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Basketball an eternal connection

Shannon McElhaney stood on the gymnasium floor, her hands raised in victory, her face beaming.

The St. Petersburg Catholic High senior had just helped her girls basketball team beat district rival Academy of the Holy Names to advance to the Class 3A state semifinals.

But even in triumph, she could not forget about the tragedy that has defined her life.

Shannon has struggled to hold back the emotions associated with Nov. 25, 2002. That was the day her father, Jim McElhaney, died from a long bout with pulmonary fibrosis.

"I think about my father every day," Shannon said. "It's still tough. It still hurts. He pretty much taught me how to play basketball."

Shannon is the spitting image of her father, with red hair and a light complexion. It was only natural she would connect with her dad through basketball. After all, her father was an honorable-mention All-American point guard at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He also was a longtime coach who loved teaching the nuts and bolts of the game.

Wherever her dad went, Shannon went - to shoot-arounds, to practices, to games. Shannon has forever been on the floor or in the stands - watching, experimenting, dreaming.

"I don't think I ever missed a practice that he coached," Shannon said.

After stints at Clearwater Central Catholic, Gibbs and Countryside, Jim McElhaney returned to CCC in 2001-02. His first season back the team went 14-9, good enough to earn a trip to the state playoffs. The 2002-03 team returned all the key players, plus a freshman he was excited about coaching - his daughter Shannon.

He never got that chance.

Jim McElhaney lost his battle with pulmonary fibrosis - which causes scarring of the air sacs in the lungs, leading to heart or respiratory failure - on the day the varsity season started. He was 54.

"(Jim) lived for the chance to coach her in high school," said Jan McElhaney, Shannon's mother. "I remember we taped a preseason game of Shannon's and let Jim watch it in his hospital room. He died the next day."

Shannon had difficulty coming to grips with her father's death.

Hours after he died, she curled up on his bed and fell asleep to his favorite movie, Hoosiers.

"It was difficult to think he was no longer there," Shannon said.

She did not have much time to grieve, giving little thought to suspending her season. The repetitive act of bouncing a basketball on the court allowed the memory of her father to sink somewhere deep into her subconscious.

Shannon decided to go on not just for rah-rah reasons, but also because basketball is what defines her.

Jan McElhaney was there, too. As the coach's wife, she 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 that season. But she didn't give leaving a thought.

"That helped keep me grounded," Jan said. "I didn't miss any games."

Jan had a front row seat for one of CCC's best ever girls games.

Down 26-9 to St. Petersburg Catholic, CCC rallied to win 41-36, stealing the district title from its most heated rival.

Afterward, the team went out to dinner, but Shannon, overwhelmed by emotion, could not. She went and watched Hoosiers - again.

"I just didn't feel I could celebrate without my father being there," Shannon said.

The following season, there were more questions. Would the time that had elapsed allow Shannon to mend? Or would basketball be an excruciating, heartbreaking effort?

After all, there was a one-year anniversary to endure.

Shannon decided to keep playing.

But at a rival school.

During the 2003-04 season, Shannon switched to St. Petersburg Catholic. She did it because her family lives in Tierra Verde and it gave her the chance to play for Nick Vandewalle, a longtime friend of her father's.

"It was an easy decision," Shannon said. "Sure, it was weird going to a school that was a rival, but it was basically right down the street. And Nick has more or less been like a second father to me."

With the Barons, Shannon has developed into a classic fastbreak point guard who sticks to the philosophy of passing first and looking for the shot as a last resort. But after three seasons of piling up assists, Vandewalle asked her to become more of a scoring option.

She put it all together this season, averaging 7.5 points and 5.4 assists.

"Shannon already was a pretty skilled player," Vandewalle said. "That comes from her father. But she's improved so much since she's been here. She's our general and makes our offense go."

In the region final, Shannon had 10 points and five assists to help her team stay afloat after falling behind in the first half.

Shannon, though, already has overcame much more than a tough game.

"I know I was shedding a lot of tears when they won," Jan McElhaney said. "This was a lot of hard work by Shannon to get to this point. Her dad is watching above.

"He couldn't be happier."

GIRLS BASKETBALL: STATE GLANCE

GETTING TO THE LAKELAND CENTER: Take Interstate 4 east to Exit 31 (Kathleen Road). Turn right on Kathleen Road and continue to Sikes Boulevard. Bear right at the yield sign and turn right at the second traffic light (Lime Street). The Lakeland Center is on the right.

CLASS 3A SEMIFINAL

WHO: St. Petersburg Catholic (27-2) vs. Miami Gulliver Prep (26-4).

WHEN: 4 p.m., Wednesday.

WHERE: Lakeland Center.

ADMISSION: $9 per session; $5 parking each day.

HOW THEY GOT HERE: St. Petersburg Catholic beat Sarasota Cardinal Mooney 58-20, Melbourne Central Catholic 65-44 and Academy of the Holy Names 48-43. Gulliver Prep beat Fort Lauderdale Archbishop Curly 50-22, Boca Raton Pope John Paul II 53-44 and West Palm Beach Cardinal Newman 44-36.

CLASS 5A SEMIFINAL

WHO: Largo (26-1) vs. Naples Barron Collier (29-2).

WHEN: 8:30 p.m., Wednesday.

WHERE: The Lakeland Center.

ADMISSION: $9 per session; $5 parking each day.

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Largo beat Plant 69-45, Boca Ciega 55-40 and Lakewood 47-45 in overtime. Barron Collier beat Fort Lauderdale Dillard 62-48, Sebastian River 63-29 and Miami Jackson 53-49.

- BOB PUTNAM, Times staff writer

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