The Lady Cardinals have 10 times more wins than losses since the 1993-94 season. Travis Tapley

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Trinity Valley Community College Is the Hoops Dynasty You’ve Never Heard Of

Eight national championships. 31 straight winning seasons. 10 WNBA players. Not bad for a tiny school 70 miles outside of town.

The specifics read like melodrama: Two top-10 programs tied at 53-53, one quarter to go, a berth in the final four on the line. Trinity Valley Community College was the proverbial giant, responsible for ending Shelton State Community College’s postseason dreams in each of the previous four national tournaments entering the 2021 matchup. The horn sounded, and the two teams took the floor for the final 10-minute frame. This. Is. March. Or so they say.

Only it was April, and instead of the fanfare of the NCAA tournament, Trinity Valley and Shelton State resumed play in front of a smattering of fans only slightly large enough to fill a school bus. The cheers pinged through the hollow arena like nickels in an oil drum. You could hear the players talking, the sneakers squeaking, the coaches shouting. It felt more like a summertime scrimmage than a national quarterfinal matchup. This. Is. JUCO. 

Shelton State entered the ball in play to begin the fourth quarter. Within eight seconds, TVCC freshman Alexis Brown, who had only played seven minutes of the game entering the quarter, forced Shelton State’s point guard into a traveling violation. On the very next defensive sequence, Brown, a Dallas native, stole the ball, pushed it up the court in transition and assisted on a layup to sophomore Mahoganie Williams. Two plays later, hounding a Shelton State ball-handler in the backcourt, Brown forced an offensive foul on the Lady Buccaneers player. Shelton State Head Coach Madonna Thompson called for a timeout, and by the time Brown checked out of the game with 7:33 remaining in the game, TVCC held a 57-53 lead it would never surrender. There would be no One Shining Moment theatrics. Goliath would prevail again.

“I always talk to them about being ready for their opportunity when the opportunity is presented, and I think Alexis did just that,” said TVCC Head Coach Precious Ivy in May. 

Trinity Valley advanced to its 10th consecutive final four with the win. One night later, the Lady Cardinals would beat Chipola College to earn program’s eighth national championship game appearance in the last 10 tournaments before falling to Northwest Florida State College to finish as national runners-up for the seventh time in program history. 

For 46 years, Trinity Valley Community College has been among the most successful women’s college basketball programs in the country, regardless of level or classification. Competing as a member of the National Junior College Athletic Association, the Lady Cardinals have amassed eight national championship banners, 31 consecutive winning seasons, and 1,232 total wins, including a record of 855-85 since the 1993-94 season. Ten alumnae have reached the WNBA, with countless others matriculating at Power-Five Division I programs following their stop in Athens, located roughly 70 miles southeast of Dallas, where small-town life serves as the bumper rails funneling every Lady Cardinals toward the same end: win and move on.

Brought to the nation’s attention by the Netflix show Last Chance U, junior colleges have long been a stopover for athletes looking to recalibrate, reorient, and regroup. Gerald Ewing, who served as the TVCC head coach prior to Ivy and was most recently an assistant at University of Texas-Arlington, uses the acronym of ABS to encompass the reasons players travel the circuitous junior college route: academics, basketball, or social. Some arrive straight from high school after failing to meet NCAA qualification standards or going overlooked by Division I coaches. Some come from Division I programs in search of a fresh start. Many junior college campuses are located in small towns, adding to the adjustment for players coming from bustling Division I college towns and campuses or from a high school in metropolises like Dallas-Fort Worth.

Small-town life serves as the bumper rails funneling every Lady Cardinals toward the same end: win and move on.

“Coming out to Trinity Valley and Athens, Texas, it’s not like a suburb of Dallas,” said Ewing. “It’s almost like coming out to the country.”

The program’s ties to North Texas date back to its earliest successes. Tausha Mills, who led TVCC to the 1996 national championship, hails from Dallas. Duncanville native Kenya Landers (née Larkin), was a point guard on the 36-0 1999 team and later served as co-head coach of the team alongside her husband, Michael. Yet even by the standards of the deep lineage, the program’s Dallas-Fort Worth influence has strengthened in recent years under the watch of Ivy, a Cedar Hill native with strong local connections, both personal and professional. Last season’s 10-player roster included four from the Dallas area in Brown, Noelle Yancy, Taylor Hutchins, and Mikayla Hutchinson. This season, Duncanville High School product Kaila Kelley will join Brown in the Lady Cards’ backcourt.  

“They actually played AAU ball together, so they were very familiar with each other and they have a little chemistry right now that we are trying to work on with the others just because they have played together before,” Ivy said after the first day of practice on October 1.

Ivy herself is a JUCO product. After starring at Cedar Hill High School she played for two years at San Jacinto College, where she continued to serve as a student coach after graduating and moving on to pursue a Bachelor’s at the University of Houston. The early coaching experience kickstarted a coaching career that would take her around the state. She was an assistant at Tyler Junior College for five years, facing TVCC annually in what she calls “The Highway 31 Battle.” She then scaled the ladder up to the Division I level at Houston Baptist University before realizing that her heart was still in JUCO; Division I was too hands-off. Ivy, or “Coach P,” accepted an offer to join Ewing’s staff in Athens, helping the Chicago native establish Texas recruiting ties. “ When parents came on campus I got so many phone calls from coaches in the state of Texas saying, ‘That was a home run,’” Ewing said.

