By Matt Wiley & Gary Nager

The Wharton Wildcats are well on their way. After clinching the Class 8A-District 7 title on February 6 and dominating two rounds (see below) of the Class 8A Regional playoffs, Wharton still had a chance to wake home long-time coach Tommy Tonelli’s first-ever State title. Another win, at home, on Feb. 23 against Orlando University High (17-11) would advance head coach Tommy Tonelli’s Wildcats to the State Semifinals for the first time in school history.

Getting to the Regional Finals hasn’t necessarily been a walk in the park for Wharton. The District title game pitted the 22-4 Wildcats against the Alonso Ravens (15-12), who actually at the half 34-30. However, the Wildcats had no plans of losing the title match at home and bounced back, outscoring the Ravens 18-13 in the third and 23-14 in the fourth for a 71-61 victory and a trip to the regional playoffs. Senior C.J. McGill scored 22, while fellow senior Sir Patrick Reynolds led the Wildcats in scoring with 23 points.

After a tough District championship, the February 14 Regional Quarterfinal match against North Port (14-14) was seemingly a walk in the park for the Wharton boys, who led 40-22 at the half and continued to dominate the Bobcats throughout the third and fourth quarters to a 76-39 win. This time, McGill led the team with 24 points, followed by Reynolds with 13 and senior Chase Litton with 12, sending the Wildcats south to Riverview High (Sarasota).

Riding the breezy victory against North Port, the February 19 Regional Semifinal against Riverview (21-8) was a whole other ball game. The game was tied 21-21 at the half, but the ‘Cats went on a 9-0 run to start the second half and kept building on that margin most of the last two quarters, en route to a 55-41 victory. Reynolds, who scored 17 points, and fellow senior Jaken Grier, with 16, were the top scorers for the ‘Cats. McGill chipped in with 12.

Coach Tonelli says the key to the Riverview win was holding the Rams’ best player, 6’-8” forward Nick Havener to just 8 points and 7 rebounds. “C.J. and the whole team did a great job defensively, making sure he (Havener) didn’t get easy shots.”

He adds, “Riverview eventually started taking more chances, rushing their shots and fouling us. Our kids never let up. I’m really proud of them. That was a very good team.”


Freedom Girls Fall To Buchholz

Like Tonelli has with the Wharton boys, Freedom High girls basketball coach Laurie Pacholke has had a remarkably successful run in her four years leading the high school located in Tampa Palms, posting an 81-27 record, including 25-4 this year, when her Patriots took home both their District and Regional titles.

But, Pacholke told me several weeks ago that her goal this season was a State Class 7A title and she thought this year — when she inherited three senior transfer players, including star Faith Woodard, who will play her basketball next year on a full scholarship to Georgetown University in Washington, DC, after averaging more than 22 points and 9 rebounds per game for the Pats.

Unfortunately, Freedom fell a couple of wins short of that goal when they were beaten 79-73 by Gainesville Buchholz High (26-4) in a showdown that wasn’t as close as that score indicated until the last 12 minutes of the game. Buchholz led by 19 (58-39) with two minutes left in the third quarter, but that’s when Woodard and sophomore Taylor Emery brought the Pats back to 72-67 on a 29-14 run with just more than a minute left.

Pacholke and her Pats never got any closer than that, as the Bobcats made 6 of 8 free throws down the stretch to hold off the late rally and advance to the Class 7A title game against Davie Nova the night we went to press with this issue.

Woodard finished with 26 points and 15 rebounds, while Emery scored 13 of her 21 points in the fourth quarter and also added eight boards against Buchholz. Pacholke says Emery will be one of the keys to another strong Freedom squad next year. Congrats, Pats!

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