.J. McGill said.
“I mean, we do it for ourselves and our family and our friends and stuff, but ultimately we do it for Coach because he’s a hell of a coach. …It would be indescribable, just that feeling to see him happy and see us go on to play at states.”
Those too cynical to buy into such a backdrop probably also refuse to believe you can, in fact, go home again. A victory Saturday would serve as a culmination of Act II of Tommy Tonelli’s tenure at Wharton.
Four years ago at this time, he was finishing his second season as Stan Heath’s director of basketball operations at USF, for whom he had been a bulldog-intense, ball-distributing point guard in the mid 1980s.
But even as things were failing to pan out there, the planets were aligning farther north on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. A counselor was retiring in Wharton’s guidance department, where Tommy Tonelli had worked before. The basketball coach worked off campus.
Seeking a new direction, the Wharton administration went in a familiar one.
“Without a doubt, this is where his heart is,” Thomas Tonelli said.
Within days, his dad was back on the Muley Stadium track, watching a collection of Wildcat rookies including McGill, Sir Patrick Reynolds, Jaken Grier and Virgil Crump attempt to fulfill their coach’s offseason prerequisite of running a six-minute mile.
Saturday, all four will be in the top six of the playing rotation. The other two, senior Tyler Langston and junior Chase Litton, are completing their third season in the program.
It’s a distinct pattern of loyalty growing less common in the prep free-agency era. When Wharton reached the 5A region finals in 2007, all five starters — including a Butler signee named Shawn Vanzant — had been with the program at least three years.
Every one of them had to run a six-minute mile before even being allowed to try out for the varsity. All experienced the beratings and bear hugs. To be sure, Tommy Tonelli’s Irish-Italian fire isn’t for everyone. Yet those who don’t melt beneath it are perpetually warmed by it.
“Honestly, he’s like a second dad to me,” said McGill, who recently became the program’s fourth 1,000-point scorer. “We go at it a lot, but at the end of the day, he loves me, I love him and we’re all a big family.”
That extended family, along with the Blue Crew student section, are expected to shoehorn themselves into Wharton’s gym Saturday.
In a perfect world, Tommy Tonelli’s dad, also named Thomas, would be getting text-message accounts of the outcome from his Chicago home.
“He was all the way up in Chicago, and my mother said she’d have to calm him down because he was so excited and wound up about whether we won or not and what the score was,” Tommy Tonelli said.
But he passed away Feb. 9, 2011. Two nights later, Wharton won a district tournament final against Plant, and Tommy Tonelli wept openly. Should the Wildcats take care of business Saturday, watch for him to direct a moist-eyed gaze skyward.
Everyone else will have to settle for hugs.
“I think (a win Saturday) would be one of the greatest experiences of his life,” Thomas Tonelli said, “as well as mine.”
7 p.m. Saturday
Orlando University (17-11) at Wharton (23-4)
Winner faces: Hialeah Gardens-South Miami winner in next week’s Class 8A state tournament in Lakeland
At a glance: Both teams defeated Bradenton’s IMG Academy, with Wharton winning by 17 in the season opener and University winning by four last month. …University lost by 23 last month to Jesuit, which was playing without senior center Travis Johnson
Lake Wales (22-7) at Jesuit (28-1)
Winner faces: Jacksonville Bishop Kenny-Tallahassee Rickards winner in next week’s Class 5A state tournament in Lakeland
At a glance: Lake Wales graduated the top three scorers — and lost the coach — from the 2012 state title team that embarrassed the Tigers by 41 in last season’s region final. Among those back are 6-foot-3 senior Douglas Brooks, who scored 23 on Jesuit.
Berkeley Prep (22-7) at Boca Raton Saint Andrew’s (22-3)
Winner faces: Havana East Gadsden-Jacksonville Raines winner in next week’s Class 4A state tournament in Lakeland
At a glance: Despite a sprained left ankle, Bucs top scorer Justin Gray still managed a double double (10 points, 10 rebounds) in Tuesday’s region semifinal rout of Tampa Catholic. …Saint Andrew’s played in Berkeley’s holiday tournament in January, but didn’t face the Bucs.
Melbourne Florida Air (27-1) at Tampa Prep (27-2)
Winner faces: Coral Springs Christian-Miami Westminster Christian winner in next week’s Class 3A state tournament in Lakeland
At a glance: Tampa Prep is seeking its fourth consecutive final four berth and second straight state title. …For what it’s worth, Florida Air lost by 22 in December to Berkeley Prep, which Tampa Prep twice defeated by margins of 12 and two points.
Joey Knight can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JoeyHomeTeam.