The Athens Review
Elena Lovato was out of time. She wasn’t out of options, but the ones available to her weren’t ideal.
A brouhaha during last Friday’s win over Northeast-ern Oklahoma left Lovato’s Trinity Valley Community College Lady Cardinals with just four players heading into Saturday’s home basketball game against the Austin Elite club team.
The rules allow you to continue a basketball game with four players, for instance if that’s all you have left after your other players have fouled out or been injured.
But starting a game with four isn’t allowed. That would mean the defending national champion Lady Cardinals would have to forfeit, ending their 46-game winning streak.
Let’s put that into a little bit of perspective. The Lady Cards, ranked No. 3 in the nation this week, have wins over No. 2 Central Arizona, No. 7 Weatherford and No. 15 NEO so far this year. All three teams were undefeated on the night they were beaten by the Lady Cardinals.
But here they were, their winning streak in danger at the hands of a club team, which, if you don’t know, almost never wins against JUCO teams.
Picking up a player off the street wasn’t an option due to NJCAA restrictions, so Lovato had one real choice — find someone already under scholarship at TVCC to fill in.
Last Saturday morning, hours before the scheduled game, she contacted TVCC head volleyball coach Tosha Spain, who informed her that her choices would be limited with students already gone for the Thanksgiving break.
But Spain offered up a player she knew would be close — Eustace freshman Catania Grant.
Grant played a significant role on the TVCC volleyball team this season. But she hadn’t played basketball since her senior season at Eustace, where she was more known for her prowess on the volleyball court. She was named the 2011 All-Henderson County Area Volleyball MVP.
“I thought she was kidding at first,” Grant said of the phone call from Lovato. “It was definitely totally out of the blue.”
Even so, Grant told the coach she’d be glad to contribute in whatever way she was needed.
“There was just something about her — I knew it was a no-brainer,” Lovato said. “The energy I felt over the phone just talking to her ... I knew she was the right one.”
A couple hours later, Grant’s Thanksgiving vacation ended and she found herself participating in the morning walk-through with the defending national champion Lady Cardinals.
And a few hours after that, she was playing in a game with them.
Grant said stepping onto the court to begin the game was “nerve-wracking.” And intimidating.
“Here I am on the court with this nationally-ranked program, and honestly, I didn’t know how it was going to go,” Grant said. “I just gave it all to God and let Him work it out.”
Grant didn’t score in the first half — a fact that left Lovato and the other four Lady Cards playing the role of encourager. At halftime, Grant was urged to shoot the ball and be confident in her athletic abilities.
So she did, taking the team’s first shot of the second half and nailing a three-pointer. Her next shot, another three, found the bottom of the net, too, and she finished the game with 11 points. The Lady Cards, with only five players and no bench, won the game, 100-59.
The postgame scene was an emotional one. No, not the teary sort, but one of an exhaustion overcome only by the original four Lady Cards’ elation at the success of their new teammate.
“They girls were saying, ‘Can we keep her?’ and I was telling them, ‘She’s not a pet, ladies,’” Lovato said.
Said Grant: “Even though I didn’t play a huge role in the win, they all acted like I did and just really lifted me up.”
Lovato and Spain talked the next day and came to an agreement to allow Grant to fill the basketball roster’s 12th and final spot as long as she feels like she can juggle that, her studies and offseason volleyball workouts.
You should know that Grant has no intentions of being some novelty or merely a token player with a cool story. She’s already informed Lovato she plans to work hard and compete for playing time.
“At the end of the day, I’m not going to question what God’s plan is for me or this group,” said Lovato, who has a 20-2 record in two stints coaching the Lady Cardinals. “I know something special is brewing.”
No matter how unconventional it may look.
Jayson Larson is sports editor of the Athens Review. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.