Stop us if you’ve heard this one before.
More than one month into the new high school basketball season, Wharton High is undefeated, playing great defense, and establishing itself as the team to beat in Class 7A-7.
If that sounds familiar, it should. After all, the Wildcats have won seven district titles in the past 10 seasons, and jumped out of the gate with starts like:
- 9-0 (last year)
- 9-1 (in 2017-18)
- 8-1 (2016-17)
- 11-1 (2015-16)
- 13-0 (2014-15) and on and on.
The difference between those teams and this year’s squad? Youth. Head coach Tommy Tonelli has led his youngest team to a quick 10-0 start heading into the meat of the regular season.
“This is by far my youngest varsity team ever,” says Tonelli of a roster that includes four freshmen and four sophomores among the 12 players. “We lost six seniors, three starters, and the county’s Player of Year in Darin Green (now at UCF). That’s a big readjustment to make.”
They seem to be adapting just fine. The Wildcats’ closest game this season was a 61-49 win over Lennard High — the 450th win of Tonelli’s career — and six of their wins have been by more than 22 points.
Their season-opening run included a tournament championship — 49-33 over Berkeley Prep — at Nature Coast Tech’s holiday tournament.
Helping with that readjustment are the team’s only two senior starters — captains Carr Thiam and Gio Reyes, who have both emerged from Green’s wide shadow to lead the Wharton kids.
“They want to continue to sustain the traditions we have and the excellence we’ve shown in past years,” Tonelli says. “They have a lot of pride. Hopefully, they get to put another district championship banner up there.”
Thiam, a versatile forward who can score from long range or create his own shots off the dribble, is averaging a team-high 23.7 points per game, along with 6.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.2 steals. Reyes, the point guard, is averaging 17.9 points and 5.3 assists a game.
Both players have embraced their roles as leaders and the team’s go-to players.
“We know we have a lot of new guys and we have to get them going, be more vocal, so they pick up things faster. We get on them every day,” Thiam says. “We talk about (leading) a lot.”
“It’s all we talk about,” Reyes adds, smiling.
Tonelli says the seniors aren’t just leading verbally, but by backing up their words on the court.
“They set the right example,” he says. “I always tell the guys, if you want to see how it’s done, and you want to see what playing hard is, just watch those two. If you ever have any doubts, watch those two.”
The Wildcats are coming off a 26-5 season, and the team advanced to the Class 8A Regional final last year. Thiam and Reyes don’t want to be part of any team that ends the Wharton string of 11 straight seasons of 20-plus wins, and if this season looked like a ripe time to finally catch Wharton on the downside, well, Thiam says “not this year.”
So far, the Wildcats are 3-for-3 in their all-important District 7A-7 match-ups, handily beating Alonso, Steinbrenner and Plant and letting the county know it is best not to be fooled by Tonelli’s youthful roster.
Against Steinbrenner, Thiam scored a career-high 34 points.
“I hit my first shot from deep, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be a good game,’” Thiam says. “I was surprised it was 34 though. I thought I had like 25 or something.”
Wharton’s youthful roster is far from a hindrance, says Thiam, but rather a benefit. He runs off a list of teammates he think will be stars down the road, and Reyes does the same.
The team does indeed have a wealth of young talent. Three of the freshman on the roster — guards Chandler Davis and Karmello Branch and forward Reginald “RJ” Bell — all started for the Turner-Bartels middle school team that went 8-0 and won the Hillsborough County championship last season.
Davis has recently moved into the starting lineup.
The Wildcats are getting contributions up and down the roster, from sophomore forward Trevor Dyson (8.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and guard Jordan Brown to junior guard Elijah Barnes and the only other senior, forward Josh Barnett, who is the tallest Wildcat at just 6’-5”.
“We’ve got pretty good depth, albeit inexperienced in a lot of ways,” Tonelli says. “But, I have a lot of confidence in what those guys can do. We may be lacking for physical size, but we have a lot of skill, a lot of guys that can put the ball in the basket…I definitely like what I see in the early going.”