Wharton's shot at experience

By Keith Niebuhr, Times Correspondent
Published May 29, 2007

TAMPA - On a 29-2 Wharton team that reached the region final this spring before losing to nationally ranked and eventual Class 5A state champion Winter Park Lake Howell, Anthony Gomez, Adam Noble, Leonard Simmons and Shawn Vanzant were the glue, the backbone and every adjective in between.

But now, thanks to graduation, all four are gone.

Their departure leaves the Wildcats in the unenviable position of having to replace the county player of the year (Vanzant) and three others who earned all-area recognition.

Each played three seasons with the varsity. And during that stretch, the Wildcats went 78-12 and reached the playoffs every year. Twice, their season ended with defeats to Lake Howell, which sent two players to the University of Florida.

"These guys were part of the winningest teams in program history, " Wharton coach Tommy Tonelli said.

Now, a drop-off would appear inevitable.

But Tonelli concedes nothing.

"We have an excellent nucleus returning, " he said.

Just how "excellent" remains to be seen, but the veteran coach should have a better handle on things by the end of June. Between now and then, the Wildcats will compete in the 25-team Tampa Bay Basketball Coaches Association Summer League at various sites throughout the county. Beginning today, participating teams will play 10 regular-season games in the league, then compete for the championship in a playoff.

With the previously mentioned cast, Wharton won the title last year.

"This is a great opportunity for guys to get experience at the high school level, to get confidence, to get leadership skills, " Tonelli said.

Some positions at Wharton are set. Others aren't.

Among the Wildcats' returning players, forwards Anthony Manuel and Andreas Shields were the biggest contributors last season. Besides giving Wharton some stability, they provide the Wildcats with size. Manuel is 6 feet 4, and Shields, who stands 6-6, has committed to play tight end at USF.

Point guard is another area to watch. Chris Jean-Louis and Xavier Fareed, each of whom has Tonelli's confidence, will duke it out for the top spot.

And help figures to come from Wharton's junior varsity, which went 16-1.

"In practice, all of these guys went against (the departing seniors) every day, " Tonelli said. "That made them better."

In Tonelli's 10 previous seasons, the Wildcats have won 20 or more games six times. Because of that, expectations are high.

Not only in the regular season.

"I never take the floor with any team in any type of situation where if they're keeping score it doesn't count, " Tonelli said. "This is where you learn how to win and how to compete."