His small gesture to big-hearted pal

It's not enough to be on the same floor with Kentucky. East Tennessee State sophomore Adam Sollazzo wants to be on the same level, if only for an evening.

Fifteen seeds separate Sollazzo's team from the Philistines in blue. All the better.

"We're definitely glad who we're paired up with," said Sollazzo, arguably the best player Armwood High has ever spawned. "Why not make history and be the first 16 (seed) to beat the 1?"

Beneath that rhetorical question lies bittersweetness. As seismic as an upset of Kentucky would be, registering somewhere between Valparaiso and Villanova on the implausibility scale, Sollazzo and his teammates would sacrifice the slaying of one giant if it meant they could bring another back to life.

Seth Coy, the smiling 6-foot-11 sophomore they called "Big Country," left that indelible of an impression. Tonight in New Orleans, Coy will be in the Buccaneers' hearts. They'd give anything if he were in their locker room.

"He was my best friend," Sollazzo said.

Sollazzo and Coy, the Italian kid from suburban Tampa and the ever-smiling Southern rock lover from rural Indiana, shared a two-bedroom apartment near ETSU's Johnson City campus. The tall one also was the tidy one. Sollazzo remembers many a morning being awakened to the sound of Lynyrd Skynyrd or Led Zeppelin, the gritty, guitar-driven sound track for Coy's cleanup time.

"He was the best roommate anyone could ever have," Sollazzo said. "He took care of me like I was his little brother. He cooked dinner for me at times, taught me how to do my laundry, taught me how to fold my clothes. Every morning he'd be out there having the music playing, cleaning."

The music stopped late last July. Sollazzo, home for a brief summer break, was about to pop in a movie at a friend's house in Tampa when his cell phone buzzed and ETSU coach Murry Bartow's number lit up on the screen. It was well after midnight.

"When I saw him calling that late, I knew it couldn't be good," Sollazzo recalled.

Coy had been driving through Kentucky on his way home when his car hydroplaned on a wet road and flipped. A Shelby County Sheriff's Department detective told reporters Coy hadn't been wearing his seat belt and was ejected from his vehicle. He was 19.

"He was such a great young man with a pleasant personality, a wonderful sense of humor and a really bright future," Bartow said at the time.

By the estimation of Coy's mom, Rhonda Gray, 2,000 mourners, including Sollazzo and the rest of the ETSU team and staff, packed the Washington (Ind.) High gym, better known as the Hatchet House, for the funeral.

There, they remembered the former Washington High prom king voted "most popular" by classmates. They mourned the blossoming post player who teamed with eventual North Carolina 7-foot signee Tyler Zeller to lead the Hatchets to a 2008 state title. They honored the awkwardly lanky kid who rarely ridiculed others because, well, he knew the feeling.

"As he grew up he was a little bit different," Gray said. "I remember he came home from school one day and said so-and-so made fun of me. I said, 'Did you like it?' He said no, so I said, 'Then don't ever make fun of somebody.' He had a great big heart. He just shined so bright, and he never made anybody feel different."

Bent on never allowing that luster to dissipate, Sollazzo had a notion: wear Coy's No. 43 in his memory.

To that point, 20 was the only number Sollazzo knew. He wore it in high school, where he was honored by coaches as Hillsborough County's player of the year after a dazzling senior season (21.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 6.3 assists), and at the Brandon YMCA. He had a No. 20 golden necklace, even had the number engraved on his iPod. Small sacrifice, he deemed. Coy's mother consented.

"Of course I said it would be okay," she said. "It meant a lot for somebody to actually give up their own spot, their own number, to carry on the number of Seth."

For Sollazzo, tragedy has been followed by turbulence. His 13 points in a season-opening win over Appalachian State led the Bucs, but he has had only three double-figure scoring efforts since. When his minutes dissipated, he vowed to elevate his intensity on defense. To make a steal, block a shot — anything to force coaches to keep him in.

Lately, it has worked. Sollazzo, one of three bay area players on the ETSU roster (Ridgewood's Lukas Poderis and Plant's Sheldon Cooley), had six points and three assists in a win over Campbell in the opening round of the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament. Then in the final, a 72-66 win against Mercer two Saturdays ago, No. 43 scored 11 with three more assists.

"I got in, had a nice drive to the hoop, and sunk a floater," said Sollazzo, who enters the NCAA Tournament averaging 3.7 points, 1.7 assists and 14 minutes. "After that I just felt comfortable, I saw the passing lanes. I felt like I was in high school again."

Shortly afterward, Bartow assembled the Bucs in the locker room. The team, bound for its second Big Dance in a row, huddled and put its hands together. At the count of 3, the Bucs — all of whom had a No. 43 patch on their jerseys — hollered "Seth Coy" in unison.

"I was definitely tearing up and crying," Sollazzo said. "I teared up a little bit on (Selection Sunday)."

Tonight, Sollazzo and the Bucs will channel their emotion into the biggest game of their lives.

Take notice, Big Blue Nation. The Bucs have Big Country watching over them.

Joey Knight can be reached at jknight@sptimes.com.

His small gesture to big-hearted pal 03/17/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 17, 2010 11:39pm]

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