Yelton’s latest milestone another mile marker on life’s path through basketball

By Morgan Givens
Staff writer

A shelf in the office of Stephanie Yelton, University of West Florida women’s head basketball coach, is home to many pictures and plaques. The shelf could use a treatment from a feather duster, but what makes it so special is that it personifies the Yelton’s journey to being one of the most successful coaches in UWF history.

(Photo by Morgan Givens)

One of the pictures that stands out on the shelf is Yelton wearing a powder blue jersey, standing on a ladder cutting down part of a basketball net. In 1991, Yelton — then Stephanie Lawrence — chose to attend college six hours away from her hometown of Morrow, Georgia, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Known as a powerhouse basketball program today, there was no national championship trophy for the women’s teams when Yelton Lawrence first enrolled. That did change two years later when Yelton and the Tar Heels won their first national championship.

Being part of the championship team also earned her a meeting with former President Bill Clinton — a photo of that meeting also hangs on her wall in her office.

After graduating in 1996, Yelton wanted to keep playing so she took her skills to play professionally in New Zealand. After an injury, she decided she would begin to pursue a career in coaching.

“I always knew I wanted to be a coach,” Yelton said. “I got to learn and experience a lot from playing for North Carolina and also professionally in New Zealand so it was just intuitive to me to make sure I share and teach that knowledge and experience through coaching.”

Yelton’s journey to Pensacola included many stops, ranging from coaching positions in both Division I and II. She took her first coaching job at Wingate University, which lasted for a year before she accepted an assistant coaching position at Wake Forest.

After four years, Yelton accepted her first head coaching job at Charleston Southern University in 2001, where at the time she became the youngest coach in Division I.

“It was a challenge for me,” Yelton said about taking on the lead role for the Lady Bucs. “Even though it was lower level Division I it was a task to build a team and program that can be successful.”

After five years at CSU, Yelton and her former teammate at North Carolina Sylvia Crawley filled coaching positions at Ohio University. Yelton and Crawley had a record of 38-15 in their two during her time in Athens, Ohio, before both moving to Boston College in 2008.

After four years with the Eagles, Yelton wanted to be in the position to win a national championship.

(Photo by Morgan Givens)

After 16 years of coaching experience, Yelton finally made her arrival to UWF. The beginning chapters to her story as the Lady Argos head coach were unfortunately unconventional.

In November of 2012, Yelton’s husband Jack passed away of a sudden illness. Being the mother of two children and just recently moved to a city that is quite the opposite of Boston, Yelton was facing a whole new kind of challenge.

“It was one of the most difficult situations I’ve ever found myself in,” Yelton said. “To move to a strange city with a new and competitive job with a program that needs a lot of attention, and then on top of that having a 3-year-old and a 4-month-old, and all the sudden I’m a single parent.”

In the wake of Jack’s death, Yelton took a 2-month leave of absence, but returning to the court in January of 2013 proved to have a positive effect on her well-being.

“I rejoined the team because I needed that,” Yelton said. “I needed it for my own health and mental stability. Although it was difficult, I needed to be in this kind of environment, and my team and the athletic department and even all the way up to the president’s office rallied around me and showed me the support and the willpower to build a successful team.”

In her first season, Yelton’s team went 6-21, but the season is still one that she holds to a high standard. She praised the team for their hard work and perseverance and also their performance in a victory against a top ten Delta State team.

The turnaround in the following season was tremendous, with a record of 19-11 and the program’s first Gulf South Conference championship. Yelton’s teams in the following years have all had winning seasons, and last year’s squad took the women’s program to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Division II Tournament, a high standard that no other UWF basketball team has ever done before.

Although Yelton does not have the luxury of a large staff like in most Division I programs, she confidently relies on her small support system.

“At the Division I level you have more personnel, more assistant coaches, more managers,” Yelton said., “But with a smaller staff at Division II, everyone has to wear multiple hats, everyone has to do multiple things.

“What’s nice about UWF is that the people in our program wear those hats well. And they understand the what it takes to influence wins and losses.”

Yelton emphasizes with a smaller staff that focusing on the most important issues within the program is what has brought it success, whether it be figuring out the most important aspects of recruiting, fostering relationships with fans, and so on.

The Lady Argos are currently 11-6 this season, and Yelton’s methods and coaching ideals have been exemplified on the court, especially with their most recent victory which was an overtime thriller over West Georgia.

After trailing for a substantial part of the game and even down by 3 with less than 10 seconds left, Yelton kept her poise as junior Halee Nieman sank a 3-pointer to tie the game at the end of regulation. Her team eventually pulled away with the win in overtime and credited it to their ability to trust the process from start to finish.

(Photo by Morgan Givens)

“I felt from the time all the way to overtime,” Yelton said. “That we played tough basketball and our players really embraced our game plan.”

Friday’s victory was not the only highlight of Yelton’s sixth season as head ball coach. There is a centerpiece picture frame on the shelf back in her office. The picture is simple enough, Yelton in the huddle drawing a up a play.

On both sides of the picture says the number 100. On Jan. 9, Yelton earned her 100th win as head coach for UWF in a victory over Delta State.

Yelton is the fastest coach at UWF to reach that milestone. For Yelton, who says she’s not a numbers person, the achievement matters, but is not the focus especially in the middle of the season.

“I had to have a friend and husband remind me I was about to hit 100,” Yelton said. “When you’re at this point in the year all that matters is getting the win and getting the job done. From a coaching standpoint, we’re so caught up in the day to day routine that a lot of those numbers go out the window.”

With that mindset, it looks like the 100th win will not be the last milestone Yelton will hit as the head coach for the UWF women’s basketball team.

It looks like she needs to make some more space on that shelf in her office.

One Response to Yelton’s latest milestone another mile marker on life’s path through basketball

  1. Deborah Dunlap says:

    So proud to have you in Pensacola 💙💚💙

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