SHELTON—Joy, laughter and tears were all a part of the Holy Trinity Catholic Academy girls’ varsity basketball team championship celebration.
The undefeated team, coaches, parents and staff gathered at the school to celebrate the 2019-2020 season by unveiling a championship banner in the school gym and a special plaque to honor one of their coaches, who was killed this year in a car accident.
Assistant Coach Jim McKenna, father of teammate Angelina, was killed early New Year’s Day on his way home, when according to police, another driver crossed the double yellow line on Whitney Avenue in Hamden and the vehicles collided head-on.
“It’s bittersweet to be here celebrating our championship and his legacy,” said Assistant Coach Aurelio Gracia, who coached with McKenna at the school for three years.
The celebration, delayed a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, was now missing a beloved member of the winning team. McKenna would have been with the team to celebrate their successful season if the coronavirus pandemic had not shut down the country before the end of the school year.
“He enjoyed coaching the team, he cared for the team,” Gracia added. “He really had a good connection with the girls.”
The connection the team had amongst themselves and with their coaches was evident this night, as people gathered while a slideshow of photos highlighting the team’s successful year played on a big screen in the gymnasium. The photos of joyous smiles of victory, punctuated with hi-fives, was the backdrop to teammates reminiscing about a successful season while enjoying a dinner of salad and pizza.
“It softens my heart that people came out to honor him in such a special way and especially since it is connected to what he loved, which is basketball,” said Gina McKay, Angelina’s mother.
She said coaching their daughter and the team was his newfound purpose in life after a career in law enforcement with Metro-North Police. The Army veteran who served in Desert Shield/Desert Storm and was a reservist at the time of his passing, wanted to spend more time with his daughter, often picking her up after school.
“He spent his time teaching the girls so they could develop and become good players. He helped to build their confidence,” McKay said. “He wanted to teach them leadership skills so they could excel in their academic life and sports journey.”
Before the unveiling of the banner and the presentation of a plaque in McKenna’s honor, the coaches, school staff and McKay and her daughter, Angelina shared a few stories about what Coach Jim meant to the team.
“Coaching is a love and a passion and I was blessed to coach with Coach Jim and Coach Aurelio (Gracia),” said Head Coach Michael Wilson, who was overcome with emotion recalling shared times with his late friend.
“Basketball teaches us so many life lessons and in life you must work hard to accomplish your dreams,” said Wilson. He thanked the girls for their hard work and for their ability to make the coaches laugh, especially after a long day.
Everyone appreciated the dedication and drive that helped propel the team to success.
“He was so proud of his daughter, so proud of the girls,” Wilson said. “To remember him this way, is an honor and a privilege to us. We know he is here in spirit.”
Lisa Lanni, head of school, said McKenna’s impact on the school community, especially the sports community, will not be forgotten.
“He was an active and important member of our school community. He was well-loved, well-respected and is sorely missed,” she said. “He taught them sportsmanship, fair play and compassion, not just the skills of the game,” Lanni said.
“He was kind, calm, caring, carefree, fun, dedicated and matched up many times to being a big kid himself,” McKay said.
Her daughter agreed, barely able to contain giggles and laughter with her teammates as she shared stories of teenager hi-jinks during practices that once included hiding a teammate amongst the team gear to see when the coaches would notice the teammate was missing.
“This game brings people together,” said Dennis Kelly, athletic director for the school, who set up a GoFundMe page for Angelina’s education. Kelly reiterated a life lesson the girls learned and lived during their basketball career at the school.
“I want to encourage you to dream,” he said. “See it happen make it happen. Hard work and perseverance pay off.”
The banner was unveiled to cheers by those gathered and afterwards a team huddle, hands placed atop one another in a circle, as they had done so many times before, with a loud shout of “Hard work!” a nod to a team ritual and mantra before every game and now, a life lesson to guide their future.
“It’s very meaningful to have something like this,” McKay said, reflecting on the gathering with her daughter at her side.
“It’s definitely nice to have something like this,” Angelina said. “It’s sad he’s not here. He really enjoyed coaching the team. He cared for the team,” she said.
“It’s a good way to end the year,” she added, glad to be surrounded by her supportive teammates and school community leaders.
The positive ending to the school year is what McKenna would have wanted, McKay said.
“He would smile knowing this was part of his legacy,” she said. “A positive experience for everyone.”
Note: Contributions to the GoFundMe page for Angelina can be made here.
By Kathy-Ann Gobin