They came to UNC Asheville four years ago to a program which just suffered one of its worst ever seasons. This May, they’re graduating with the program’s first ever regular season title and two of its three Big South championship wins under their belts.
Chatori Major, K.J. Shelton (listed by her maiden name, Weaver, on the team roster but prefers to be referenced by her marital last name), Ja’Da Brayboy and Tianna Knuckles were recruited by Brenda “Mock” Kirkpatrick her second year as head coach. They were her first recruiting class. With only one championship to its name and its most recent season having ended 2-28 and 0-18 in conference, the program needed work.
Four years later, the team holds its first ever regular season title and two more championships to its name, this year’s was won in historic fashion.
“I felt blessed to win two championships in a row. It’s a really special thing, especially for this program, to turn the team all the way around and to be a part of school history,” Knuckles said. “To be a part of this family, this team, one of the four seniors — we’re so close, and to do this again was a wonderful thing for me.”
Shelton said every player over the past four years contributed to the re-invigoration of the team.
“We had a tough couple of seasons rebuilding and rebranding and everybody played a part,” Shelton said. “Literally from freshmen to seniors, everybody who has been here all four years has played a part in building what we stand for.”
Not only have they reinvented the program’s standard of success in competitions, they have done so while still continuing its familial culture which counterbalances support and tough love encouragement.
Kirkpatrick said the women on the team have high ambitions, sometimes even getting overstressed by the combined pressure of basketball and academics. She said though the program pushes academic success and regularly checks in on the players’ academic performances, it is hardly needed. They motivate themselves.
Knuckles said she struggled trying to maintain A’s as a player and biology student freshman year. She said she stretched herself thin and was counseled to be OK without achieving perfection in every aspect of life, but she continued her pursuit for perfect grades.
“Throughout this program they push us to be our best, but we really put ourselves to high standards, saying to ourselves, ‘We need to be great students. We need to be great in the community so we can lift little girls up,’” Knuckles said. “We are basically putting up a standard that we need to push ourselves at all times and just know that if this team can be great then future teams can be great. We came from nothing to something, as long as you push yourself and believe in yourself and be confident, you can do anything.”
The team’s remarkable success on the court is augmented by its commitment to the team’s culture of selflessness and support. Their team motto is, “For each other” and it manifests itself in everything they put their minds to.
In the library, it is the positive peer pressure they utilize to keep each other ahead on school work. In the community it is their volunteering in mentorship and community garden programs and on the court, it is winning four games in four days to be the first women’s team in Big South conference history to win the championship as the seventh seed.
Shelton said she felt included in the family before she even graduated high school.
“When I was in high school, Kelli Riles who graduated before I even got to UNCA picked me up to take me to the gym. The gym was closed so we didn’t get to go but we still spent the whole day together, hanging out at her house and going out to eat,” Shelton said. “We didn’t even know each other before that and now I have her phone number, we can text whenever and we never even went to school together and we are friends like that.”
Shelton said the team is the medium of her closest extra-familial relationships and she will never lose those ties.
“The biggest thing I love from my time on this team is becoming like a sister or a mother to some of the girls,” Shelton said. “There’s no question these are friendships that will last a lifetime.”
Major said she dreamed of winning a championship when she arrived as a freshman player.
“I’m so happy that my team and I got to accomplish these things together. I wouldn’t want to do this with any other group of people,” Major said. “The bond my teammates and I share is unbreakable. They are the first people I call when I’m in trouble and I couldn’t imagine life without them.”
Losing her first recruiting class has caused Coach “Mock” some empty nest syndrome, but she is excited for the team’s growth.
“They were my first recruiting class. I love them. This is the first recruiting class I’ve seen through all four years,” Kirkpatrick said. “Not only is it going to be sad to lose them as people but like I said they are incredible players. To have all of that talent in one class probably has never happened here.”
Kirkpatrick said she is confident the team will still be competitive in the conference next season, even after losing four very talented Bulldogs.
“This off-season we are replacing two 1,000 point scorers, a top 4 rebounder and shot blocker in program history and a point guard,” Kirkpatrick said. “But it’s a new challenge and we’ve learned so much this past season and from how we handled the last post-season that I’m confident next year’s team will have a shot.”