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TAMPA — He scurried home in tears following his first basketball practice at Wharton High. C.J. McGill, a freshman point guard, had been ridden relentlessly by coach Tommy Tonelli, a former point guard.
There was strategy to the scoldings. Tonelli saw promise in the fleet, 5-foot-and-change rookie. He saw a sleek seedling with the talent to blossom into the cornerstone of a championship team. No sense waiting on Day 2 to tap into the potential.
But all the coach’s tapping momentarily cracked the kid’s psyche.
“It was little things,” McGill recalled, “but at the same time they were big at the moment. But I think he might have texted me or called me the same day and said, ‘You’re doing fine. I’m going to coach you hard.’ And that kind of helped.”
Saturday night, Charles Earl McGill Jr. and Thomas Joseph Tonelli Jr. came full circle. On the very same court where he nearly had been broken four autumns before, McGill cried again. This time, Tonelli cried, too.
Neither wanted the moment to end.
“He’s like a son to me,” Tonelli said moments after Wharton’s two-point, final four-clinching victory against Orlando University, in which McGill played all 32 minutes.
“I’ve coached some great kids and great players and I don’t think I ever had one handle my style of coaching as flawlessly as C.J. He just kind of shrugs me off and does his thing. What can I say?”
The soul of the Wildcats team that takes the Lakeland Center court for Friday’s Class 8A semifinals now stands 5-9 and might weigh 145 after a pasta-heavy pregame meal.
Yet the colleges bypassing McGill because of his frame are woefully misguided, Tonelli insists. Were it not for a torn right ACL that wiped out his entire sophomore year, McGill likely would end his career as Wharton’s all-time winningest player and leading scorer.
One of only four 1,000-point scorers in school history (the other three graduated to Division-I programs), he enters the state tournament as Wharton’s leader in points (17.4 ppg), assists (5.8 apg) and minutes. It’s not a stretch to say as he goes, so go the Wildcats.
“Every play he’s going full speed,” 6-6 junior center Chase Litton said. “At practice he’ll go full speed, in warm-ups he’s going full speed. Once you see him do that, people just like, feed off what he does.”
It’s one of several intangibles — and tangibles — compressed into McGill’s compact frame. What the 18-year-old lacks in size he atones for in quickness, outside touch, instinct and four years’ worth of Tonelli seasoning. Heavy on the saltiness.
“There’s a joke between who got it worse (from Tonelli) our freshman year, me or him,” Litton said. “He might take the trophy.”
To be sure, he has earned it. To be a point guard at Wharton, one must handle the ball and beratings with equal deftness.
A generation after his USF career ended, Tonelli, a feisty floor leader spawned from a Jesuit school in Chicago, remains fifth on the Bulls’ career list in assists and ninth in steals.
To a degree, playing point guard for him is akin to playing quarterback for Steve Spurrier. Throughout McGill’s career, Tonelli has served as his advocate and adversary, coach and critic, teacher and tormentor.
In return, Tonelli has given McGill the jersey off his back. By no coincidence at all, McGill wears No. 4 — Tonelli’s number.
“Honestly, he’s like a second dad to me,” McGill said.
“Probably fair or unfair, I scrutinize and hold that position more accountable than most on the floor,” Tonelli admitted. “He’s probably handled it about as good as anybody.”
As a result, Wharton (25-4) is in the state tournament for the first time in the program’s 16-year history. Friday, Tonelli’s voice will reverberate throughout the 8,100-seat arena. He’ll incite and implore. McGill will listen and lead.
If all goes as hoped, the kid again will go home in tears — accompanied by a title.
“I always think back to my freshman year because that’s when he got on me the most, because I was the youngest and I was going to be here the longest,” McGill said.
“But at the same time he told me he loves me and I had a lot of potential and something special could happen to this team.”
Where: The Lakeland Center
Admission: $10 per session; parking is $7
Class 5A: Jacksonville Bishop Kenny vs. Jesuit, 11:30 a.m. Friday
Class 8A: Wharton vs. South Miami, 7 p.m. Friday
On the web: We’ll be live blogging locals games at tampabay.com/hometeam.
Joey Knight can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JoeyHomeTeam.