ST. PETERSBURG — For one quarter, Seth McClung showed his best side with a calm, composed exterior.
Then the Lakewood High School basketball team started running around his Pinellas Park girls as if they were the Washington Generals.
The Spartans scored one transition layup after another, and were ahead 35-2 at the end of one quarter. The score was 64-5 at the half.
Soon after, the cheery demeanor was gone. McClung, 29, spent the rest of the night with a furrowed brow, pursed lips and a slightly uncomfortable expression as he witnessed a gut-wrenching 90-14 defeat in his debut as coach.
“It’s not often a coach gets interviewed after a 76-point loss,” McClung said.
Of course, it’s a not often a former Tampa Bay Rays pitcher decides to coach a prep girls team, especially one that has been in the doldrums as long as the Patriots. Pinellas Park went 5-56 the past three seasons, including 0-15 last season.
So why would McClung take on this challenge?
For seven seasons, he was a major-league player making major-league money, pitching as a starter and reliever for the Rays in two stints from 2003-07 and three seasons with the Brewers (2007-09) before signing a minor-league contract with the Marlins in February. He was released in March and still has aspirations of making it back to the big leagues.
But McClung’s real passion has always been basketball, and he had long-term goals of coaching at the high school or small college level.
When the Pinellas Park job opened this summer, McClung was one of the first to apply.
“Baseball has always come easy to me,” McClung said. “But what was I going to offer as a coach? All I could say is throw hard.
"Basketball is something I’ve always had to work at. I just love the sport, and I wanted to coach it.”
McClung was an all-state baseball and basketball player at Greenbrier East High in Lewisburg, W.Va. He received more than 50 letters from colleges wanting him to play basketball, baseball or both. He also was drafted by the Rays in the fifth round of his senior year in 1999.
Forced to weigh money, education, preferences and more in deciding his future, McClung prayed he would make the right choice. In the end, he concluded that a four-year scholarship to South Alabama paled in comparison to the monetary carrot the Rays dangled in front of him.
Sticking with baseball paid off for the 6-foot-6 prospect as he rocketed up the organization ladder, making it to the majors in 2003. In six major-league seasons, he was 26-34 with 314 strikeouts and a 5.46 ERA.
Still, McClung started thinking about what could have been. Maybe he could have played college basketball.
Instead, he opted for the next best thing — he started coaching it.
From 2005-07, he was an assistant coach with the University of Tampa women’s basketball team.
“We’re both from West Virginia and knew about each other, so I offered Seth a chance to coach with us,” said coach Tom Jessee, who is in his ninth season at UT. “…He’s a basketball junkie and even coached a little bit in AAU. He already knew a lot about skills and formations that most young coaches don’t know right away.
“When he was here, he didn’t want to be known as a baseball player. He didn’t want to be put on a pedestal, he just wanted to coach.”
McClung hoped for a lengthy baseball career before going into coaching full time. But a near year-long layoff has accelerated those plans.
“I had some time on my hands, so I figured why not try high school basketball,” McClung said. “I knew about the history of the (Pinellas Park) program before I applied. I thought I could do some things to change the perception and turn things around.”
Though he wanted to give life to a moribund program, McClung also understood this was a challenge with some sharp teeth.
Only two players returned from last year’s winless team. Many who came out for summer workouts had never played organized basketball before.
But thanks to McClung, the numbers increased from 10 players a year ago to 23.
“You can see the improvement in the team just from everybody understanding the fundamentals now,” said junior Ashley O’Neal, who transferred from Indiana. “We’ve come a long way since the summer.”
Still, opening the season against Lakewood, a team with state title aspirations, was like prosecuting a case against Perry Mason. Or chasing the Road Runner.
McClung looked for small victories. He was thrilled that his team kept the Spartans from reaching 100 points and the score in the second half was 26-9, albeit with a running clock.
“I’m proud of these girls for not giving up,” McClung said. “We’re starting from scratch and we didn’t let them get 100, which is something I’m sure they would have liked.”
Despite the lopsided score, Lakewood coach Necole Tunsil said she could see improvement in the Patriots.
“They understand more basic basketball terminology and doing more on the court,” Tunsil said. “Last year they were just in a 2-3 zone. I could swear they were just out there having a conversation with one another.”
McClung still works out in the hopes he can latch on with a major-league team in spring training. If that happens, his job as a girls basketball coach will not be in jeopardy.
“The schedule works out perfect,” McClung said. “We’ll wrap up girls basketball before spring training begins.
“But this team has my full attention. I’m committed to helping this team turn things around.”