Former Sul Ross State and Hawai’i Pacific women’s basketball head coach Katie Novak-Lenoir is ready to guide the UMHB women’s basketball program into the 2023-24 season (Photo courtesy of SRSU athletics)
BELTON- For longer than anyone else at UMHB, Clif Carroll has seen Katie Novak-Lenoir’s rise as a collegiate head coach firsthand.
He witnessed her build the women’s basketball program at Sul Ross State to a place it had never been before, gaining an immense respect for her abilities as a coach along the way. So much so, in fact, that he used to tell her that if he ever rose to the level of a D-I men’s basketball head coach, he would bring her on his staff.
“She thinks I was joking with her, but I was dead serious,” Carroll said. “I think that much of her. She’s a great coach.”
Pretty soon, Carroll says, the UMHB community will believe it too. Novak-Lenoir was tabbed to lead the UMHB women’s basketball program on April 19 after a season spent at D-II Hawai’i Pacific, and is eager to take on the challenge of sustaining–and elevating–the Crusaders’ success on the court.
“I’m really excited for this women’s program because I can see what they’re getting ready to go through,” Carroll, UMHB’s head men’s basketball coach, added. “The sky is going to be the limit for this team.”
Her first official day on the job was May 1, and she has approached the new role going full speed ahead. From a basketball standpoint, meeting with the current players, jumping into recruiting, setting up the program’s summer camps, and finalizing the schedule were all on the orders of business.
The simple logistics of her and her husband, Will, moving their two kids and all of their belongings from Honolulu to Belton have added to the transition. But she knows that she is in the right spot.
“It just feels like the right fit,” Novak-Lenoir said. “I’m really excited. You can win big and the support that I’ve seen and felt in my first week here has been phenomenal.”
She was not necessarily targeting a move back to the continental U.S. while in the midst of her first season at Hawai’i Pacific. Due to the distance between HPU and six of the other eight programs in the PacWest Conference located in California, the travel schedule included two trips within a month of each other spanning a full week at a time, which had a way of keeping the schedule busy during the homestretch of the regular season.
But once HPU’s season had wrapped up with a PacWest Tournament appearance, she began considering UMHB. An opportunity to lead a nationally-ranked D-III program in a conference with which she had familiarity, and in a state she had lived in since transferring to Incarnate Word in 2011 proved to be good not to explore further.
“I was pregnant in the middle of the season in Hawaii, so I can’t say it was something I honestly thought about,” Novak-Lenoir said of exploring other head coaching opportunities. “I was just focusing on my day-to-day there.
“Clif is a good friend of mine and we talked some after the season was over. My daughter was born a week before the season was over. There were a lot of things that started opening doors to what was best for me and my family.
“I’m a list person, so I was making a list of things that were really important to me right now. Having our two kids under two and the past year of being far away in Hawaii. For a lot of things I’m looking for, it’s such a perfect fit, I’d be crazy not to look at it.”
Her first experience with UMHB came not as a coach, but as a student-athlete, playing at Incarnate Word during the 2012-13 season. At that point, UIW was in its final year as a D-II program, and the Cardinals had made a trip to Belton for a preseason scrimmage.
“That was also the first time I had played at another school in Texas,” Novak-Lenoir recalls. “I moved from just outside of Chicago, and was at a school in Indiana before. It was all new to me, but something that always stuck out was how helpful the people were from the second you get on campus.
“Whether it was giving directions to the campus, helping you get settled, the floors being really nice and clean, the locker rooms being ready…everybody was very eager to help. That very much stood out to me.”
Nearly a decade later, she stood in the same locker rooms and addressed her new team for the first time in late April.
“I just try to be myself and let them know what to expect,” she said of her first meeting with the current players. “There’s always going to be things that they just find out as they get to know me and I find out as I get to know them.
“But I just wanted to be direct with, ‘This is what I’m looking for. This is how we’re going to play.’ It’s better to be direct and up front, because it’s a tough thing for them too. They didn’t get recruited by me, and it’s a whole coaching staff change.”
Unlike at the D-I and D-II levels, D-III rules do not permit teams to practice prior to Oct. 15. So while she has dissected UMHB’s game film from this past year to get a feel for the skill sets that will be on her roster by the time the fall arrives, Novak-Lenoir will not have the chance to work hands-on with her new squad for five months.
That aspect of taking over a program in D-III has its advantages, Novak-Lenoir said.
