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400 gather to mourn beloved St. Leo athlete

Elaine Renee Evans is remembered for her optimism and humor. A blood clot in her lung killed her Monday.

Published February 4, 2004

ST. LEO - On a small wooden table in the abbey sanctuary at Saint Leo University, the holy sacraments of bread and wine were joined Tuesday night by the things that Elaine Renee Evans' friends and teammates remembered her for best.

There rested the freshman's No. 11 basketball jersey, and the white shoes she wore in each game. There also was a trinity of hats: a sleek blue Adidas cap, as any college athlete might sport; a straw hat with the brims turned high, as can be found on any smiling teenager; and a gaudy, green mesh John Deere cap, as only Evans could proudly don as she announced an impromptu fishing trip.

All fit perfectly on Evans, who died Monday morning at Pasco Regional Medical Center just three weeks after her 19th birthday. The 2003 graduate of Tampa's Gaither High School, a homecoming queen and multisport star, was mourned Tuesday by about 400 friends and family at a memorial service on her college campus.

An autopsy Tuesday revealed that her death Monday morning was caused by a pulmonary embolism, a large blood clot that can be fatal when lodged in the lungs. For all who knew the 6-foot-1 forward, whether it be for 19 games or 19 years, her stunning absence was still hard to fathom.

Those seeking answers in scripture needed look no farther than her own basketball shoes, where she wrote two verses she turned to for inspiration on the court. The first one read in Tuesday's service was Philippians 3:14: "I am racing for the prize to which God calls us upwards to receive in Christ Jesus."

Many students wore ribbons bearing her name and jersey number, while others wore white T-shirts emblazoned with her picture on the front, with makeshift 11s painted and taped on the back. Teammates spoke of how she joked that she chose her jersey number not only because she was born on Jan. 11, but because she was simply No. 1 twice.

One night earlier, second-year Lions coach Kerri Reaves gathered her players at her home, the group all laughing, crying and grieving together. Her team has struggled to an 0-19 record this season, and though her players have yet to win, they hadn't truly dealt with loss until Monday.

Reaves said Tuesday afternoon that Evans was the perfect player to keep a struggling team optimistic, hopeful and together, exuding a positive attitude she noticed from the first time she recruited her. She made her team better, but just as consistently, she made them laugh.

"We were watching film Thursday, and she took a pretty hilarious fall in the middle of the court after a layup," Reaves said. "We made a little highlight film of it, and we super-slow-mo'd it again and again. Everybody got a good laugh out of it, including her. She never took herself too seriously."

There had been no warning signs of health problems for Evans. Bill Pellan, director of investigations for the Pinellas/Pasco Medical Examiner's Office, said the embolism that caused Evans' death can often come without any prior symptoms.

"It can be extremely sudden, as apparently was the case here," he said.

Saint Leo wasn't the only campus mourning the loss of a beloved player and student on Tuesday. Gaither coach Bill Agatheas said he remembered Evans not as a four-year starter or his school's all-time leading scorer, but as a player as kind as she was talented, as thoughtful as she was anything else.

He recalled a game during Evans' junior season, when Gaither was playing Alonso High, then a first-year program without any seniors. Gaither won the game 70-4, but only afterward did Agatheas realize his leading scorer had totaled just two points, not wanting to inflict any unnecessary harm on a young team. "I asked her why, and she said, "Well, I feel sorry for teams like that,' " Agatheas said. "We could have beaten them by 100 and she could've scored 50, but she walked out with two."

- Times staff writer Logan D. Mabe contributed to this report.

[Last modified February 4, 2004, 01:31:46]

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