FORT WALTON BEACH – Last month, Holly McDaniel sat down with her protégé, Mercedez Claybrone, at Buffalo Wings and Rings.
McDaniel, then the Fort Walton Beach girls basketball coach, was in the midst of transitioning into her new role as the Vikings’ athletic director, and her first assignment was replacing the post she’d occupied since 2003.
"Coach Mac told me, ‘I don’t think you’re ready right now, but I’m gonna get you ready," Claybrone said.
A month later, following countless meetings with McDaniel, Claybrone is ready.
Just 24 years old and coming off a lauded collegiate career at Northwest Florida State and Florida Southern College, the Fort Walton Beach alumna will take over a program that’s made the playoffs 29 of the past 30 years.
"She bleeds red, white and blue," said McDaniel, who in accepting the athletic director role had to step down as head basketball coach. "She loves Fort Walton Beach High School and understands what it’s like to play here, understands the lofty expectations here. This is where her heart’s at."
Claybrone won’t argue with that.
"I absolutely bleed red, white and blue and love everything about Fort Walton Beach High School," she said. "This program is so family-oriented and there’s such a spirit and tradition here. This is home."
The tradition includes continuity at the helm, as Claybrone is just the third head coach in 40 years following the footsteps of Hall-of-Famer Kevin Craig (three state titles) and McDaniel.
McDaniel departs the helm with a 347-125 record as head coach, including three Final Four appearances, a state championship appearance in 2017, five regional final showings, 10 district titles and 16 playoff appearances.
Before that, she served as assistant coach under Craig beginning in 1998, helping the Vikings to a state title in 1999, three Final Four appearances, four district crowns and a 135-36 record. Counting her playing career as a Viking from 1990-1994, McDaniel — the all-time assists leader at Fort Walton — has two state titles, eight Final Four appearances and a 596-175 mark.
"I’m grateful and I’m excited, but I’m also a little intimidated because you have this tradition with two coaches who have been so successful for the last 40 years," Claybrone said. "But that’s where I expect to be, a 20-plus-year coach here.
"I plan to bring the same values and same winning tradition. I plan to expand on everything they’ve done."
That’s exactly why McDaniel brought Claybrone in as an assistant coach in 2019 to work primarily with post players.
"When I brought Mercedez back, it was with the feeling that at one point she’d be taking over," McDaniel said. "I didn’t expect it’d be so soon, but she has the personality, she has the drive.
"In terms of players I’ve coached, she’s a top-fiver in terms of leadership."
McDaniel knew when that day came for her to hand over the reins, she would "not be leaving the well dry." Player of the Year Sam Sherer and Marissa Brown returning validates that.
"She’s able to come in and have a very talented team with an experienced staff," McDaniel said. "She has all the pieces around her. She’ll have the same support I had."
That support includes assistant coaches Aerion Gould, Erin Houy, Tony Anderson, Lorance White and Diamond Lopez.
"I think our staff is complete," McDaniel said. "Having that continuity, that’s why we’ve been able to maintain this tradition of success. Assistant coaches aren’t recognized enough for what they do, and having that support will help Mercedez transition into her new role."
McDaniel, while her focus will be spread across all sports, will be there to lend support as well.
"Very much so," Claybrone said. "She told me anything I need, just like with all of her coaches, she’ll be there. She’s always available for a phone call."
As for Claybrone’s coaching style, she said she’ll carry over McDaniel’s focus on man-to-man defense while also developing her own methods.
"I want to keep the game fresh," she said. "The game is evolving and I’ve got a lot of ideas. Hopefully I can throw some other things in there and develop my identity."
Having played so recently and forged that collegiate path her players covet will help further endear Claybrone — who averaged seven points and five rebounds during her two years at Florida Southern — as a role model.
"I saw that in last year’s role where Marissa Brown and Samantha Sherer would ask if I could help them work on this move or help with their footwork," Claybrone said. "It was easy for me to step in and show them firsthand because I just finished college."
Now Claybrone is head coach of her alma mater. Twenty-four years young.
"This was always the goal, but I never imagined the transition coming so quickly," Claybrone said. "I’m excited. I’m ready to start."