More than a loss, and more than a victory
By JOHN SCHWARB, Times Staff Writer
CLEARWATER -- The first half could not have gone much worse for Clearwater Central Catholic's top-seeded girls basketball team. In the district tournament, the team trailed 26-9 on its rival's floor.
Yet last Saturday at St. Petersburg Catholic, the Marauders just knew victory was in sight.
"You could tell. They had the passion and desire," freshman Shannon McElhaney said. "Everyone had that look in their eye."
The look of a team that has overcome much more than a tough game.
Jim McElhaney had a strong feeling about this team. Last year, his first at CCC since a one-year stop in 1986-87, the Marauders finished with 14 wins against nine losses, good enough to earn a trip to the state playoffs. The 2002-03 team returned all the key players from that squad, plus a freshman he was excited about coaching -- his daughter Shannon.
Yes, he liked this team's chances. Yet he never got to see how it would do.
McElhaney, 54, lost his battle with pulmonary fibrosis on Nov. 25, the official start of the high school girls basketball season. The longtime area coach had been feeling ill the previous season, and interim coaches were put in place for the start of this season. But McElhaney told athletic director Bob Cotter he hoped to return quickly.
So Gary Platt and Jay Avril, parents of players, led the team through preseason workouts with the "interim" title.
But McElhaney never returned to the bench. Days before CCC's first regular season game, he died. Platt and Avril would lead the team the entire year.
"Actually, it really was kind of a very easy transition for them," CCC athletic director Bob Cotter said. "The basketball philosophy was parallel to what Jim was instructing."
Platt and Avril coached most of the Marauders through Amateur Athletic Union and middle school teams. Like McElhaney, they stressed fundamentals and were mostly cool and calm on the sideline.
Most players on the junior- and senior-laden team adjusted quickly. For one freshman, though, it was not so easy.
Shannon McElhaney is the spitting image of her father, with red hair and a light complexion. She is a defensive menace, the kind of player a coach can love easily.
Jim McElhaney certainly did. Getting used to life without him was hard.
"At first were the reality checks, realizing that's not going to be my dad no matter how much I wanted it to be," Shannon said.
Shannon fought through the pain on the floor, not missing a single game.
"It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be," she said. "I didn't think I'd be able to do anything.
"It just kind of worked out."
Even as a freshman on the veteran team, she made an impact.
But Saturday, the game made an impact on her.
As the coach's wife, Jan McElhaney has sat at the scorer's table, recording statistics for her husband's teams for 25 years.
No one would have faulted her for stepping away from the table this year. But she didn't give leaving a thought.
"It keeps me grounded. It keeps me following Shannon," Jan McElhaney said. "Jim wanted me to be her supporter. I'm not going to miss any games."
This year, she had a front-row seat for one of CCC's best girls basketball seasons in history.
She watched the team's 6-5 start against tough competition like larger schools Largo, Boca Ciega and Seminole, and the subsequent 15-1 mark the Marauders built by running roughshod through their district and other private schools of comparable size.
Last Saturday, she was there when CCC pulled out a win for the ages.
Down 26-9 at halftime at St. Petersburg Catholic, the team rallied. By the end of the third quarter, the deficit was three. Then, moments later, it was completely gone.
The Marauders won, 41-36, stealing the district title from St. Petersburg Catholic.
For Shannon McElhaney, it was all a blur at the end. The team went out to dinner, but she could not, overwhelmed by emotion.
"It was really hard then, like 'Oh, my God, he can't celebrate this with me,' " she said.
Her mother saw it differently.
"Oh, he is enjoying this, isn't he?" Jan McElhaney said. "I wish he could be here . . . but we say he is. He's watching."
If you go
Clearwater Central Catholic hosts Tampa Prep tonight in the girls basketball regional quarterfinals at 2750 Haines Bayshore Road. Admission is $6.
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