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Wharton surprises Shawn Vanzant by retiring his jersey

Vanzant was a standout for the Wildcats who went on to back-to-back NCAA championship runnerup finishes with Butler.
Wharton coach Tommy Tonelli, left, and Bloomingdale coach Shawn Vanzant hold the jersey Vanzant wore at Wharton from 2003-2007. The jersey, the original No. 2 from the Vanzant playing days, was retired before the game, which Wharton ended up winning 33-32.
Wharton coach Tommy Tonelli, left, and Bloomingdale coach Shawn Vanzant hold the jersey Vanzant wore at Wharton from 2003-2007. The jersey, the original No. 2 from the Vanzant playing days, was retired before the game, which Wharton ended up winning 33-32. [ SCOTT PURKS ]
Published Feb. 5

TAMPA — Bloomingdale boys basketball coach Shawn Vanzant had no idea what was coming Thursday night. He was on the sideline getting his team ready to play Wharton. Tipoff was just a few minutes away.

Then the voice came over the loudspeaker and stopped everything: “Ladies and gentlemen, before we begin tonight’s game we would like to take a moment to recognize and honor a very special member of the Wharton Wildcats basketball family.” What followed was a presentation for “the most decorated player in Wharton Wildcats basketball history … Wharton High School’s very own, No. 2, Shawn Vanzant!”

Former and current players and coaches, as well as Wharton coach Tommy Tonelli, trotted out his old framed No. 2 jersey, the first ever boys jersey to be retired at Wharton, which is quite an honor considering all the great players who have helped make the Wildcats a perennial power since the school opened in 1997.

Vanzant was overwhelmed, and, frankly, “a little uncomfortable and extremely honored.”

“I don’t like to be in the spotlight,” Vanzant said. “I like to be behind the scenes. I wasn’t prepared for it, and to be honest with you, there were other Wharton players who I thought were better than me. So this is such an honor for me.”

No one, Tonelli said, could be more deserving than Vanzant.

Bloomingdale coach Shawn Vanzant coaches up his team Thursday night during a game against his alma mater, Wharton, and his former coach, Tommy Tonelli, on the right in the background.
Bloomingdale coach Shawn Vanzant coaches up his team Thursday night during a game against his alma mater, Wharton, and his former coach, Tommy Tonelli, on the right in the background. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

On top of all the accolades and accomplishments — including leading Wharton to its all-time best record of 29-2 in 2007 and following that with back-to-back NCAA championship runnerup finishes with Butler in 2010 and 2011 — Tonelli said Vanzant is a better human being.

“He’s unselfish in everything he does,” Tonelli said. “He wants to get everybody going in a positive direction. That’s how he was a player and now as a coach,  a father, a husband and a teacher.”

Vanzant, a 6-foot-1 point guard, was blessed with tremendous quickness and athleticism, but Tonelli said it was his intangibles — toughness, work ethic, unselfishness and a relentless will to win — that raised him to play at such a high level, especially in college and the pros in Canada and overseas.

It’s no surprise to Tonelli that Vanzant, who ranks third on the Wildcats’ scoring list with 1,192 points, ended up coaching, taking the Bloomingdale job three years ago.

“When he was a player for me (starting all four years with a 98-18 overall team record) I always thought he could be a great coach,” Tonelli said. “It turns out I was right.”

On Thursday, in the first regular-season game Vanzant has ever coached against Wharton, the Bulls gave the Wildcats everything they could handle.

The Wildcats, in fact, had to fight back from a seven-point second-half deficit and sink a last-second shot, an 8-foot jumper by Elijah Barnes, to pull out a 33-32 victory.

Barnes finished with a game-high 18 points including nine in the fourth quarter to help Wharton improve to 19-4. Bloomingdale dropped to 9-8, but the Bulls, led by Ruben Lopez’s 14 points, proved to be a formidable force, particularly on the defensive side.

“(Vanzant) knew everything we were going to do before we did it,” Tonelli said. “He’s a great coach and I’m so proud of him in every way possible.”