Former Wharton High basketball star Shawn Vanzant is trying to lead the Wildcats back to the State tournament. 
(Photos by Mike Bitting)

If you were wondering if things would be any different for the Wharton High basketball team playing under a new coach for the first time in two decades, you can stop wondering.

In this year’s first game at home under new coach Shawn Vanzant, the Wildcats used an aggressive attacking defense that produced a slew of steals that they turned into a withering onslaught of three-pointers and transition buckets to open up a 28-7 lead en route to a 73-40 win over Steinbrenner High.

“Not much has changed,” says junior point guard Lucean Milligan, who had three steals and 10 points in the first quarter. 

Indeed. The Wildcats were off to a 10-1 start heading into the Christmas break.

Wharton made a winner of Vanzant, who was making his home debut as the Wildcats’ new head basketball coach after taking over for Tommy Tonelli, Hillsborough County’s all-time winningest coach.

In a gym where Vanzant once starred as arguably the program’s greatest player ever, it felt as if he, or even Tonelli, had never left. 

“Easy transition; I think it’s the best option we could have had,” says senior forward Chandler Davis. “He played here, and he played at a high level at Butler (University in Indianapolis, IN).” 

Vanzant is a great story that just keeps on getting better. The Wildcats added the latest chapter by beating the Warriors.

“I’m not gonna lie, it was a special moment,” Vanzant said afterwards. “I played four years here, coach Tonelli was like a father figure (to me). It was like a welcome home party.”

Karmello Branch goes up for two of his 16 points in the home-opening win over Steinbrenner.

The following night reminded Vanzant there is still work to do. The Wildcats laid an egg against a good Newsome team that returns a lot of size and experience, losing 48-39, but are currently on a seven-game winning streak.

There is no question that Vanzant is the man for the job. Tonelli, it seems, had waited for this moment for a few years, the chance to hand his program off to his star pupil. He wanted someone who could coach, sure, but it was more important to find someone who could lead, which life surely has prepared Vanzant to do.

As a kid, Vanzant’s family fell apart due to a myriad of problems, including his mother’s death right before his second birthday. As a teenager, midway through his high school career, he ran out of living options until New Tampa resident Lisa Litton and her family took him in. 

As a high school star, Vanzant led Wharton to a 29-2 record in 2007 and, three years later, he helped Butler get to within two points of the 2010 NCAA Championship, which they were denied 61-59 by Duke University and its legendary coach Mike Kryzewski. 

After a pro career spent mostly overseas, Vanzant turned to coaching and helped turn perennial basketball loser Bloomingdale High into a playoff team.

Now, he’s back home.

Vanzant and the Wildcats, regarded as one of the best teams in the Tampa Bay area, are expected to win many more, as they are coming off a 28-3 season and the program’s second Class 6A State Semifinal appearance.

Although Vanzant has the same distaste for polls as his predecessor — “They don’t mean anything” –—the Wildcats entered this season ranked by various online sites as one of the top-three teams in Tampa Bay.

“We have some things to work on, but if we do that, we’ll be good,” Vanzant said.

Milligan, a slick playmaker who can score in bunches, the 6’-5” Davis, last year’s top postseason scorer, and senior guard Christian Ayala are all key returners from the State Semifinal team. 

Senior forward Karmello Branch is another player who played at States last season, but for Class 3A Tampa Catholic. He transferred back to New Tampa.

Sophomore guard Nick Womack played for Vanzant at Bloomingdale last year, and sophomore guard Jayson Montgomery is making the transition to varsity this season look easy after scoring 16 in the home opener.

Vanzant loves what he sees so far, especially the team camaraderie and togetherness.

“Tonelli laid the groundwork, and we have a lot of guys from last year’s Final Four team,” Vanzant says. “All I have to do is come in here and not mess it up.”

Milligan and Davis both say there is no chance of that happening, because if there’s one thing that isn’t different with the change of coaches, it’s the Wildcats’ mindset.

“State championship,” Davis said. “That’s it.”

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