Toughness counters Wildcats' size
By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
WESLEY CHAPEL -- Tyrone Tomlin is an even 6 feet tall. Chris Roberts stands just an inch shorter. Greg Harrison is, well, listed at a very generous 5-8.
Not exactly the ideal heights for the prototypical basketball players. But at Wesley Chapel, where pressure defense has led the Wildcats to a 50-11 record and a state semifinal appearance in two seasons, you don't have to be big and tall to defend.
But you do have to be quick. Fast. Fearless. Opportunistic. You have to be able to read opposing offenses and react to the ball. You have to be able to rebound. To steal. To fill the lane. You have to be tough. To set a pick, take a charge or hurl yourself inside against bigger, taller players to find the ball.
Which is exactly why seniors Tomlin, Roberts and Harrison mean so much to the Wildcats' plans to return to the state semifinals in Lakeland.
"Just their athleticism and their quickness certainly strengthens our defensive effort," coach Kent Mills said. "But to me, it's their physical presence that changes our game defensively and their mentality of win-at-all-costs that keeps our attitude positive.
"I just think with them, whether it's football, basketball or track, it's their desire to compete, to win at whatever they're playing or being competitive in that makes them so good. They want to win. Their competitiveness certainly rolls over from other sports into our sport. They just have the ability to be successful."
Success is the reason the three readily accept their roles. Offensively, Wesley Chapel already is loaded. Center David Simpson can score inside, 3-point shooter Eric Sorensen can score from outside and point guard Zach Mills can do both.
Guard play is a team strength. But the frontcourt is undersized. Enter Tomlin, Roberts and Harrison.
"That's my role on the team," Roberts said. "If that's what I'm assigned to do, that's what I'm going to do. I enjoy it. I'm not a 20 points a game scorer. I just love playing defense, and that's the way I can help."
They and the Wildcats' core group have played together since they were 12. But they did not play together last season.
Harrison is the only returner from last season's state semifinal team. Tomlin sustained a knee injury, and Roberts decided not to play in order to concentrate on football.
Harrison's ability to play the post despite his size has surprised playoff foes.
"When he's on the court in the post, people underestimate him," Mills said. "He always brings that element of surprise because people don't expect him to take it to the hole and finish the way he finishes.
"But with his overall quickness, you can also assign him to (guard) the point guard and have him shut him down."
Tomlin was going to sit out this season, too, but decided to return. Offensively, he is the most potent of the three, a gifted leaper and a relentless, quick defender.
"He plays like he's 6-4, 6-5," Mills said, "because of his strong vertical and his overall strength. Usually, you find that most 6-foot people should be playing the wing or the point. But with his leaping ability and strength, you've got to put him in the box."
Mills said Tomlin also brings attitude to the team.
"He's had four or five games where I thought his (mental toughness) on the court made the difference than any play he made or rebound he got," Mills said.
Roberts and Tomlin returned together this season, re-uniting a core unit that has spent seven years together.
Of all the former football players playing basketball this season, Roberts might be the toughest.
"Chris brings a great work ethic," Mills said.
"You're not going to get a lot of points out of him, but you'll get a rebound. He'll dive on the floor. He'll get a steal. He'll box out. He'll outmuscle you, and he's only 5-11."
That, Roberts said, is its own reward.
"You don't get rewarded by scoring 10 points," he said. "I'd rather get the props from my team than get the points."
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