Elena Lovato is building an empire in Athens.
Lovato, a 1997 graduate of Rio Grande High School, just completed her second full season as the women’s basketball head coach at Trinity Valley Community College, a NJCAA school in Athens, Texas.
In her two seasons leading TVCC, Lovato has racked up 72 wins, two losses and won back-to-back national championships. She capped off her second year with a 36-1 record and was named 2014 NJCAA National Coach of the Year.
“It’s a blessing. I think God puts you in places for a reason,” Lovato said. “I was put in the right place at the right time, and it makes for a beautiful thing. I’ve had a special group two years in a row, and maybe we can create more history here.”
After leaving Rio Grande, Lovato played collegiately at West Texas A&M and Missouri Southern State, and professionally in the Puerto Rican Women’s Pro Basketball League and for Chicago in the National Women’s Basketball League.
After a knee injury ended her playing career in 2002, Lovato spent four years working in pharmaceutical sales, and teaching and coaching at Menaul High School. After a year of teaching PE and coaching JV basketball in Buffalo, Mo., Lovato landed at Pittsburg (Kansas) State, where she was a graduate assistant and earned her master’s in physical education.
She also began making an impression on other coaches on the recruiting trail, including Texas-Pan American head coach Larry Tidwell, who was an associate head coach at TCU when he met Lovato in 2008.
“Not only is she a great communicator and great recruiter, her work ethic is just fantastic,” Tidwell said. “She’s a grinder. It’s 24-7-365 for her when it comes to recruiting. She’s one of the greatest recruiters I’ve seen.”
Those recruiting skills led Tidwell to reach out to the late Joe Curl – who was then the head coach at the University of Houston and in search of an assistant coach – on behalf of Lovato.
“I was in a position to help her get a job,” Tidwell said. “(Curl) was my best friend, and he had a staff opening. I recommended her for it, she pursued it and she got it. That’s the way she started her Division I career.”
Lovato spent one season at Houston before moving on to TVCC as an assistant in 2009, but she would also get her first taste of being a head coach.
TVCC head coach Bill Damuth was placed on indefinite suspension after being arrested during an altercation with an official at a Feb. 10 game at Blinn College. He was charged with resisting arrest. A Trinity Valley player was also arrested during the altercation.
“It got way blown out of proportion, but they ended arresting the head coach and a player after a game at Blinn,” Lovato said. “He was suspended for a while before they terminated him, and they gave me the interim. At that point they let me take the team to the regional tournament and the national tournament.”
Lovato led the Lady Cardinals to a 9-2 record and a sixth-place finish at the national tourney, but she was not retained by the school.
Lovato instead took the head coaching job at Grayson County Community College in Denison, Texas. The team had finished 4-26 in 2009-10. Lovato led it to a 32-4 record in the 2010-11 season. As it turns out, those four losses are the low point of Lovato’s head coaching career.
“I’m a winner,” Lovato said with a laugh. “I think recruiting is huge; getting really good kids that you can relate to and take care of and they come in and take care of you. My success, I believe, is because I really, truly and genuinely care about my kids. And they see that and play really hard for me. When you can get 12 kids to buy into something and buy into you and they run through a wall for you, it’s fun to watch. I’ve got girls playing like boys, running through walls, diving on the floor, and they’re very passionate about what they’re doing. It’s been fun to see these kids grow.”
Lovato left Grayson after one season to return to Division I as an assistant with Nebraska-Omaha. After a year there, Lovato returned to TVCC to take over as head coach.
Lovato was hired to replace the coaching duo of Michael and Kenya Landers, who resigned after leading the Lady Cardinals to a 70-3 record in their two years in charge, including a 36-0, national-title winning season in 2011-12.
Lovato had no trouble building on their success, finishing 36-1 and winning a championship in 2012-13 as she used her recruiting skills to rebuild the roster. Lovato added the school’s eighth women’s basketball title and third in a row this past season, continuing to expand the growing dynasty in East Texas.
“We’re looking for high-impact kids,” Lovato said. “We get really particular. We’re trying to get good character kids, too, because we want to continue to graduate our kids on time and keep our GPA high. It’s been fun, because you kind of feel like you’re the UConn of the junior college level.”
And much like Geno Auriemma at UConn, success is paying off for Lovato in terms of recruiting.
“Recruiting is the bloodlines at this level,” Lovato said. “Every year you’re reloading and trying to recruit six to eight kids and it’s crazy. But we’re fortunate to be in the situation we’re in right now, defending the three-peat. Kids want to come here. So we’re turning more kids down than we’re signing, but the recruiting is just all day, every day. Which is good for me because it extends my network, and I think that will pay off later on if I do eventually move up the ladder.”
The 35-year-old Lovato had opportunities to climb the ladder back to Division I this past offseason but decided to return to TVCC and chase another championship.
“I was approached by a few BCS programs as far as coming and being an assistant coach or recruiting coordinator, but it wasn’t necessarily the right fit,” Lovato said. “I don’t want to leave a situation where I feel like I’m put to the fire every day and learn from experience to take an assistant job. It’s going to have to be an assistant job with very special people, somebody who I feel like will groom me to be a head coach at that level. Until that happens, I’ll just keep paving my own way.”
And will Lovato eventually pave her way to a D-I head coaching gig?
“Without question she will,” Tidwell said. “She continues to build her résumé, and when you put national championships on your résumé, that’s pretty impressive.
“The main thing that Elena does is her communication skills are excellent. She makes everybody around here feel comfortable, she’s personable and very energetic, very passionate. It shows in her job. She’s done a lot of good things for a young lady.”