By Xander Swain
For the first time in 25 years, the Montevallo Women’s Basketball team is nationally ranked.
Last month’s D2 Sports Information Directors Association Poll placed the women’s basketball team at number 23 in the nation, ahead of their final matches of the regular season.
The recent weekend sweep against Shorter University secured them a host spot for the Gulf Southern Conference playoffs.
The team hosted Alabama-Huntsville on Tuesday, March 2 at 6 pm.
As the Montevallo Falcons go into the GSC tournament for the second year in a row, they are led by their head coach, Gary Van Atta, and their two senior captains, Kourtnie Smith and Kiya Sain.
Van Atta was originally head coach for the team from 1989 to1996 but left to coach for the University of Tennessee-Martin and then his alma mater, Trevecca Nazarene University.
Eventually, he left his alma mater to return to coaching for the University of Montevallo.
Van Atta made the transition back to Montevallo due to being constantly on the road and away from his family.
When the position at Montevallo opened up, Van Atta said, “It was a perfect fit for me and my family.”
Van continued, “It was a place I was very familiar with and had a successful program in the past.”
Being the fifth season since Van has returned, he has been rebuilding the program with the student-athletes.
“We have very committed student-athletes that are driven to be the very best, not only on the basketball court but in the classroom,” he said. “This path was being paved by the previous players who made the commitment to help us rebuild this program.”
For Van Atta though, winning games isn’t the only motivation for continuing to coach.
For him, it’s about “the opportunity to challenge and empower young athletes to be their best.”
“Every day, it is a pleasure to watch them grow into adulthood, watch them choose for themselves who they want to become,” he said. “Who wouldn’t want to be part of something like this?”
For senior captains Kiya Sain and Kourtnie Smith, the women’s basketball team at Montevallo means more than anything to them.
“I’ve been part of this program going on five years, and being able to say I was a part of the history and growth of this team is very special to me,” said Sain.
Although the two women have worked together to lead the team throughout the years, they go about it differently.
“I approach leading the team by figuring out what’s best for [them] as a whole and by having positivity at all times,” said Smith. “I feel like I have never [strayed] away from the task at hand and vocally [I am] a positive voice for the team. Even when we are down, I let it be a motivation and push through.”
Sain approaches leading the team more individually.
“Each one of my teammates needs a different version of me in order for me to help them best. I take my leadership role very personal,” said Sain. “I just put my uniform on and play just like my teammates honestly. I would just say I lead by my effort and my drive to never quit even when you’re not seeing the results you want to see.”
While the program has been led by the senior captains and their head coach, COVID-19 has proved to be challenging but on and off the court.
Besides focusing on ways to address COVID-19 to continue playing, recruiting for the team has drastically changed.
“The NCAA granted every college player an opportunity to repeat this year. This has drastically affected our ability to recruit,” said Van Atta.
The senior captains have had to navigate the various challenges in their own way as well.
Smith said, “We have to stay aware of our surroundings and think of the team, and not just ourselves when it comes to our health and being safe.”
Despite COVID-19, the team has persisted through the challenges and looks forward to the next game.
Regarding being number 23 in the nation, Van Atta said, “Winning is the only thing that matters to pollsters. We have won on the road and beat a Top 10 team on the road. We aren’t really concerned about the polls. We only care about being the very best team we can be on a daily basis.”
Looking forward to the rest of the post-season, Van said, “We are preparing daily to become the best team we can possibly become.”
Smith and Sain both share the same sentiment that if they were to win the GSC tournament, it would be the accomplishment and recognition they deserve.