University of Arkansas-Fort Smith Director of Athletics Dr. Dustin Smith has announced the hiring of Mississippi State assistant coach Elena Lovato as the university’s head women’s basketball coach.
Lovato, a native of Albuquerque, N.M., succeeds former UAFS coach Louis Whorton, who retired at the end of the season after 30 years as head coach of the Lady Lions. She becomes only the fourth head coach in the 40-year history of the program.
She was formally introduced as head coach during a news conference at 10 a.m. on Friday at the Bill and “Miss” Wanda Srygley Hospitality Room in the Stubblefield Center.
Lovato has been a graduate assistant coach, assistant coach and head coach during her eight-year career that spans the NJCAA, NCAA Division II and NCAA Division I levels and includes head coaching positions at Grayson College and tradition-rich Trinity Valley Community College.
“Elena is a class act both on and off the floor. She impressed everyone with her demeanor, her confidence and her belief in her system and what she thinks can be done here at UAFS,” Smith said. “Also, her record as a head coach is phenomenal to say the least. Elena has a proven track record of success that I believe fits perfectly with where we want to continue to go as a NCAA Division II women’s basketball program. She embraces the incredible tradition Louis Whorton built here and wants to continue to make
UAFS women’s basketball a presence on the national level.”
Lovato said there were many aspects of the UAFS job that were appealing to her and made her want to be the next Lady Lions head coach.
“Everyone I met on campus was genuine and sincere, not just the student-athletes but everyone one campus,” Lovato said “That’s important when you’re bringing in kids and want to impact their lives. It’s important for me to be around good people.”
Lovato inherits a Lady Lions program that is coming off back-to-back 20-win seasons with one regular season Heartland Conference championship, two conference tournament appearances with one tournament championship and one national tournament appearance.
The Lady Lions will have seven returning players from last year’s team that finished 21-9 overall and tied for second in the conference with a 12-6 league record. UAFS was the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament and advanced to the semifinals, where it lost to No. 6 seed St. Edward’s 78-63.
“I want to thank the search committee for their relentless efforts in selecting the right candidate to lead UAFS,” Smith said. “This was no easy chore, so I am thankful for their hard work and dedication to the process. I am excited to see the level of success our women’s basketball student-athletes will enjoy under the direction of coach Lovato.”
The past two seasons, Lovato has served an assistant coach on the staff of Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer, who served as an assistant coach at the University of Arkansas and Texas A&M prior to becoming head coach at Mississippi State in 2012.
Lovato, who also served as Mississippi State’s recruiting coordinator this past season, helped guide the Bulldogs to a combined 55-15 win-loss record overall and a 22-10 win-loss record in Southeastern Conference play.
Mississippi State advanced to the second round of the 2015 NCAA Division I National Tournament and Sweet 16 this season, losing to three-time defending national champion University of Connecticut.
Prior to joining Schaeffer’s staff at Mississippi State, Lovato was head coach at Trinity Valley Community College for two seasons, where she guided the Lady Cardinals to a combined 72-2 win-loss record and back-to-back NJCAA national championships.
Lovato, who was the 2014 NJCAA Coach of the Year, recruited and coached six NJCAA All-Americans and 13 future NCAA Division I players during her two seasons at Trinity Valley, including the 2013-14 NJCAA Player of the Year.
It was Lovato’s second stint as head coach at Trinity Valley. She served as assistant coach and interim head coach for one season (2009-2010), guiding the Lady Cardinals to a 9-2 as interim head coach and a sixth place finish in the NJCAA National Tournament.
That season, she recruited and coached one NJCAA All-American player and five future NCAA Division I players.
Following that season, she was named head coach at Grayson College, where she guided the Lady Vikings to 32-4 overall record, the Region V Tournament championship and a sixth place fifth place finish in the NJCAA National Tournament.
She was named Region V Coach of the Year, the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches Junior College Coach of the Year and the North Texas Junior College Athletic Conference Coach of the Year.
During her only season at Grayson (2010-11), she recruited and coached two NJCAA All-American players and six future NCAA Division I players.
Grayson dropped its women’s basketball program following the 2011-12 season, and Lovato returned to the NCAA Division I ranks for one season (2011-12) as an assistant coach at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. There, Lovato, who served as an assistant coach at NCAA Division I Houston for one season (2008-09), helped lead the Mavericks to a 15-12 overall record.
“We had a very talented and impressive applicant pool that showed incredible interest in our women’s basketball position and UAFS as a whole. I think this speaks volumes about the reputation of the program nationwide with the sincere amount of interest in the position,” Smith said. “Elena’s credentials and her work ethic, passion and determination for success are a great selection to lead our program.”
Lovato is a former NCAA Division II basketball player, having played two seasons at West Texas A&M (1997-99) and two seasons at Missouri Southern State (1999-2001), where she was the MIAA Newcomer of the Year (1999-2000). She also was a graduate assistant coach at NCAA Division II Pittsburg State for one season (2008).
After college, she played professionally for two seasons in the Puerto Rican Women’s Pro Basketball League (2001-02), where she earned First Team All-League honors during her first season after averaging 23 points and 10 rebounds per game, and one season in the National Women’s Basketball League with the Chicago Blaze (2002-03).
“Elena was a NCAA Division II student-athlete and understands the life in the balance at this level,” Smith said. “She comes to UAFS very highly recommended and with a passion to continue to build upon the wonderful tradition already in place here. She sees tremendous potential here, and I am thrilled to have her leading our women’s basketball program.”
April 8, 2016 UAFS (NCAA Division II)
2014-16 Mississippi State University (NCAA Division I)
Assistant Coach/Recruiting Coordinator
2012-14 Trinity Valley Community College (NJCAA)
2011-12 University of Nebraska-Omaha (NCAA Division I)
2010-11 Grayson College (NJCAA)
2009-10 Trinity Valley Community College (NJCAA)
Assistant Coach/Interim Head Coach
2008-09 University of Houston (NCAA Division I)
2008 Pittsburg State University (NCAA Division II)
Graduate Assistant Coach
(From Arkansas Fort-Smith Media Relations)