Melissa "Moe" Llanes: Gavilan's Groundbreaker
For Gavilan College assistant coach Melissa "Moe" Llanes, Feb. 9 was a day like any other, until it turned into an unusual day during the shoot around.
About five hours before a game against West Valley, she got a telephone call from head coach Derek Jensen informing her that he had tested positive for Covid. Llanes became an assistant coach for the men’s team when the women’s team did not field a team for this season. Now the 35-year-old Llanes had a "battlefield promotion" to become the men’s head coach for three games.
“I knew that it was possible when he tested,” she says. She spent a little more than a week as the men’s head coach and that included the loss to West Valley, 85-59. That loss is overshadowed because she is the first woman to serve as the head coach of a California community college men’s basketball team. She soon became the first woman to lead a men’s team to a win (82-67 over De Anza) Feb. 16. After that game, Jensen came back and coached Gavilan as it defeated Hartnell, 75-68, in the final game of the season. The Rams finished 13-15.
There are 100 California JUCOs with hoops teams, but they are not associated with the National JC Athletic Association. So Llanes’ feat was indeed rare. There are 415 men’s teams in the NJCAA, which was established in 1938. In all those years, there are believed to have been only two women who coached men’s teams: Tamara Moore at Mesabi Range in Minnesota (D-2) and Kerri McTiernan at CUNY Kingsborough, N.Y. (D-3) 1995-2005.
McTiernan made history as the first female coach in that sport in the USA at any level of collegiate basketball. Moore is a former WNBA player who played for Bill Laimbeer and Michael Cooper, both former NBA standouts. “For me it's all about doing the work, sacrificing the time to continue to grow and perfecting your craft for whenever that time comes,” said Moore in an NJCAA story.
Llanes’ opportunity came in a different way, but it came. "There are some differences coaching a men’s team," she notes. "They have more athletic ability and the game is much faster. I was nervous the first day of the season (as a men’s assistant coach) but that was it. The team was high character and they respected me.”
Her players agree. “I was super excited to be a part of history,” said Tahjae Ordonio, one of five sophomores on the team. “She is level-headed and it makes no difference if we are coached by a man or a woman. The important part of the whole thing was that she never got too high or too low. And she held us accountable.”
For his part, Jensen said he watched television streaming of his team’s games, tense moments and all. But all along he knew the team was in good hands with Llanes. “I was excited to see Moe fill in,” said Jensen. “I knew she was capable of doing it. She is someone who understood the magnitude of the moment. She sees women doing what men can do. It’s something that we have talked about for a long time, her being the head coach.”
Jensen said this is the first time in his coaching career that an assistant coach is on the same page he is. “She thinks like I do, be it in a game, how we see players or how we see life. She’s intelligent and really tough. The boys love her.”
To Jensen, Llanes coaches the same way she played the game while she was in high school at Live Oak High in Morgan Hill. Later she went to Notre Dame de Namur in Belmont. She was a 5-9 forward-center in high school who left her share of opponents frustrated. A smart player who understood the game, she loved to outwork her opponent and often did. “I’ve always just loved basketball and have been extremely competitive,” she says.
When she was in seventh grade, she couldn’t afford to pay to play with the off-season teams so she coached players age 4-6 years old. She coached them in the morning and played in the afternoon. It all helped mold her into the coach she would later become. When she was deciding which college to attend after high school, she was the assistant coach at Live Oak (2004-2005) and then later was an assistant coach at Cabrillo (2007-2008, 2010-2012).
“There is a quote that says, ‘I want to inspire people,’” said Llanes. “I want someone to look at me and say ‘Because of you I didn’t give up.' Playing two sports my whole life, I’d been on a lot of teams and I didn’t always have the best of coaches. As a coach you have the platform to change someone’s life for the better and to be a positive mentor and influencer for them, so why wouldn’t you? Playing basketball saved my life when I was in high school.”
Those years were some of Llanes’ darkest moments. Her mother, Marilyn, passed away at the start of one season and she was lost, confused and bewildered. “I didn’t care about anything,” she recalled. “Playing basketball made a difference. I don’t know where I’d be without it.”
Said Ron Hannon, Gavilan’s athletic director: “My immediate thought when I got word Derek was positive on his test was 'Thank God we got Moe.’ She is a head coach and it was the next person up for us. Moe is an advocate for people. She just wants to be a role model. She doesn’t see gender as a factor. She just wants to coach. The players all saw her as a coach. She is there to make them better and to win games, too. I guarantee you she was there to get all three wins in the games that she coached the men. I could not be more proud to be in this position.”
Llanes adds: “This is about women having no limits to what they can do. I am proud to be a part of something that allows people, especially the younger generations, to see that women are capable of anything. Celebrating these moments is important, but the end goal is to not have moments like this be a big deal. Men coach on both sides, women can coach on both sides.”
For his part, Hannon felt comfortable with Llanes because she is so “well-respected” by the players and everyone else who knows her on campus. Hannon said the players – they hit a season-best 16 three-pointers in the win over De Anza – wanted very much to win. “They all wanted to play for her,” he said, “especially in that game.”
In the end it all made for a special time for a special coach.
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