As an assistant, Ivy mostly played the “good cop” to Ewing’s bad cop. “P also knew how to take the side of the kids and tell them, ‘He’s just tripping, he’ll be fine,’” Ewing said. When a family matter forced Ewing to step down in the middle of the 2019-2020 season, Ivy moved over a chair to serve as the interim head coach full-time bad cop. While it was the realization of a dream, the moment was bittersweet. Ivy and Ewing remain close and speak almost daily. He was also loved by his players, and she expected a steep emotional fallout. Together, Ewing and Ivy broke the news to the players. There was shock, there was sadness, but the team wanted to practice “today.”

“We gave them about an hour or two, and they were able to call their parents and tell their parents what was going on, then they came into practice,” said Ivy. “When I say ‘they were motivated,’ that’s an understatement.”

Precious Ivy has coached at different levels throughout the state, but nothing resonates with her like junior college ball.
Travis Tapley

Two days later, Ivy made her debut on the road at Kilgore College. Family members, school employees, and Lady Cardinals fans made the trip to watch TVCC’s 85-67 victory. The team finished the season on a 17-0 run, giving Ivy an unblemished record heading into her first postseason as a head coach. At 32-1 overall, TVCC was awarded the top seed in the NJCAA tournament, but the postseason never happened: COVID-19 forced the cancellation of collegiate sports through the end of the academic year. Seven of the team’s 10 players departed, including the team’s only player from Dallas proper, Jada Peacock, who signed with Division I Hofstra.

That left Ivy, with the help of assistant coach Princess Davis, to build her first roster as head coach, and it is not a coincidence that four of the seven new faces for the 2020-2021 season hailed from the Dallas area. Ivy’s connections and proximity to the city allow for convenience, but the area’s level of competition produces the caliber of player sought by programs around the country.

“We do a good job of testing our kids every night,” Ivy said of the DFW high school basketball scene. “If you are a school and you think your team is good, you’re going to put Cedar Hill or Duncanville or DeSoto on your schedule. You’re going to get a tough-nosed kid that knows how to compete and is skilled because you definitely have to be skilled and bring a lot to the table in order to be known as one of the best or one of the greats to come out of Dallas.”

Several of the Dallas players on the 2020-2021 team came to Athens having already competed against one another, and that familiarity helps smooth the transition from the big city to Athens, a retirement community with a population of approximately 12,500. Once in town, players will occasionally carpool to “the city” of Tyler or even Dallas to shop or eat, but the majority of life is confined to Athens and the TVCC campus. Ivy keeps them busy with a preseason boot camp meant to challenge their bodies and minds, but she also cooks for and hosts team dinners, helps her players with homework, and serves as a surrogate parent. She facilitates group projects like making vision boards and game nights. Her players have to pass her office to go anywhere on campus, and they often drop in between classes. 

“That’s where the love of junior college is,” Ivy said. “We are able to be around our kids a lot more than Division I coaches because they only have so much time that they can appoint to their kids on and off the floor.” 

While Ivy’s roster might be more Texas-heavy than Ewing’s, the style of play is the same: 40 minutes of unrelenting pressure. The hill sprints in the fall roll into 30-, 40-, and even 50-point wins in the winter. All 10 of Ivy’s players were in her rotation, and all 10 had at least one double-digit scoring night. And, as with those who preceded her, her players move on to the Division I level, to schools including Kansas, Prairie View A&M, Arkansas State, Norfolk State, South Alabama, and UTA.

“It’s what you make it,” said Mikayla Hutchinson, who is bound for Prairie View A&M, said of the JUCO experience. “It’s not a bad experience, but you’ve got to work hard because you are still trying to get to the next level. It’s what you make it, really.” 

At 10:30 p.m. on a Monday in early May, Coach P was weaving through the aisles of the Athens Walmart doing some late shopping. She was wearing a hoodie and a hat, but still got recognized by a fan hoping to talk shop and look ahead to the 2021-22 season. While Ivy’s first full season as a head coach was an objective success, the expectationboth her own and that in small-town Athensis to end the season on a win. 

“That’s where the love of junior college is. We are able to be around our kids a lot more than Division I coaches.”

TVCC head coach, Precious Ivy

Like the Shelton State game in the quarterfinals, the national championship game was tied going into the fourth quarter. Also like the Shelton State game, TVCC played solid defense until the end. With under 30 seconds to play, Northwest Florida had the ball and a slim 62-60 lead. The Lady Cardinals dug in and yielded nothing until, with just one second remaining on the shot clock and 24 in the game, 6-foot-1 Chanaya Pinto hoisted a desperation three over the outstretched arms of sophomore guard Kaye Clark. It splashed through the net, extending TVCC’s championship drought to seven years.

“That’s just kind of my motivation because I want to be back there again, be back in that situation and get a different outcome,” said Ivy. “Just that moment, and that game, it’s fresh on my mind. It’s like it was yesterday.”

Despite all the new faces, when the Lady Cardinals open play on Tuesday, game day will look the same as always. There will be a pregame meal in the school cafeteria, after which Ivy will return home to do her hair, change into her suit, and “come out Superwoman.” She will arrive back on campus in sneakers, going over the scouting report with the team before retreating to her office to listen to some R&B, make some final game notes, and put on her high heels. She returns to the floor with less than an hour until tip-off, where she’ll check the scorer’s book for accuracy and take her team back into the locker room for final remarks. There will be Division I coaches in the stands and an opponent across the court looking to weather the swarming pressure and take down Goliath.

“From that moment forward, it’s game time,” said Ivy. “It’s time to do what we came out here to do.” 

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