“While I was in D-III for a long time, this past year I was in D-II, and got to be on the court with them immediately,” Novak-Lenoir said. “But the nice thing about this now is that the current players and incoming commits can have time to think about it and have conversations with me and their families and decide, ‘Is this going to be right for me moving forwards?’ I think it’s good to have that kind of time for people to make the best decisions for themselves and for me to get my feet under me.”
Having walked into a brand-new program with players unfamiliar with her coaching style and approach to the game in each of the last two years now, this is a situation she is comfortable in. Not everyone handles coaching changes in the same way, she noted.
“Some people take coaching changes really hard, and some people don’t. There are all kinds of different reactions, and people are going to feel different ways about it. I’m just trying to show them the purpose of why I’m doing what I’m doing and why I’m here. And giving them the opportunity to stay if they’d like to stay or leave if they’d like to leave and know that I’m going to help them either way, because it’s all about finding the right fit.”
Carroll knew he had found the right fit for the SRSU women’s program when Novak-Lenoir was hired in April of 2017. She had just three years of coaching experience, all coming at Our Lady of the Lake in San Antonio, but more or less, it was the intangibles she brought to the table that made Carroll, the head of the hiring committee, confident she was the best option for the job.
“I’m actually the one who went and recruited her,” Carroll said. “It’s tough to be a first-time head coach, but it is really tough to be a first-time head coach at Sul Ross. The thing that impressed me about her was her leadership skills. She’s a great connector of people, with her players as well as the administration. That was evident.”
It is rare for two head coaches of the men’s and women’s basketball programs at one university to end up in the exact same spots four years down the road at the same school once again. But even more unique is the fact that Carroll actually preceded Novak-Lenoir as head coach of the women’s team at SRSU, as he was tabbed as the interim leader of the program for the final 11 games of the 2016-17 season.
“I knew what she was taking over,” Carroll said. “She had only one player coming back and there was zero recruiting done. So she basically started from scratch once she was hired.
“I’m going to say it was bittersweet, but it was a heck of a lot more sweet than it was bitter when she beat Mary Hardin-Baylor there in Alpine for the first time [in 2021]. I was so happy for her. When I was coaching the Sul Ross girls, I think Morefield beat us twice by 40. So to go from that point, to being able to win, was a big milestone for her.”
Under Novak-Lenoir’s leadership, her teams pride themselves on both playing a team-oriented style of defense, as well as exemplifying unmatched toughness. Look no further than the Feb. 4, 2021 win over UMHB as evidence. In a 55-46 victory, SRSU tallied four more offensive rebounds than the Cru, scored 15 points off turnovers, all with UMHB limited to its lowest scoring output of the season.
“I like players that like to play tough,” Novak-Lenoir said when asked about her coaching philosophy. “I think that’s what every coach is looking for, but I like toughness on both ends of the floor.
She also noted that on the offensive end, she is more inclined to allow the five players on the floor to make decisions when it comes to passes and reads within a certain set of goals, rather than calling out specific set plays. With a high IQ group, she says, it creates a fun brand of basketball, both from a player perspective, as well as for everyone else in the gym.
“I like giving them a lot of freedom, where we have certain goals on the offense, but as a player, you have to be able to read and react yourself on the floor. It’s fun when you can get a high IQ group that starts getting that concept and can play fast. It’s a fun thing to watch. It takes some time to build, but that’s what I’m looking for offensively.”
Expectations can weigh heavily on a first-year head coach, especially in a place such as Belton, and in a program that has already ascended to the point of being a mainstay in the national conversation each year.
That is something Novak-Lenoir understands. But when it comes to her team, the focus on the intangibles will be paramount, regardless of what the final record ends up being.
“I want people to finish the year, whatever happens, and as individuals and as a collective whole, we can say ‘That was our best. The tank is empty.’ That’s the intangible thing that I want. I want them to have that sense of work ethic and personal achievement and feel fulfilled that way.”
That said, she is not afraid to set big goals. If attending the 2023 NCAA D-III national championship game in Dallas this past April revealed anything to her, it was that her inaugural team in Belton will be more than equipped for high-level competition.
“We’ll make team goals at the beginning of the season, but winning a conference championship and making a legitimate run at the national tournament [is on that list]. I was there at the D-III national championship game this year. I’m sitting there watching, and when I watch the game film from the players this year and the people I’m going to be bringing in, I know that’s a very real possibility. I’m excited to get to work and see what we can do.”