Rio Grande grad wins national junior college title as coach
After leaving Rio Grande High School, she’s been to places like Pittsburg, Buffalo and Athens.
Pittsburg, Kan., Buffalo, Mo., and Athens, Texas, that is.
Elena Lovato has traveled many roads, many of them back roads, in her time as a basketball player and coach.
But this week as she drove to the women’s Final Four in New Orleans, she traveled as a national championship-winning head coach.
On March 25 in Salina, Kan., Lovato — a 1997 graduate of Rio Grande — led Trinity Valley Community College in Athens to the NJCAA Division I title in her first year as head coach of the Lady Cardinals.
The 2012-13 championship was the second straight and seventh overall for TVCC, which finished at 36-1.
Lovato’s journey to that title began at Rio Grande, where her prep career ended with disappointment in 1997.
“I don’t remember our record, but I know we were supposed to be competing for a state title,” Lovato said. “But we choked; we didn’t even make it to the state tournament.”
After her time at Rio Grande, Lovato played at West Texas A&M for two years before transferring to Missouri Southern State, where she finished her collegiate career in 2000.
She then played two years in the Puerto Rican Women’s Pro Basketball League before signing with the Chicago Blaze of the National Women’s Basketball League.
In 2002, her playing career was derailed by a knee injury, and Lovato returned to Albuquerque.
“When I hurt my knee, I came home and got it fixed,” Lovato said. “I never could recover from the cartilage damage, so I got a job.”
From 2003 to 2006, Lovato worked in the pharmaceutical sales business. During that time, Lovato also taught and coached at Menaul School.
Eventually, she realized she was not on the road to happiness.
“I just missed being active and being around the game,” Lovato said. “I decided money wasn’t necessarily going to make me happy, so I decided to give up a really good job to pursue a career in coaching.”
Lovato landed a job teaching PE at Buffalo Prairie Middle School in Buffalo, Mo., and also served as the head coach for the junior varsity basketball team and as an assistant for the varsity team at Buffalo High School.
Lovato then spent the 2007-08 season as a graduate assistant with Pittsburg State in Pittsburg, Kan., where she earned a master’s degree in physical education.
After coaching the next season on the staff at the University of Houston, Lovato was hired as an assistant at Trinity Valley in 2009. She finished that season as the interim head coach and led the team to a 9-2 finish.
Despite the strong end to the season, Lovato was not retained by TVCC.
“I didn’t have any experience as a head coach, so they opted to go in another direction,” said Lovato, who was hired as head coach at Grayson County Community College in Denison, Texas.
In 2010-11, her first season as a full-time head coach, Lovato led Grayson to a 32-4 record.
Despite winning a slew of coaching awards, Lovato again moved on — taking an assistant job at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Then, on April 11, 2012, Lovato returned to Trinity Valley, this time as head coach.
“It was a huge blessing,” Lovato said. “They were defending national champions; they were 36-0 (in 2011-12). It was one of those things where you just feel like there’s something out there looking after you.”
After winning her first national championship, Lovato is now preparing for another personal first: a second consecutive year at TVCC.
“We had six amazing freshman who have the work ethic and mindset to win another one,” Lovato said. “And I’m already recruiting some new talent to add to our program. Hopefully, we can make a run at another national title.”
Lovato will spend today at the Final Four as a spectator, but she hopes to return someday as a coach.
“All along the goal has been to become a Division I head coach,” Lovato said. “But I’m following God’s plan right now, and this is where he wants me. And I think this is where I need to be. But I do think he has bigger things out there for me. I think I’m on the right track to do something special.”
— This article appeared on page D5 of the Albuquerque Journal