A bit of a rarity in the 500 club

Clearwater's Tom Shaneyfelt is two wins from the milestone, a feat for a girls basketball coach.

Published January 16, 2007

CLEARWATER - Tom Shaneyfelt is calm. He sits with his chin propped on his hand, index finger resting alongside his nose.

Two minutes later, he is a perpetual motion machine, standing on the sideline like a conductor in front of an orchestra. Using his finger as a baton, he controls the tempo, jabbing the air, emphasizing his points.

"Press! Press! Press!"

Then a foul is called and Shaneyfelt's face becomes a jigsaw puzzle of discontent, pieces all over the place, mouth going one way, nose another, eyes rolling toward the heavens.

"Foul? Huh? What?"

This is how it is the rest of the game, Shaneyfelt alternately sitting, kneeling and standing while bellowing instructions and exhortations to his Clearwater High girls basketball players.

"We always pay close attention to him, because he's always so animated," senior guard/forward Lauren Lee said. "He's constantly patting his head or doing something. But it works."

His players take on his personality. They're intense and fearless. They press. They run. They shoot 3-pointers.

And they win, so much that Shaneyfelt is on the verge of a major milestone.

If Shaneyfelt wins two games this week (Thursday at Dunedin and Friday at Pinellas Park), he will reach the 500-win plateau. While some area high school coaches have hit that mark in other sports, Shaneyfelt is the only one to have done so in girls basketball, where the turnover rate among coaches is high.

"I feel like I've been fortunate enough to be around a lot of good players and a lot of good kids," Shaneyfelt said. "I want to share this milestone with them more than anything. They're the ones that helped me through this journey."

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Shaneyfelt grew up in Indiana, where basketball, with its long traditions and ancient rivalries, is the strongest thread running through the most close-knit communities.

"It's just a different scene there," Shaneyfelt said. "There's not a lot to do, and everyone pretty much had a basketball in their hand."

He played at Huntington Catholic High, which no longer exists, and fell in love with the game, with the discipline, the fun, the noise, everything about it.

But he knew his days as a player wouldn't last, especially when he left for Indiana University. Shaneyfelt was there during the basketball program's heyday, when the men went undefeated in the 1975-76 season.

"I was never good enough as a player, even as a walk-on, to be on those teams," he said. "But it was a fun time. I took Bob Knight's basketball class. I played basketball with Quinn Buckner and Tom Abernathy at the rec center."

After graduating, Shaneyfelt spent a year in Michigan finishing his master's degree in education before coming to Florida. He no longer wanted to shovel snow.

He knew he wanted to teach, and he decided working in any capacity for a basketball coaching staff would be a good way to build his resume for a head coach job at the high school level.

"I just thought it would be boys basketball, not girls," Shaneyfelt said.

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Shaneyfelt started off as a girls coach at Morgan F. Fitzgerald Middle School in Largo. He came into the job with the same mindset as if he were coaching boys. Practices would be hard and they were meant to be taken seriously. If you giggled or told a joke, you paid the price through sweat.

"I quickly learned I had to change," he said. "A lot of the girls are in it more for the social aspect of it. Being friends with everyone on the team is important."

One area where Shaneyfelt would not relent is preparation. He was demanding in practice but sensitive and maintained an ease with his charges.

After coaching Morgan F. Fitzgerald (1979-82), Shaneyfelt went to Osceola High, coaching the junior varsity for two seasons and the varsity for seven.

His running-and-gunning units often produced big results. Osceola had four 20-win seasons and finished as district runnerup four times. Osceola had some of the best players in the county, such as Nisha Craft, who once scored 62 points in a game. Another was Kathy Cleveland, who led the county in scoring in 1986-87. She later became Shaneyfelt's wife.

The romantic relationship between the two started in 1992, when they were coaches on an AAU team. They were married in 1993. That same year, they came to Clearwater, which was an established program with a winning tradition.

With Tom coaching the varsity and Kathy the JV, the Shaneyfelts kept the Tornadoes among the elite. Clearwater has won 11 district titles in the past 13 seasons and has gone to the state tournament seven of the past 11.

"We've been successful, but it's been a group effort," Shaneyfelt said.

Kathy also is the one who counsels and consoles. Tom often turns to her during close games to keep him from getting too emotional.

"Tom eats and sleeps basketball," Kathy said. "For me, once the game is over, it's out of my mind. I'm usually the one that has to tell him, 'It's okay, it's over.' ...We keep each other balanced."

For the Shaneyfelts, the family atmosphere extends beyond the court. Their 5-year-old son, Christian, tags along to practices and games with his parents.

"Basketball is something we can enjoy as a family," Shaneyfelt said. "We're coming home and we're tired, but we can still talk about what we've gone through in the day and relate."

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For all of his accomplishments, there is one thing Shaneyfelt has yet to win: a state title. In seven trips to the state tournament, he has come up short, finishing as runnerup three times.

To all but the finicky few who believe a coach fails unless he wins it all every time, Shaneyfelt's record is unassailable.

"As the years go by, I appreciate Tom and what he's been able to do more and more," said Scott Anderson, Clearwater's trainer the past nine seasons. "Every year he seems to take a new group of kids and mold them into winners.

"It's funny, because you think he's going to retire some day and yet here he is. And I think he's still having as much fun as ever."

The Tornadoes might have a shot to win that elusive title this year. Clearwater is 19-1 and one win from clinching the No. 1 spot in Class 5A, District 9.

"It's always been a tough game whenever we've played them," said St. Petersburg Catholic coach Nick Vandewalle, whose team finished as the Class 3A runnerup last season. "It just shows how good of a coach he is. And it's a pretty big achievement to have that many wins, considering there's not much longevity among coaches nowadays."

Shaneyfelt admits his days on the sideline will not last long.

"I think it'll only be another four or five years before I get out," Shaneyfelt said. "I'll probably get involved with coaching with (his son) Christian in some sort of way.

For now, he will continue to walk the sideline at hyperspeed, stomping his feet, screaming out plays.

And winning.