Coming Home: Haven Neal has embraced the opportunity to lead the Cru both as a player and a coach

Editor’s Note: Image of Haven Neal courtesy of the UMHB Athletics Department

BELTON, Texas- For the majority of the past seven years, Haven Neal’s home court has been in Belton.

The UMHB women’s basketball assistant coach has had the rare opportunity to wear the uniform as a Crusader and now lead the team as a coach. At the midway point of her second season on head coach Mark Morefield’s staff, Neal has played a tremendous role in the Cru’s success. 

“It’s definitely been a different dynamic,” said Neal recently on the differences between coaching and playing . “As a player, gameday is a different thing. You come in in the morning, get shots up, going through your gameday routine. As a coach coming in, all of my preparation is days and days before and build up this whole scouting report, and on gamedays the players have to execute. I’ve laid it all out for them and once the game starts it’s all on them.”

That might be the toughest part of being a coach, letting the players take control.

“There are times when I’m like, ‘We’ve practiced this in practice, let’s just do it this way’,” said Neal, when asked if there are times when she wishes she could be the one out there playing.

One unique aspect of coaching is the fact that she has gotten the chance to see the game from a much broader view.

“You see it from every position [as a coach],” said Neal. “As a post player, I didn’t always see it from the point guard’s perspective, but on the coaching side, you have to be the point guard, the guard, you have to see everything. As a player, I knew the plays from one or two positions, but as a coach, I’m telling the point guard where to go, the guards who are in 2-3s. It’s different.”

Before she took to the sidelines, Neal was a standout multi-sport athlete out of Farmersville, Texas, a small community of about 3,000 just north of Dallas. Like most athletes at small schools, Neal played nearly every sport she could, playing volleyball in the fall, basketball in the winter, softball and track and field in the spring. By playing so many sports, she grew close to her coaches, and developed lifelong relationships.

“Growing up, I went to a small high school, Farmersville, and we had a lot of great coaches in the town,” recalls Neal. “I had a ton of coaches that had a big impact in my life, starting in middle school. I still have middle school coaches that came to watch me play, came to my graduation, come to watch me coach. They were coaches that had a big impact on me and influenced me as a person.”

The bond between coaches and their players is a special one. They work together in different roles to help the team win, and form close relationships over hours of practice, film sessions and road trips. Just as Neal had coaches that influenced her growing up, she has now stepped into that role for her players at UMHB. But it is important to note that Neal’s leadership skills did not start when she became a coach. It began as a player. She was one of the team’s unquestioned leaders during Morefield’s early years leading the program, as he took over before she began her sophomore year. Her leadership made such a big impact on him that she was the first person he thought of when he began the search for an assistant coach prior to the 2019 season.

“As soon as we were looking for an assistant, Haven was the first one that came to mind,” said Morefield. “I think the biggest thing is, you always want somebody who knows the program. She had success in the program. She not only has the record of highest field goal percentage in a season, but she also has the record for the highest field goal percentage in a career. She was part of the building of winning, what the program is about, what the culture is about. She has a very high basketball IQ and is a hard worker. It’s easy when you have a former player who knows what the expectations are, what the standards are, and you don’t have to teach those.”

She is a mentor, and at the same time, a friend. In fact, when Neal was a senior playing for the Cru, current UMHB guard Brooke Elliot was a freshman. Kendall Rollins, who earned All-ASC honors as a senior last year, got the chance to both play with and for Neal. Rollins learned a lot about the sport from Neal, but grew even stronger in her faith under her direction. 

[She] helped me a lot spiritually,” Rollins said of Neal. “She invited me to be a FCA Leader. I was an FCA leader for two years. She was always willing to pray for me, and encourage me.”

Current players have said the same thing.

“She has always been patient with us from the start, whether it be about basketball or not,” said freshman post player Kaitlyn Kollmorgen. “She helps us with our class schedules and is always making sure that we are doing ok in our classes. We also know that she is always there for us if we ever need anything, and it doesn’t have to be basketball related.”

Faith in Christ is what drives Neal. Whether as a player or a coach, basketball is a sport of ups and downs, and as she notes, that is why it is important to have a foundation that goes far deeper than your performance on the court.

“My faith is a really big part of my lifestyle. I grew up in a Christian home. For me, that is my foundation. When things don’t go right, that’s what I have to fall on. I found a church home down here and got really plugged in, and so when things weren’t going well, that is what I fell back on. As a player, I really tried to convey that, and help the girls in their walk with Christ.”

Haven Neal drives to the lane (Image provided by the UMHB Athletics Department)

After graduating from UMHB in the spring of 2018 with a degree in mathematics, Neal did not go far from Belton to begin her coaching career, spending a year with Rogers High School as the head girls basketball JV coach and a varsity assistant while also teaching. It gave her a chance to develop as a coach, and prepared her to move up to the college ranks after just one season.

If you get the chance to watch Neal work during a game, her coaching style resembles the way she played. Never one to get too caught up in the moment, she carries herself with poise, and that carries over to the team. It is not often that you see any member of the Cru upset with a bad call, or frustrated on a cold shooting night. It is a quality Morefield embodies as well. And that is what has put UMHB in the NCAA Tournament the past three seasons.

“She knew what it took to be successful,” said Morefield, “and she knew where the program wanted to go.”

In Neal’s first year on the staff, the Cru captured its first ever ASC Championship (Image provided by the UMHB Athletics Department)

For Neal, UMHB will always be a place of memories. She has gotten to be a part of so many historic moments in program history, and strives to help lead the Cru to more on a campus she calls “home”.

“This is home,” said Neal. “It is nice to come back and feel welcomed when I took the job, and be at home.”

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