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. 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 final, 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. 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."
A victory Saturday would serve as a culmination of Act II of Tommy Tonelli's tenure at Wharton. Four years ago he was finishing his second season as Stan Heath's director of basketball operations at USF, for whom he had been a bulldog-intense 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. The basketball coach worked off campus.
Seeking a new direction, the Wharton administration went in a familiar one.
Within days, his dad was 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.
"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 is expected to shoehorn itself into Wharton's gym Saturday. In a perfect world, Tommy Tonelli's dad would be getting text-message accounts of the outcome at his Chicago home.
But he passed away Feb. 9, 2011. Two nights later, Wharton won a district tournament final, 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."