Melissa “Moe” Llanes knew something was up when Gavilan College men’s basketball coach Derek Jensen called her during the team’s Feb. 9 game-day shootaround.
Moments later, Gavilan Athletic Director Ron Hannon and trainer Erik Hilliker walked into the gym and Llanes, the team’s assistant coach, knew exactly what was happening.
“They only come into practice when someone tests positive (for Covid),” she said.
It was Jensen, which meant he would have to sit out that night’s game against West Valley due to Covid protocols. At that moment, Llanes knew she would be the head coach for a men’s college basketball team for the first time in her career.
Turns out, Llanes would also become the first woman ever to head coach a California Community College men’s basketball team. Ever mindful that any type of change could disrupt practice, Llanes decided to tell the players of Jensen’s positive test after the shootaround was over.
“I wanted them to stay focused on the things they needed to work on,” said Llanes, a 2004 Live Oak High graduate and San Martin resident.
That Gavilan lost to West Valley 85-59 and two days later lost to Cabrillo 93-48 with Llanes manning the sidelines again will become a mere footnote to what transpired. Gavilan, which entered the week at 11-15 overall and 2-8 in the Coast Conference South Division, has two games left this season.
In an era where women athletes, broadcasters and coaches are breaking barriers, Llanes knows her accomplishment represents a milestone. However, she also desires to see a time when achievements are judged as all encompassing, and not by gender.
In fact, she has a T-shirt that says just that: Female Athlete, Judged by Achievements, Not By Gender, with the word Female crossed out.
“I’m big on, ‘anybody can do anything,’” she said. “And I know we should celebrate moments like this because obviously they’re historic, but the end goal is not to have this be a big deal. Men coach both sides, women can coach both sides. It is an honor to be the first and I do take pride in that, but there are other women who paved the way before me and I hope a lot come after me.”
Llanes built up her coaching chops before her historic moment. Known as Moe, a nickname that stuck after friends started calling her that in the sixth grade—“Most people don’t even know my first name,” she said—Llanes started coaching immediately after graduating from Live Oak.
She spent one season as the assistant on the girls hoops squad before a coaching stint as an assistant for the Cabrillo College women’s team which was sandwiched in between her earning an undergraduate degree at Notre Dame de Namur University and then her Masters at Concordia University.
She arrived at Gavilan in 2013 and after a couple of years ascended to associate head coach before being named the head coach in February 2020. However, the 2020-2021 Covid season was not kind for Gavilan, which saw the women’s team roster get whittled from 12 to two players in that span.
Since there were not enough players to field a team, Gavilan had to suspend its women’s program for this season. That’s when Jensen asked Llanes to come aboard as an assistant coach, setting the wheels in motion to make history.
“First, it starts with Derek wanting me on his staff and seeing my basketball brain and things I’m going to bring to the team regardless if I’m a woman,” Llanes said. “Without his support, obviously I’m not in this position.”
Jensen didn’t just give Llanes an opportunity to come aboard his coaching staff—he gave her all of the responsibilities that a top assistant coach has and then some. Llanes ran all of the game-day shootarounds and coached opposite Jensen during 5-on-5 practices.
“He trusts me with game planning, strategizing, player development, all those things,” she said.
Tahjae Ordonio, the Rams’ outstanding sophomore guard, said Llanes earned her opportunity to coach the team during a game.
“We all know it was a big opportunity for her and the whole year we felt like she deserved it,” said Ordonio, who is looking to choose between a couple of offers to play at Division II programs next season. “When it finally happened, we were all excited for her and it was super cool. She’s a great coach. She’s really level headed and obviously she knows the game super well. We all respect her a whole bunch and we don’t treat her any differently. Just her presence and her willingness to help us and keep us in check is amazing.”
For both Llanes and the players, they were united on one thing: it was business as usual.
“The only thing different was she was there and Derek wasn’t there,” Ordonio said. “She still has the same presence as Derek does.”
Said Llanes: “I told the players nothing changes. That you guys have had me all year, we know what our game plan is and we know what we’re doing. Nothing changes. They were excited and ready to go.”
When Jensen first asked Llanes to come aboard, she had her reservations. After all, Llanes had never coached a boys team, let alone a men’s squad. And because of the timing of the school’s announcement that the women’s team wouldn’t have a season, she didn’t get to be around the men’s team during the all-important summer session.
“Having to join when school started and they had already formed their bond, I was a little nervous,” she said. “But from Day One without skipping a beat, they all treated me like I was another assistant coach. They asked questions, listened to advice and listened to what I had to say. It definitely filled my bucket and this was an opportunity to get me out of my comfort zone, which was great because we ask that from our players all the time. I just went for it and it’s been great.”
Even though Llanes enjoyed her experience coaching the Gavilan men’s team for two games, she’s not thinking about trying to do it full time.
“At this point, no,” she said. “I love my dynamic with Derek and really enjoy being assistant coach. And at this point in my life with my family, it’s kind of the best decision. I’m not going to say never, but I love being an assistant and having that role.”