CLEARWATER — Members of the Clearwater varsity team huddled around first-year coach Paul Lang after completing a shooting drill to end practice.
“Coach, are we invited to your wedding?’’ senior guard Alex Alford asked.
“I told you it’s going to be a small wedding,’’ Lang said. “I can’t have a big, expensive wedding and invite all you guys. I’m a teacher.’’
“Okay then, everybody’s hands in,’’ Alford said. “Forget Coach on three. One, two, three. Forget Coach!’ ”
And with that the players dispersed to the bleachers as Lang playfully shook his head.
That kind of banter is sprinkled throughout a recent practice, along with plenty of serious coaching moments. Lang took over for longtime coach Tom Shaneyfelt on June 24 and the transition has been a smooth one.
Lang picked up where Shaneyfelt, now the Clearwater boys coach, left off. The Tornadoes were 19-2 entering Thursday night’s game against Tarpon Springs. They are 10-0 in Class 7A, District 9 and will be the top seed in the district tournament.
Despite the loss of top players Tyra Bolden and Keyaira Herring from last year’s 23-5 team, the Tornadoes won their first 17 games before losing to Academy of the Holy Names over the winter break. Seniors Alford and Deja Blunt, along with junior Maddie Rubino, have filled the gap.
“The cupboard certainly wasn’t bare,’’ Lang said. “There was talent here. I knew it was a good team but you never really know until they play somebody else. I can remember we were playing against Dunedin in our first (regular-season) game and I was so nervous. I had no idea what to expect. And then at halftime we were up 46-0. I remember thinking ‘It’s going to be okay.’ ”
This is also the first time Lang, 32, has ever coached a girls team. He was the boys coach at Winter Springs the past two seasons.
But with his fiancee currently working at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Lang saw the Clearwater job as a way to break into the Tampa Bay area.
He said he doesn’t treat this team any differently than the boys teams he coached.
“If anything, I find the girls are more coachable,’’ Lang said. “Sometimes the boys think they know it all. But I’ve found that when I draw up a play during a timeout, for example, they go out and run the play.’’
The players didn’t know what to expect when the season started. But they quickly adjusted to Lang’s style.
“We did a lot more running than we used to,” Blunt said. “That was one big difference. Coach is big on conditioning.”
Rubino said it took a preseason loss against St. Petersburg for her to realize things would be all right.
“I remember playing against St. Pete and thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to be so bad,’ ” Rubino said. “But we actually played pretty well against them. I realized we were going to be pretty good.”