The Lubbock Christian University Lady Chaparrals basketball team are no strangers to the post season. The Lady Chaps made the playoffs in each of head coach Steve Gomez’s first 10 seasons at the helms. He has a resume highly decorated in multiple Sweet 16, Elite 8 and Final Four appearances.
That was the past however, when the Lady Chaps were an elite force to be reckoned within the NAIA. Two seasons ago, LCU made the jump to the Heartland Conference in DII basketball — and still under the tutelage of Gomez — they haven’t missed a beat.
“The top 10-15 teams in NAIA were as good as any of the top NCAA II teams,” coach Gomez said. “The major difference is that there just wasn’t nearly as much quality depth [and isn’t especially after so many schools have made the transition], so we expected to continue to compete at the same level that we had before.”
What they have missed is the playoffs. It was not because they didn’t qualify, but because they were simply not eligible being a transitioning team from the NAIA. While the Lady Chaparrals knew they were in for a challenge, they were more than ready and eager for the task.
The Lady Chaps first season in DII basketball as members of the Heartland Conference saw them go 25-1 on the season, including a perfect 20-0 conference record. Last season they finished with a share of the regular season HC title behind a 21-7 overall record. Neither season — despite statistically earning a spot — saw them compete for a conference or national title.
How was Gomez able to keep a team committed with the desire to win when at season’s end there would not be any trophy or accolades to show for it?
“Thankfully we had players who understood that we are not just playing for the “end of season result” and will only deem it a success if we win [so many games],” Gomez explained. “I thought those years would be a really good test for all of us on whether or not we were playing the game for the joy of competition and the challenge to get better or if we would lose motivation if there wasn’t a carrot out there for us to chase.
“Rewards are important and can be an added motivation but we want to continue to realize that. While we definitely want to win and are not just playing for participation ribbons, we have to value the process and not base the success of our program only on wins and losses.”
While they lost a big piece from last season’s starting lineup in Haley Burton — the team leader in both points and assists — they do have a solid core of four returning starters and veteran leadership. Knowing the challenges of the past two seasons and that they are on the verge of a newfound history for the program has taken the Lady Chaparrals to a new level.
“I think these players want the opportunity to play in the postseason partly as an honor to the seniors from the past two years that set a great example but didn’t get that experience,” Gomez said. “We had two current seniors who decided to delay their “lives” for a year in order to come back for this opportunity.”
Two of those players are the redshirt seniors Nicole Hampton and Kelsey Hoppel. Both recently passed big milestones in their LCU careers this past Saturday. Hampton surpassed 1,300 points, moving her up the top-10 ladder in the program as well as snagging her 230th steal — good for third all time. Hoppel became part of LCU’s 1,000 Point Club in the same contest.
“We are definitely thankful to have them back in action after only being able to practice last year,” Gomez said. “They are the type of players that make their coaches appear to know what’s going on. They definitely are able to fill up stat sheets, but more than that, they are team players who are quick to serve their teammates off the court as well.
“Along with our three other seniors [Blair Taylor – also a 5th year senior due to medical redshirt year, Haley Fowler and Kellyn Schneide], we should have some experienced leadership to help us through the ups and downs of a season. These seniors have seen about everything there is to see on the court, so hopefully nothing will catch us by surprise this year.”
One of those things they saw thus far in 2015? A preseason exhibition bout in Hartford, Connecticut against arguably the best women’s college basketball program for the better part of this millennium. On Nov. 2, the UConn Huskies hosted the LCU Chaparrals. The 95-39 final score was the least of their concerns.
“That was the most enjoyable 56 point loss I could ever imagine,” Gomez said. “Before going, I told people it was like preparing for a category 5 hurricane when all we had done was run through the sprinkler in our front yard.
“It was a chance to see the best. While sometimes it is human nature to root for the underdog, I not only continue to have great respect for that program, we are now huge fans of their coaches and players. They were tremendous on and off the court and competed with great ferocity but exhibited class and a gracious attitude before, during and after the game.”
The Lady Chaparrals opened the season with another milestone. For the first time as a DII program, they were eligible for the USA Today Coaches Poll — and began the season in the nation’s Top 25, settling in at No. 23.
They have defended that ranking, starting the season with two decisive victories at the Al-Katy Shrine Classic. Getting out to that fast start hasn't always been so easy for the Lady Chaps, as they are now 8-5 under Gomez’s tenure on opening night. Was the national ranking the motivating factor?
“It is not for me and I am not sure if that is or isn’t for our players,” Gomez said, “but it probably is for our opponents which can be a good or bad thing depending on how we approach it.”
While the season has started on a bright note for the basketball team, a week ago, the LCU campus was rocked when tragedy struck the women’s volleyball team. During a match on Nov. 10, sophomore Malori Maddox suddenly fell ill and was rushed to a nearby hospital. She had surgery that evening, and the team would forfeit their next game to remain by her side during her recovery. It has brought not only the athletic department, but entire campus together in their #prayforMalori campaign.
“While there is so much craziness happening on college campuses across our country, this is a very unified campus which has been made even more evident in this time of near tragedy,” Gomez said. “Even though it is very difficult, we have seen God working miracles in the way that all of this has unfolded and although there can be many negatives to social media, it has proved in this case to be a way that an untold number of people can share in the pain and joy of Malori’s life and current struggles. She has made and continues to make great improvements.”
This weekend will see the women’s volleyball team back in action in the Heartland Conference Tournament while the Lady Chaps basketball team has back-to back games that start a run of six non-conference games. LCU eagerly awaits Dec. 17, when they can officially begin its run for a conference tournament championship and the NCAA DII National Championship as HC play begins.
“I know that we will be playing many quality, regional teams in our pre-conference schedule and then will have a tremendously competitive conference again this year,” Gomez said. “Not sure that any single game stands out, but since UA Fort Smith finished at the top of the conference with us last year… people will consider those games to count more than others.”