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Hillsborough boys basketball district preview

District schedules

6A-8 at Alonso

Tuesday: No. 4 Bloomingdale vs. No. 5 Alonso, 7; Friday: No. 2 Plant vs. No. 3 Brandon, 5; No. 1 Wharton vs. Bloomingdale-Alonso winner, 7; Saturday: Final, 7

5A-9 at Hillsborough *

Wednesday: No. 4 Freedom vs. No. 5 King, 5; No. 3 Chamberlain vs. No. 6 Gaither, 7; Friday: No. 2 Hillsborough vs. Chamberlain-Gaither winner, 5 or 7; No. 1 Sickles vs. Freedom-King winner, 5 or 7; Saturday: Final, 7

* If Gaither beats Chamberlain, Gaither and Hillsborough play at 7 Friday.

5A-8 at Newsome

Tuesday: No. 4 Tampa Bay Tech vs. No. 5 Riverview, 4; No. 7 Armwood vs. No. 2 Durant, 6; No. 3 Newsome vs. No. 6 East Bay, 8; Friday: No. 1 Plant City vs. TBT-Riverview winner, 5; Newsome-East Bay winner vs. Durant-Armwood winner, 7; Saturday: Final, 7

4A-9 at Blake

Today: No. 8 Steinbrenner vs. No. 9 Middleton, 7; Tuesday: No. 4 Lennard vs. No. 5 Jefferson, 6; No. 1 Blake vs. Steinbrenner-Middleton winner, 7:30; Wednesday: No. 3 Jesuit vs. No. 6 Strawberry Crest, 6; No. 2 Spoto vs. No. 7 Robinson, 7:30; Friday: Jesuit-Strawberry Crest winner vs. Spoto-Robinson winner, 6; Blake-Steinbrenner-Middleton winner vs. Lennard-Jefferson winner, 7:30; Saturday: Final, 7

3A-10 at St. Petersburg Catholic

Wednesday: No. 1 Berkeley Prep vs. No. 4 Clearwater Central Catholic, 6; No. 2 Tampa Catholic vs. No. 3 St. Petersburg Catholic, 7:30; Friday: Final, 7

2A-10 at Calvary Christian

Friday: No. 2 Indian Rocks Christian vs. No. 3 Calvary Christian, 6; No. 1 Tampa Prep vs. No. 4 Bishop McLaughlin, 7:30; Saturday: Final, 7

A-8 at Seffner Christian

Tuesday: No. 4 Citrus Park Christian vs. No. 5 Hernando Christian, 6; Friday: No. 2 Bayshore Christian vs. No. 3 Seffner Christian, 5; No. 1 Bradenton Christian vs. Citrus Park-Hernando winner, 7; Saturday: Final, 7

A-9 at Cambridge

Today: No. 1 Cambridge vs. No. 8 Berean Academy, 3:30; No. 4 Carrollwood Day vs. No. 5 Academy at the Lakes, 5; No. 2 Keswick Chr. vs. No. 7 Lakeside Chr., 6:30; No. 3 Canterbury vs. No. 6 Tampa Bay Chr., 8; Tuesday: Cambridge-Berean winner vs. Carrollwood-Academy winner, 5:30; Keswick-Lakeside winner vs. Canterbury-Tampa Bay Chr. winner, 7; Friday: Final, 7

TAMPA — Their shirts are tucked in during this early evening practice. For the most part, so are their tongues.

The new sheriff at Wharton High, a spot-on ringer for the old one, doesn't abide belligerence. Violators are subject to line drills, a dreadful half-minute of back-and-forth sprints to various lines on the gym floor. During this surreal season, the Wildcats have learned not to try Tommy Tonelli.

"We practice just like we play in the game," senior Damian Dixon said. "And when we get out of line, Coach (Tonelli) tells us, and we're going to have to run for it."

After a two-year stint as director of basketball operations at USF, Tonelli is back at Wharton, the program he started in 1997. When he left in September 2007 to join Bulls coach Stan Heath's staff, the 'Cats had just concluded the best season in school history (29-2) capped by a berth in the Class 5A region finals.

These days, it's like he never left. Behind Tonelli, whose scalding game-time intensity belies his soft off-court charm, the Wildcats are 24-1, the No. 1 seed in this week's Class 6A, District 8 tournament and a dark-horse candidate for the state tournament.

"I knew there were some good players here, but whenever there's change, it's not easy for anybody," said Tonelli, whose team enters the postseason on a 22-game win streak. "I think they've adjusted to my style as a coach, and I think I've grown with them at the same time and gotten to know them, so I think it's worked out great."

Technically, Tonelli is the Wildcats' third coach in as many seasons. Bypassed for a promotion on USF's staff, he said he had a chance to regain his old gig as a Wharton guidance counselor last summer when another counselor retired.

Then the school offered him his old basketball job. Dave Bastian, a former longtime Tonelli assistant, led Wharton to a 13-11 record last season but worked off-campus. Comer Copeland, who had replaced Tonelli and had the job for one season, returned as Tonelli's assistant and JV coach.

What they inherited from Bastian was a nucleus devoid of a superstar but equipped with youth, skill and decent size.

Three players — Dixon, a 6-foot-1 guard, 6-4 junior Xavier Owens and 6-5 junior A.J. Astroth — average around 10 points. Running the team is 5-8 freshman point guard C.J. McGill, whose potential Tonelli loves.

Collectively, this group topped three previously undefeated teams to win the Berkeley Prep Invitational, avenged its lone loss by topping Sickles (23-2) in the final of that tourney and rallied from a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit for a 59-56 win at Blake, another 20-win team. In the process, the 'Cats acquired the bulldog tenacity of their coach.

"I think (the Blake win) was a pretty defining moment in terms of confidence and bringing us together and seeing what kind of a team we were," Tonelli said.

Now, the Wildcats, who made six playoff appearances in Tonelli's first stint, appear poised to remain a county power. Of Wharton's four seniors, only one (Dixon) starts. The proverbial parts are in place. So is their coach.

"I don't shut the door on anything because I can tell you when I left here the first time to go to USF, I wasn't looking to leave then," Tonelli said.

"I go about my job doing the best job I can, and I'm not plotting for other jobs. But certainly it's like in life. If other opportunities come along … you've got to consider what's best for your family and for yourself. Am I looking to leave? No."

Hillsborough boys basketball district preview 02/07/10 [Last modified: Sunday, February 7, 2010 7:52pm]
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