This article by Greg Madia appeared in the Dec. 2, 2020, issue of the Daily News-Record.
This was the pinnacle for Eastern Mennonite University women’s basketball.
The Royals’ buzzer-beating shot sent them past Christopher Newport and onto the Division III Sweet 16 for the first time ever. They haven’t been back since either.
“I’ve never seen Richard McElwee like that,” former EMU men’s coach Kirby Dean said as he chuckled and started to recall a fond memory of his longtime friend.
Dean and McElwee, the former EMU women’s coach, began their stints at the school together in 2003, but knew each other prior to leading their respective programs and remained close even after McElwee stepped down from his post following the 2004-05 season.
McElwee died Saturday at the age of 59 on the heels of a long bout with cancer.
“He was pretty reserved in terms of the way he would carry himself on the bench,” Dean continued, “but for about 30 seconds, I think he had an out-of-body experience.”
Dean said in the waning seconds of the 2004 NCAA women’s tournament contest against Christopher Newport, Royals guard Laura Ludholtz, a Fort Defiance product, took the ball coast-to-coast to deliver the game-winner as time expired.
“Richard ran in place and he celebrated like I had never seen him celebrate when the ball went through the basket,” Dean said. “And they won that game to advance to the Sweet 16. It’s probably the best moment in the history of the women’s program.”
McElwee owns the school’s top all-time winning percentage (.745) to go along with his 41-14 record, which included an Old Dominion Athletic Conference tournament championship and the program’s first NCAA postseason win.
He only stayed on for two seasons, though, at his alma mater, EMU, where he was a three-year letter winner in baseball as an infielder and had a career batting average of .321 from 1981 through 1983 after transferring from Longwood.
McElwee played baseball for coach Roland Landes and one of his dormmates at EMU was Staunton native Larry Sheets, a basketball star there who also helped out one season with the baseball team, in 1982. Sheets eventually made it to Major League Baseball with the Baltimore Orioles in 1984.
Dean said the lone reason McElwee left the gig as EMU coach was to return home to his family, which was still living in Riner in southwest Virginia. He departed just as EMU athletic director Dave King was settling into his job.
Said King in a statement: “While I never had the opportunity to work with Coach McElwee, his impact on the women’s basketball program was evident as he took the team to their first NCAA appearance. Beyond the wins, his care for others left a positive impression on his players and colleagues. I’m glad he had the opportunity to coach at his alma mater. He was a true coach and will be missed by many. We offer our condolences to his family and friends.”
Aside from those two hoops seasons with the Royals, all of the other years McElwee spent in coaching were in the high school ranks.
Ahead of working at EMU, McElwee was the boys and girls basketball coach for two years at Auburn High School in Montgomery County. Before that, he had an 18-year tenure at Bath County High School, where he coached baseball, boys basketball and girls basketball. McElwee was a graduate of BCHS and was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2009.
He led BCHS to a Virginia High School League Group A baseball state semifinal appearance in 1990.
“If anyone was born to coach, he was that type of guy,” Mark Griffin, a Bridgewater College admissions officer and an alum of Bath County High School, said. Griffin is on the Hall of Fame committee at BCHS and knew McElwee well.
“McElwee picked more brains than anyone I could ever imagine,” Griffin said. “He was always – even if you played him in marbles or chess – he was going to beat you.”
Katie Hardbarger, a former James Madison women’s basketball player, played for McElwee at BCHS and said the coach always tried to set his players up for success even if it went against coaching norms.
“Richard was just a good coach,” Hardbarger said. “He recognized talent and had a good head for basketball. He studied it and I think a lot of coaches – and I played for many over the years – had preconceived notions about who the point guard should be and that all the tall kids should have their backs to the basket. But he didn’t think that way.
“He assembled each team based on what he thought they could do collectively and that was rare. I was 6-foot and playing at a tiny school in Appalachian, but he pushed me to shoot and I became a deadly 3-point shooter, which was rare for someone with my height. He was an out-of-the-box thinker.”
McElwee was a District Coach of the Year eight times, earning the honor on six occasions in baseball and once each in boys and girls basketball.
And past the undeniable triumphs on the diamond or on the court, McElwee’s mentorship of players and fellow coaches forged relationships that lasted up until his passing.
Dean said he spoke weekly on the phone with McElwee and had one of those conversations as recently as the last week in October. They first met decades ago when McElwee would bring his BCHS teams to the team camps at VMI where Dean was an assistant and ran the camps.
“But we spent those two years together at EMU and it was an interesting time,” Dean said. “Our programs were in such different spots. I inherited a program and we were trying to rebuild it. Richard had inherited a program that was on the rise, big time. So during those two years, I only won a couple of games and he was making a run to the Sweet 16.
“But he was just instrumental in talking me through those early years. I was a young guy and came in with the idea that I could turn it around overnight and immediately win. That was foolish. Even though I played in the ODAC, I didn’t realize how hard it was to build a winner in that league. I was miserable those two years, but he helped me through those times and talked me through them. He was the veteran coach, who had been on the mountaintop, experienced the peaks and valleys and helped me get through the valley because that was my first time going through it.”
Dean ultimately got the men’s team turned around and led them to an Elite Eight showing in 2010.
Hardbarger, one of two players to earn a Division I scholarship under McElwee’s watch along with Chris Williams who played baseball at JMU, said McElwee let her practice with the boys basketball teams at BCHS so she could square off against better competition regularly and improve.
“I practiced with the boys starting in the ninth grade,” she said, “which was unusual to let a 14-year old girl practice with the boys JV and varsity teams. But it was so I could get that year-round work in. And then I kept stats for them, traveled with them and practiced with them until I graduated. … And I feel like during the late 90s times when Title IX was an issue and I couldn’t find a weight room to workout in, he really reached out and made me feel welcome. As a women’s basketball player that was huge and I didn’t recognize it at the time just what a big deal that was. Of course now that I’m 40 and I’m looking back, it meant a lot.”
McElwee’s career ended at Glenvar High School, where he was the athletic director for the last 14 years and coached girls basketball before that.