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Obstacles no match for Panthers guard

Plant's Tyler Azzarelli, the All-County Player of the Year, led his team to the state semifinals for the first time in 38 years.

There are gym rats, and there are basketball junkies.

One is constantly working on his game, the other constantly watching games.

Tyler Azzarelli is both.

The Plant junior spent the off-season lifting weights and running steps to increase his strength and endurance. He worked with former Kansas coach Ted Owens to improve his jump shot.

When he wasn't playing, he was missing Gasparilla to attend the Florida-South Carolina game. He might have skipped the prom to watch Lakeland Kathleen in the state finals had Panthers coach Mike Phillips not talked him out of it.

"It's more that I love (basketball) than something I have to do or need to do," Azzarelli said. "It's like anyone who loves reading or watching TV when they have a spare moment. That's what they do. I just love playing basketball and love watching basketball."

Azzarelli's passion spurred Plant to new heights this season. With Azzarelli running the point, the Panthers compiled a school-best 27-5 record and advanced to the state semifinals for the first time in 38 seasons.

Offensively, it was Azzarelli's job to bring the ball up the floor, getting it to his teammates in position to score while creating his own chances.

Knocking down three-pointers or driving for layups, Azzarelli averaged 15.2 points a game. His shooting also opened up passing lanes, allowing him to dish out a team-high 8.3 assists per game.

Phillips asked Azzarelli to call Plant's offensive sets _ no easy task when facing multiple defenses and noisy crowds that prevented him from receiving instructions from the bench.

"To ask that out of a kid who's a scorer like he is and ask him to distribute, that's asking a lot," Phillips said. "He was able to do that and put the team ahead of individual goals."

For all his offensive ability, Azzarelli's work on defense might have been most important.

Knowing Azzarelli would have to improve his man-to-man defense for Plant to reach its goals, Phillips worked tirelessly with the young guard. By the end of the season, Azzarelli had developed into a solid defender, averaging 3.5 steals per game.

There might be no more complete backcourt player in Florida.

"I really believe Tyler is the best point guard in the county if not one of the tops in the state," Phillips said.

The season might not have been as fulfilling for Azzarelli if it hadn't been so difficult.

He broke his left index finger in a Christmas tournament and wore a cast for a month-and-a-half. Days after the cast was removed, he damaged a tendon in his right index finger. Fearing surgery would end his season, Azzarelli opted not to have an MRI.

"The pain was bearable, so I decided to play," he said.

Azzarelli also suffers exercise-induced asthma, which makes it difficult for him to draw deep breaths while playing. He uses an inhaler during games to open his lungs.

"It's just to the point where I have to work a little harder to get in as good of shape as anybody else," he said.

Azzarelli will play for an Amateur Athletic Union team this summer before his senior season. After that, he hopes to play college ball.

And not just anywhere.

When he and teammate Michael Williams returned from the Florida-South Carolina game, Azzarelli told Phillips he wanted to play at a major college.

"Size and athletic ability might limit you," Phillips said.

"I don't care," Azzarelli said. "I want to go to a big program."

After this past season, how can you doubt him?

MEET TYLER AZZARELLI

AGE: 17

ACADEMICS: Carries a 3.8 unweighted grade point average, 4.4 weighted.

ACTIVITIES: Key Club, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, National Honor Society, junior class officer

INTERESTS: Likes to go to the beach, box with friends. "No one ever gets hurt. It's just kind of a fun thing we do," he said.

FAVORITE FOOD: Steak

FAVORITE MOVIE: Fallen

FAVORITE BOOK: The Old Man and the Sea

FAVORITE MUSIC: Rap and R&B

FAVORITE COLLEGE TEAM: Florida

FAVORITE PRO TEAM: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

FAVORITE COACH: Billy Donovan

FUTURE PLANS: Interested in studying psychology and wants to coach a college basketball team.

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