October 5, 2014 12:48:46 AM
STARKVILLE -- Don't get in Elena Lovato's way.
Odds are she has somewhere she needs to go and she is focused on getting there the quickest way possible. That's why you probably will see a spark from underneath her sneakers or shoes as she walks through a door and walks with a purpose or strides past you on her way to that destination. Whether it's talking to a recruit or moving around the basketball court, there is no time for idle movement because there are things to accomplish and a program to build at Mississippi State.
"There is so much excitement about what is going on around here," Lovato said. "The minute I stepped foot in Starkville I felt like I was part of the family. I think coach Schaefer and his staff have done a great job of embracing me as a new member of the team. He has set a great foundation. It is a mini-family, so I wake up every morning feeling extremely blessed to be here and truly grateful for the opportunity, so that kind of keeps that spark there."
Lovato wanted to be a part of that construction in Starkville, which is why she left a job as head coach at two-time national champion Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College to join the staff of Vic Schaefer at MSU. In Schaefer, Lovato sees one mentor who will help her grow as a coach. She also sees three others -- associate head coach Johnnie Harris, assistant coach Aqua Franklin, and director of basketball operations Maryann Baker -- who can provide valuable lessons. Together, they will form a coaching staff Schaefer said is "the best in the country."
Schaefer said his coaches have six national championship rings, including two by Lovato from her time at Trinity Valley C.C., and he has three assistant coaches who have been inducted to Halls of Fame. He feels Lovato's personality, love for defense, and ability to recruit fit in well in Starkville.
"She fits in so well in our office," Schaefer said. "The work ethic up and down our hallway, I will put it up against any anybody."
Lovato said Schaefer's "vision" for the MSU program sold her on coming to Starkville. She said she always has admired his defensive acumen -- Schaefer's nickname is "Secretary of Defense" -- and believes she can be a good role model and that she is another "winner" who can set the example that pushes MSU to the top of the Southeastern Conference.
Lovato said all of those factors came together to make MSU feel like the "perfect fit." She admitted she had a few opportunities to leave Trinity Valley C.C. after the national championship season of 2012-13, but she opted to stay at the school. The decision paid off, as she led the team to another 36-1 record and its second-consecutive NJCAA national title. The championship ushered in another set of coaching opportunities that included one she felt had everything she wanted.
"I do it more for the missionary reasons," Lovato said. "I feel I can do this so I can help young women develop in their lives and have the opportunity to educate and to empower them through basketball. When I turned down a couple of those opportunities, I thought to myself there are only a handful of people in this industry that I really want to work for and I can't keep turning good people down. When coach Schaefer came calling, like I said I knew Aqua and Johnnie and I felt like three amazing people on the same staff and for me to be added to that mix, I knew I would learn a lot from them. I knew everybody would be on the same page."
Lovato has a wealth of coaching experience. Prior to her second coaching stint at Trinity Valley, Lovato spent one season as an assistant coach at Nebraska-Omaha, a school that was transitioning from Division II to Division I, one season as head coach at Grayson County (Texas) C.C., one season as an assistant coach at Houston, and time as a graduate assistant coach at Pittsburg State in Kansas, where she earned her master's degree.
Lovato was an assistant coach at Trinity Valley C.C. in her first stint before she was promoted to the head coach for the final 11 games of the season. She led the team to a 9-2 finish and a sixth-place finish in the national tournament.
Lovato also had a successful career as a player. She played two seasons at West Texas A&M before transferring to Missouri Southern State. She then played professionally in the Puerto Rican Women's Basketball League. She earned first-team All-League honors after averaging 23 points and 10 rebounds in 2001. The following year she played for the Chicago Blaze of the National Women's Basketball League.
Schaefer hopes the wealth of Lovato's experience provides another piece of the foundation he is assembling at MSU.
"She just has an unbelievable passion," Schaefer said. "You're talking about somebody who has been the coach of the back-to-back national champion. She has called some meaningful timeouts in her career, and she has had to draw up some meaningful plays down the stretch. She brings a dimension to our staff from a game standpoint that is going to add to it.
"That was my home run. That's who I really wanted. She was my No. 1 pick. (Mississippi State Director of Athletics) Scott (Stricklin) helped me make that happen, and my staff wanted her."
Lovato said she is excited to learn Schaefer's "recipe for success." She said her first few months at MSU have been a whirlwind. The furniture for her apartment was delivered right before she and the team for their trip to Europe, so she thanked her mother for coming to town and staying with her for more than two weeks to help her settle in. As MSU prepares to start practice Monday for the 2014-15 season, Lovato feels more comfortable and ready to go. That doesn't mean she will slow down, so watch out if you see her coming because she has a purpose. Like Schaefer, Lovato's goal is to help build MSU into a contender in the SEC and on the national scene.
"I am in the right place and it is about timing," Lovato said. "I have been moving around for eight out of nine years. I think this is a place I can settle down for a few years and really sit back and learn from someone who has that recipe."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.