Physicality, that's one of the first things the people who want to give her scholarships say about Clare. "She's got the body of a college junior, very advanced," says a scout from a Big East school. "Tremendous strength in her upper body." Then again, Clare, who is far larger than her mother, father, or brother, has always been big and strong. Not that she's worked at it, much. A total gym rat, she'll practice her shot for hours, even kill herself with hated rebound and defense drills. But otherwise, she does little exercise. In pregame warm-ups, while her teammates stretch out, Clare barely bends over. When she goes to the Ramshorn Diner on Beach Channel Drive, she orders a bacon-and-egg sandwich and a plate of cheese fries. "God, am I eating this?" she asks herself with a wince, and keeps on eating.
At the "next level," up against the best college players, all this will have to change, Clare knows. Things won't come so easily. At the end of the summer, Coach Mackey will come over to her house and they'll sit in the living room narrowing those thousands of offers down to five or six. Sure, she'd like to stay near home. Even when the team traveled to California for a week to play in a tournament, she got "bad homesick." But there's still plenty of time before that. Now an athlete in repose, Clare is happy, and smart enough to bask in the irreplaceable glow of being a natural, perfect in her hometown.
Rockaway, they say, is ruled by "the three b's -- the beach, basketball, and bars." So it figures that Clare Droesch, surfer girl, would first learn to shoot the ball in the joint her father and grandfather owned and ran for 37 years, the Belle Harbor Tavern on 129th Street. "I'd be behind the bar," remembers George Droesch, Clare's father, now 47 and currently in the office-cleaning business, "and I'd see Clare -- she was just this little thing, at least as little as she ever was, 5 years old -- playing on the 25-cent Pop-a-Shot machine. She didn't miss. And it's funny, because her shooting motion then, it hasn't changed. It's the same."
For Clare, those were the days, when her dad and grandpa owned the Belle Harbor. "It was right down the street from St. Francis, so I'd come over after school, get some chips, a soda, do my homework. Pull the beers. My father was always there. Grandpa too. Lots of people. It was a really warm feeling. Maybe a lot of people got drunk. But at least it was drunks we knew."
"I'll do something good," says Clare, "then I'll look up in the stands and I'll see my dad sitting there, just smiling. That's pretty great, because I made him happy."
"I can't tell you how proud I am of my daughter, the joy she gives me," George Droesch, a soft-spoken man with a soulful melancholy about him, says with unashamed pride. Their son, George Jr., was a baseball player at the priestly Cathedral school in Kew Gardens, but nothing has prepared George and Patty Droesch for the kind of athlete Clare appears to be. "She was always playing ball, but did I expect this? No," says George, who along with Pattie, Clare's grandmother, and various aunts and uncles attends most every Christ the King contest, home and away. As Clare gets antsy before a game, staring off into space and refusing to speak while Coach Mackey wraps her ankle, George Droesch is a nervous rooter. If Clare misses a couple of shots in a row or makes a turnover, he'll let out a staccato "Come on, Clare," but this is a private exhortation, rarely heard above the gym din. Clare appreciates the restraint. "I see these other parents, how crazy they are, and I look up to God and say thank you. Thank you very much.
"Then I'll do something good, then I'll look up in the stands and I'll see my dad sitting there, just smiling. That's pretty great, because I made him happy." But then, not to get too mushy, when asked if she has a boyfriend, Clare rolls her eyes and says, with endearing brattiness, "Boyfriend? No. You might say my father is the man in my life. Just ask him."
As the full moon rises over E-Z Pass lanes on Cross Bay Bridge, Rockaway people, the b-ball nuts, anyway, are heading up toward Metropolitan Avenue to the gully between the Lutheran Cemetery, the Metro Mall, and the M-train terminus, to sit in the wooden bleachers at Christ the King. Not counting playoffs, this will be the last time to see Clare and Janelle McManus in the same game as high-school players. Next fall, Janelle will be running the point for Boston College.
When the two played each other last year, Clare blew up, scoring 48, which broke Chamique Holdsclaw's Christ the King single-game record. Kearney has not beaten CK in recent memory, but tonight anything is possible, especially the way Janelle has been playing. Now the all-time leading scorer in CHSAA history, two months ago, in a performance that has entered Rockaway folklore, Janelle scored seven points in the last 8 seconds to give Kearney a one-point win over Loughlin.
In the Christ the King locker room, Bob Mackey is psyching his team. Decked out with P. J. Carlesimo-like facial hair, Mackey, who once tended bar in a place owned by Tim Tubridy, father of Trish Tubridy, has coached boys but prefers the girls' game. "They listen, they're fundamentally sound, and they care. It isn't that supercool thing," he says. Other differences in coaching the sexes, Mackey says, are that you can't curse (even though he did scream at the team the other day to "stop making girly noises") and no one wants to watch videotape. "You put on the tape and no one is watching the plays -- they're all upset about how fat they think they look."