A cardboard cutout of former West Carteret boys basketball coach Craig McClanahan has been present at every home game this season. One of his former players, Gavin Gillikin, holds it here in this photo. McClanahan will be honored with a “white out” tonight in the regional final at the school. Others in the photo are, left to right, family members Dega Lancaster, Michael McClanahan, Jackie McClanahan, Mason Lancaster and Robert Lancaster. (Zack Nally photo)

MOREHEAD CITY — When the Patriots host Northwood for the eastern regional final in the 3A boys basketball state playoffs tonight, their last head coach will be remembered.

West Carteret will honor previous coach Craig McClanahan with a “white out” night, with players donning white jerseys and fans encouraged to wear white. McClanahan died last June after a battle with cancer.

“We’re going to honor our friend Craig tomorrow,” West coach Mark Mansfield said at practice on Monday. “I know he’s looking down on us and he’s proud of what the kids have done.”

Assistant coach Robert Lancaster worked for 21 years with McClanahan, but his relationship with the former coach ran much deeper. He formed a lifetime friendship with him as a child when his sister, Jackie, began dating McClanahan in high school.

Robert continued in his role as an assistant when Mansfield took over following the 2018-2019 season and McClanahan’s retirement, and now has been with the program for 23 years.

“When Craig told me he was going to retire, I was going to tell Mark I couldn’t do it,” Lancaster said. “I’m glad I didn’t say no. Being a part of this is special. This group plays so well together. They love each other, they’re unselfish and they have talent.”

McClanahan’s wife, Jackie, and their son, Michael, were at the game on Saturday, big smiles on their faces as West clinched a regional final berth with a cardboard cutout of Craig sitting right next to the coaches.

“That means a lot,” Jackie McClanahan said. “This team has really gone out of their way to include Craig, and in turn, include me. I know he would be proud. He’d be very happy. This is what they worked towards for a long time. He’s not here to enjoy it, but I’m glad this has happened.”

McClanahan was a 36-year educator, head boys basketball coach at West for 21 years, a boys and girls tennis coach for 17 years and the school’s athletic director for 15 before retiring.

The East Carolina University alum and 1983 Patriot grad became just the second coach at the school to win a conference title, joining Billy Widgeon who also coached 21 years with the program, with a 3A Coastal title in his final season. The conference’s Coach of the Year for the 2006-2007 season, McClanahan led the Patriots to winning records in five of his last six seasons. The team went a combined 47-24 (.661) over his last three.

Two of his players, James Kenon and Gavin Gillikin, were sophomores for his final season and are now senior standouts.

“I remember him always using his phrases, like ‘spacing and timing’ or ‘bounce-pass,’ little stuff like that,” Kenon said.

Gillikin added, “He was one of my favorite coaches, because no matter what, even if I went 9-for-10 that night, he’d still get on me about that one miss.”

McClanahan hung up his whistle officially in July 2019, but a few months later, he was struggling to breathe during normal activities and a few months after that, he was diagnosed with cancer.

Gillikin was one of the players to visit his old coach and offer comfort.

“I got to see a different side of him,” he said. “He looks like a rock when he’s walking around the court. But when I showed up to his house, I saw the softness inside. I love that man to death. He’ll be here tomorrow. I know that.”

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