Long-time Wharton High boys basketball coach Tommy Tonelli (left) is stepping down and former Wharton star Shawn Vanzant (pictured here with daughter Lena) is taking over.  

Shawn Vanzant is coming home.

It took a little cajoling, but the former Wharton star and 2007 graduate has officially been named as the Wildcats next boys basketball coach.

“I’m very excited,” Vanzant told the Neighborhood News. “I can’t wait to get to Wharton and get a full head of steam going. I’m excited to get back home.“

Vanzant, 33, who has coached the boys team at Bloomingdale the past four seasons, will replace Tommy Tonelli, who announced that he was retiring from coaching after Wharton advanced to the Class 6A final four this past season for just the second time in school history.

Tonelli has always praised Vanzant’s coaching acumen, long predicting that his former player would someday become one of the top high school coaches in the area if a college job didn’t come along first.

“I couldn’t be more excited and proud that he will be the basketball coach at Wharton,” said Tonelli, who will continue in his role as a guidance counselor at the school.

It was a recent dinner with Tonelli, and a phone call with a former college teammate, that eventually persuaded Vanzant to take the job after he had declined previous overtures.

“Anybody who knows me knows I don’t like anything being given to me,” Vanzant says. “I felt like I’ve been building something great here at Bloomingdale, and Wharton was really what coach Tonelli had built. I wanted to do that same thing at Bloomingdale.”

But Matt Howard, a teammate at Butler where the duo helped lead the Bulldogs to consecutive NCAA championship games in 2010 and 2011, helped Vanzant look at it differently.

“He said, ‘I get what you are saying, but at the same time sustaining something that great is a big challenge,’” Vanzant said. “He helped me see the other side of it. Wharton’s never had a losing season. I’ve been a part of building that, and I know I can keep that going.”

Vanzant, who has known Tonelli since he was nine-years-old and would show up on weeknights and weekends at Wharton for pick-up games, coached Bloomingdale to a 3-21 record his first season as a head coach in 2018-19, but the team has averaged 14 wins over the last three seasons and went 17-12 — and won a District championship for the first time since 2016 — this past season.

Having played for two ultra-successful coaches in Tonelli and Butler’s Brad Stevens, Vanzant, who is married with two young daughters, says he has incorporated both men’s styles into his own.

“My coaching style is very similar,” he says. “Offense is easy, you compete and win on defense, and I expect you to compete at a very very high level. And you play for one another. It’s we over me, that’s something we always said at Butler.”

Vanzant acknowledges he has big shoes to fill.

Although no official records are kept, Tonelli is leaving the coaching ranks as the all-time wins leader for Hillsborough County public schools. Since building the program from scratch when Wharton opened in 1997, Tonelli never had a losing season and finished with 528 victories and just 137 losses in 23 seasons — for a sparkling .794 career winning percentage. 

Tonelli picked up his 500th win on Dec. 7 against Chamberlain. On Jan. 28, he won his 517th game against Vanzant’s Bloomingdale team, passing former Chamberlain legend Doug Aplin to take the “unofficial” No. 1  spot.

William Bethel, who coached at Middleton in the segregation era, was 551-88 in the Florida Interscholastic Athletic Association (at the time, the FHSAA of all-black schools). The Tampa Bay Basketball Coaches Association annually awards the William Bethel Award to the county coach who has gotten the most out of his team, an award Tonelli has won more than once.

Tonelli, 57, says the demands of coaching have made balancing two jobs too cumbersome and overwhelming. He had been contemplating retirement since last season, worn down by the demands and difficulties during the pandemic, but wanted to let the dust settle before deciding to actually retire. 

“I didn’t want the frustration caused by Covid to be something that chased me out of coaching,” Tonelli said. 

As it turns out, it wasn’t Covid.

It was just time.

When the dust did settle, it revealed one of Tonelli’s most successful seasons ever. The Wildcats were 28-3 and won the school’s 12th District title, its second Regional title and advanced to the Florida High School Athletic Association Class 6A finals, where it lost to eventual champion Stuart Martin County.

In typical Wharton fashion, the Wildcats overachieved this year and rode an opportunistic offense and gritty defense to a better finish than most expected. Tonelli called it a “dream season.” 

In perhaps Tonelli’s most impressive accomplishment, it marked the 17th straight season that the Wildcats won at least 20 games, a testament to his practice regimen and game preparation.

“Coach always had us prepared,” says forward Trevor Dyson. “We worked harder than almost everybody. We were always ready. Coach always made sure of that.”

Tonelli, a former Chicago high school star and University of South Florida point guard, says he still feels he has something to give as a coach, and said he would “never say never” to a return to the sidelines one day, if the right situation comes along.

“But right now, I’m done,” he says.

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