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Panther just loves to play

By FRANK PASTOR

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 15, 2001


TAMPA -- Very little comes between Tyler Azzarelli and his true love.

A couple of weeks ago, Azzarelli was in Gainesville for the wedding of his cousin, Travis McGriff. When the big day arrived, Azzarelli had one thing on his mind.

Finding a basketball court.

As his family primped for the wedding, Azzarelli was practicing his jump shot.

"We were dressed and not sure if he'd get back in time," said Azzarelli's mother, Martha. "He made it with enough time to jump in the shower and go."

It was the same story the previous weekend, when the family vacationed in the Bahamas. Azzarelli's first concern upon arriving was finding a place to shoot.

"He doesn't let it go," his mother said.

Azzarelli did not become the Suncoast's top player by accident. The Plant junior might work harder on his game and be harder on himself than any area player. He spent the off-season lifting weights and running steps to increase his strength and endurance. He sought out former Kansas coach Ted Owens to work on his jump shot.

When not playing, he was watching basketball -- either critiquing tapes of his games or taking notes during the NCAA tournament.

Azzarelli's diligence paid off as the 6-foot point guard led Plant to a school-best 27-5 record and its first state semifinal appearance in 38 seasons.

"He's not the flashy-type player with the dunks and tons of points," said Randall Leath, who watched an Azzarelli-led Plant squad dismantle his Countryside team, 63-39, in the Class 5A regional semifinals. "But make no mistake. He was the guy who made that team go."

Azzarelli was Plant's floor leader, primary ball-handler and top three-point threat, averaging 15.2 points, 8.3 assists and 3.5 steals.

He was the catalyst during separate 11 and 12-game winning streaks and their lone bright spot in a state semifinal loss to Belleview.

After its worst shooting night of the season put Plant in an 18-point, fourth-quarter hole, Azzarelli scored nine points in a 2:35 span to pull his team to within eight. Though the Panthers lost 55-39, he refused to accept defeat.

"There was a sense of urgency," he said. "I was just trying to do whatever it took, biting and scratching, trying to get the win. But we just couldn't get it going."

While being interviewed earlier this season, teammate Mike Williams wondered why he, not Azzarelli, was the subject of the story.

"Tyler Azzarelli is the star of this team," he said.

But Azzarelli doesn't consider himself a star. He prefers another label: winner. It fits. Azzarelli has not been on a losing team since he started playing in sixth grade.

"My ninth-grade year, we were 19-7 and didn't get out of districts," he said. "That's probably the worst team I've ever been on in basketball."

Azzarelli kept track of Plant's playoff success on a pair of practice shoes, marking an X through one of six blocks that ringed the outside of the shoes after each win.

One block represented the victory over Countryside, in which Azzarelli scored a game-high 16 points.

"He just ate us up," Leath said. "He gets everybody involved, controls the tempo, does all of the little things. He's the type of player I love; a hard-working guy who finds a way to win."

Even if it means playing through pain.

Azzarelli broke his left index finger during a Christmas tournament. It was in a cast for 11/2 months. Days after the cast was removed, he damaged a tendon in his right index finger.

Fearing surgery would end his season, Azzarelli chose not to have an MRI.

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

The things we do for love.

Introducing: Tyler Azzarelli

NICKNAME: Tip ("My dad used to call me that when I was little. It's from "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too."').

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: Going to the beach, boxing with friends (who call themselves, "The Goonies").

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.

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