Mallory Stephens wasn’t even supposed to attend East Texas Baptist University.
She had her heart set elsewhere when then-coach Rusty Rainbolt noticed her at a college showcase. He asked her to visit the campus and, at first, she was skeptical.
“(Rainbolt) had just gotten the job about a week prior and I was like, ‘I don’t know who this man is, I don’t want to tour another school,’” Stephens said. “I already know where I’m going and my dad talked to me and said, ‘You haven’t used a college [campus visit] and you should go for the experience, it would be fun.’”
Turns out it was much more than fun. The ETBU campus in Marshall, Texas captivated Stephens immediately, and as she does with all of her decisions, she leaned on her faith for guidance.
“I did all the college tour stuff and saw everything and that night I told my dad that this is where I’m going to go,” Stephens said. “Solely because I felt the Lord calling to me and there was something about this place feeling like home and just the beauty of east Texas and the beauty of this school.”
That conversation seems like a distant memory now as Stephens prepares for her fifth year playing for ETBU, a year afforded to her by the NCAA as a result that COVID-19 had on college sports. A year to take her career a step further, whether that means a conference title or tournament run.
When that announcement was made, Stephens and her best friend on the team, Hanna Hudson, laughed at the thought of playing another season. Hudson is a year younger than Stephens but was set to graduate early. They were at peace with 2020-21 being their last season of college basketball. Their bodies were tired; they had already accomplished so much. They’d made an Elite 8 and Stephens was already an All-Conference player.
“I was just thinking that it was the craziest thing someone could do,” Stephens said of returning for another year. “Why would someone put their body through that pain and suffering again?”
Then, nostalgia hit.
Stephens started feeling emotional about doing certain things for the last time. Mundane things like running a lap or doing a sprint. She and Hudson talked on a drive home about the team, how much young talent there was and how good they could be with another year. This could be a team with a legit shot at a national title.
That conversation turned into a phone call with coach Blake Arbogast, who replaced Rainbolt at the start of the 2020-21 season. Stephens mentioned the idea of running it back one more time as a joke, trying to coax Arbogast into begging them to stay.
It turns out it was Arbogast getting the last laugh.
“In that conversation, we tricked ourselves into playing again,” Stephens said. “It’s our favorite place to be and it’s where all of our friends are and every single person on this team are my best friends, so why would I want to run straight into adulthood when I could be in a place as great as ETBU?”
The Tigers ended up 25-1 on the season, finishing second in the Division III Women’s Basketball Poll at the end of the year. Winning 25 consecutive games to start the season is an outrageous feat in itself, but losing that last one in the conference tournament finals left Stephens hungry for more.
“Obviously we ended up being super successful last year, which made it so fun and such an experience,” Stephens said. “And then we also didn’t win like we wanted to, so that kind of left a sour taste in our mouth that good thing we were already committed to playing next year and we’re not going to end our career on a loss like that.”
Arbogast knew his team would be good when he took over as head coach after a year as an assistant, but that he would’ve been lying if he thought he’d win his first 25 games at the helm.
That success can largely be attributed to Stephens both as a player and a leader. Arbogast knew he’d have to rely heavily on the senior not just on the floor, but in the locker room as well.
“I had relationships with the players, but me and Mallory specifically grew over that first year as an assistant,” Arbogast said. “So, leaning on her was a big thing, but it was really easy to do because of who she is.”
Who Stephens is, is a guard that can stretch the floor, shoot from deep, and flat out make plays. She averaged 11 points per game but is always willing to pass up her own shot in favor of a better one from a teammate. Her best quality though, in her coach’s mind, is her toughness.
“It is out of the roof,” Arbogast said. “She never shies away from a big moment. “We were down big in our conference tournament and she just basically said, ‘Hey, let’s go.’ We could’ve broke when we were being bent, but that toughness of taking charges, being the first one on the floor, not afraid to be an undersized post player in traffic, and coming up with rebounds when needed, that’s the biggest thing she brings and that trickles into her leadership.”
The game Arbogast is referring to was the American Southwest Conference tournament semifinals. ETBU was down 15 points to Sul Ross State University after just one quarter of play. They went on to win 72-56. Stephens led all scorers with 17 points, including shooting 4-of-4 from 3-point range.
She had five points in a Tiger 15-0 run that changed the complexity of the game. There’s little doubt that ETBU wouldn’t have come back without the excellence of Stephens.
Mallory though, isn’t the only Stephens sister on the ETBU roster. Her younger sister Grace is going into her junior year for the Tigers, and Mallory made recruiting her to campus a personal mission.
“Never in a million years would I have thought that me and my sister would go and play college basketball together,” Stephens said. “She’s the best athlete that I’ve ever seen and she can run hurdles and for years I figured she would go run track somewhere.”
But Grace had a front-row seat for Mallory’s first two years. She got to experience the culture at ETBU and she got to hear firsthand the behind-the-scenes details of the program. Not to mention Mallory’s insistence to her coach that Grace be recruited.
“Obviously I was begging coach Rainbolt to recruit her and knew she could play here,” Stephens said. “And when he gave her that offer the anticipation of wondering if she was going to commit was brutal, but she ended up committing and playing with her is a dream. It’s something I get to tell my kids about that very few people get to say they did.”
The experience has brought the two even closer. Both of the sisters know that at any moment the other is just feet away to discuss whatever is on her mind, and also to push one another that much harder on the court.
That should prove helpful as the calendar inches closer to the start of the 2021-22 season. ETBU is expected to again be one of the best teams in its conference. Some may see anything less than what they accomplished a season ago as a failure, but that isn’t the case inside the school.
“It’s going to be interesting to see our competitive nature this year and how we hold each other accountable,” Stephens said. “Not getting too high or too low and staying consistent because last year we didn’t really get a taste of what a loss felt like until it was over, so we didn’t get to learn how to bounce back from a loss with our younger classmen. So, this year is going to be really interesting to see early on in the season what we do and our biggest thing is we just want to compete every single day, so if we lose but we still compete and still got better, that’s a win in our eyes.”
As for what the future holds post-basketball, Stephens is still figuring it out. Given her leadership ability, it’s no surprise that she wants to coach at the high school level, whether that be basketball or volleyball in her hometown of Keene, Texas or elsewhere.
“I have a heart for girls that are ages 14-17,” Stephens said. “I just feel like I can invest in them really well and so I think that would be what is next ideally, but it really is hard trying to balance the future but also be present in what’s happening now.”
Any school would surely be lucky to obtain the services of a five-year college player with All-Conference talent. But in the meantime, there’s some unfinished business and a title run for her to attend to.
“I’m trying to keep the mindset that I’m going to have to be an adult for the rest of my life,” Stephens said. “So why not enjoy this year of being a college kid and have fun doing it.”