April 11, 2016 7:26:48 AM
The contents of this article have been modified since its original posting.
Nearly two years ago, Elena Lovato joined the Mississippi State women's basketball family intending to take full advantage of coach Vic Schaefer's mentorship.
In that time, Lovato played an integral role in helping MSU have back-to-back seasons in which it recorded single-season win records. She also had a hand in continuing the Bulldogs' run of recruiting success.
On Friday, Lovato parlayed everything she learned and experienced in Starkville to a new job as head women's basketball coach at Division II Arkansas -Fort Smith.
"It was a tremendous blessing to be with (coach Schaefer) for two years and to be in that environment," Lovato said Saturday, one day after she was officially introduced as the successor to Louis Whorton, who retired after 30 years as the school's women's basketball coach. "He probably doesn't know how much I soaked in. I couldn't be more excited to be in the position I am in to use some of the things he taught me."
In her two seasons on Schaefer's staff, Lovato helped the Bulldogs to a 55-15 record, a 22-10 Southeastern Conference mark, and two NCAA tournament appearances.
This season the Bulldogs claimed the program record for wins with a 28-8 mark, eclipsing last season's 27-7 tally. The Bulldogs also matched last season's squad with an 11-5 SEC mark. MSU claimed the best league finish with a tie for second this season after finishing third a year ago.
"We are very happy for Elena to be the new head coach at Arkansas-Fort Smith," Schaefer said. "She has done a tremendous job for us here at Mississippi State, and we appreciate her commitment to our program. I am sure Elena will have Arkansas-Fort Smith competing for championships in the near future."
Lovato helped raise MSU's profile by being active in social media. Her assistance in branding the program raised the Bulldogs' profile and played an important role in solidifying the program's place in the national rankings. Lovato said her goal in taking over at Arkansas-Fort Smith was to build on the things she helped with at MSU and to generate the kind of enthusiasm Schaefer and the Bulldogs have created in Starkville.
Lovato said the desire to move a little closer to her family played a role in her decision to leave MSU. She said the move from Starkville to Arkansas-Fort Smith would move her from 19 to 10 hours away from her family in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
A 1997 graduate of Rio Grande High School in Albuquerque, Lovato played basketball at West Texas A&M and Missouri Southern State. She also played in the Puerto Rican Women's Professional League and for Chicago in the National Women's Basketball League. A knee injury ended her career in 2002.
Lovato then spent four years working in pharmaceutical sales and teaching and coaching at Menaul High in Albuquerque. She spent a year teaching physical education and coaching junior varsity basketball in Buffalo, Missouri, before landing a job as an assistant coach at Pittsburg (Kansas) State. She worked for coach Lane Lord as a graduate assistant coach and earned her master's degree in physical education.
Lovato then worked as an assistant coach at Houston, where she spent one season, before becoming an assistant coach at Trinity Valley Community College (Texas). Lovato was named interim head coach late in the 2009-10 season and guided the team to a 9-2 record and a sixth-place finish in the national tournament.
Lovato wasn't retained by TVCC and became the head coach at Grayson County C.C. in Denison, Texas. She transformed a program that went 4-26 in 2009-10 into a team that went 32-4 the next season. From there, Lovato moved on to become an assistant coach at Division I Nebraska-Omaha before moving back to TVCC to become head coach. In her first season, Lovato led TVCC to a 36-1 record and its second-consecutive national crown.
As it turned out, Lovato said she interviewed for the opening for head women's basketball coach at New Mexico the same week she interviewed at Arkansas-Fort Smith. On March 30, New Mexico hired Mike Bradbury, of Wright State, to be its new head women's basketball coach.
Lovato said she spoke with Whorton after she learned about the opening at Arkansas-Fort Smith to determine how the job would compare to her work as head coach at TVCC and to her role at MSU.
Lovato was 81-4 at TVCC and led the program to two National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) titles. She is 113-8 as a head coach.
Lovato said the opportunity to interview at New Mexico helped her as she progressed in the interview process at Arkansas-Fort Smith.
"It helped me with my vision for what I want to do with this program and how I am going to move forward with the game plan," Lovato said. "It prepared me for today. That interview process was quick, but it was a blessing in disguise, if anything."
Lovato said she already has started to recruit for her new program. She hopes to bring the same personal touch to Arkansas-Fort Smith she feels she brought to MSU. At 36, Lovato said she has been climbing the ladder so fast in her coaching career that she feels Arkansas-Fort Smith is a good level for her to impact lives and to have great relationships with her players.
"I wasn't going to leave Mississippi State for any job, but I wanted a job where I feel we could compete at a national level and I could have the relationship factor," Lovato said. "I think this is the place. It was a junior college five years ago, and they have a mind-set that they're going to have all hands on deck. It is genuine. There are 7,000 students on campus. It seems like everybody is going to be on board and is going to be excited about the enthusiasm we're going to create. It is a great place."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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