The joys of being a student-athlete have never been more apparent than they are with the seniors leaving the Utah Valley women’s basketball team. Three players have dedicated the last few years to gaining an education through UVU, as well as representing women’s athletics on the hardwood. Keana Delos Santos, Jordan Holland and Alexis Cortez have all shined in different ways and it’s time we get to know them one last time as Wolverines.
A native of Tucson, Arizona, senior guard Alexis Cortez played a critical role in the success of the Utah Valley women’s basketball team this past year. The self-described “quiet leader” set an example of consistency and steady improvement during her three years at UVU. She helped lead the team to a 9-6 conference record her senior year — the third-best record in the Western Athletic Conference.
Cortez said her mother put her in sports as a kid, but that basketball — which she has been playing since age 5 — has always been her favorite. Although she didn’t play basketball herself, Cortez said her mother recognized her daughter’s love of the game and pushed her to succeed.
“My mom didn’t play, but she knew that it was something I loved,” Cortez said. “My mom grew up training me. She would rebound for me at five in the morning every single day … she taught herself a lot about the game so that she could help me with my goals.”
Cortez holds her mother in high regard as an athletic role-model, alongside the late Kobe Bryant.
“[As a role model] I would say my mom, but I always liked Kobe [Bryant] just as far as his mentality was,” Cortez said. “Just how consistent he always was with his work ethic and mentality, I always admired that.”
Road to Utah Valley
Like many others, Cortez didn’t begin her collegiate career as a Wolverine, but rather, as a Pirate at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. Cortez described traveling to Chicago and the East Coast with her Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team and being impressed by the fast-paced style of basketball played there. Despite receiving offers from universities closer to home, Cortez ultimately chose to take her talents east.
ECU was where Cortez met one of her best friends but things were far from perfect there. Her first season with the Pirates was in 2016 and commenced only three days after President Donald Trump was elected, which she said created a turbulent environment in that part of the country.
“It was a crazy time when I went there,” Cortez said. “Obviously racism is everywhere but when you get into the South you feel it a little bit more, especially as a girl from the West Coast … where it’s not as brutal as it was over there.”
She still made the most of her time at ECU and said she learned a lot of valuable basketball and cultural lessons. Cortez transferred to UVU partway through her freshman year and said she made her decision based on proximity to home and the “underdog mentality” coaches sold her on.
“UVU sold me on the fact that it’s a school that’s been kind of underrated,” Cortez said. “It’s a step-sister to [Brigham Young University] is how they sold it to me and I just fell in love with that.”
After sitting out for a year following her mid-season transfer to Orem, Cortez played in 18 games during her sophomore season, averaging 5.8 points and one steal per game. Her workload dramatically increased the following year when she started in 26 games for the Wolverines and recorded 145 total rebounds while shooting 43.8% from the field. As she improved as a player, she wasn’t all that interested in individual accolades.
“I always have had individual goals, but that has always been second to winning,” Cortez said. “You can do a lot of individual things, but at the end of the day when you win a championship, that’s the only banner that’s going to get hung in your arena.”
It’s this mentality that made for an easy transition for Cortez when Dan Nielson took over as head coach going into her senior season.
“I think a lot of people would be upset to have a new coach their senior year,” said Cortez. “For me, it was a great change. They have a lot of experience and know basketball really well.”
With basketball being a team game, Cortez acknowledged how much she owes to her teammates who supported her along the way.
“I really want to thank Nehaa Sohail,” Cortez said. “She was a great teammate and best friend to me. If it weren’t for her, my 3 ½ years at UVU wouldn’t have been as memorable and fun. I will always consider her a lifelong friend.”
The 2019-2020 season brought with it wins that have been out of reach for previous teams. The team beat both Grand Canyon and New Mexico State on the road for the first time since they joined the same conference. They also would have likely qualified for the Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT) postseason tournament, a feat previously not achieved during Cortez’s time at UVU. Cortez said wins like those against GCU and NMSU serve not only the seniors but the underclassmen who can view them as examples of what is possible going forward.
Cortez is optimistic that next year’s team will be able to continue pushing the program in the right direction, thanks in large part to Sohail and Josie Williams — who will both be seniors.
“The program will be in great hands because of those leaders,” she said. “I really think they can bring a buzz around the community in Orem to support [the team] even more.”
“A Year to Remember”
The Wolverines lost what would be their final game of the season against Seattle U in the WAC Tournament, only to find out moments later that the tournament was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was very disappointing [to miss the tournament],” Cortez said. “Me and Keana [Delos Santos] and Jordan [Holland], that’s something we always wanted … and we had never even come close. This year we actually did it and it’s very sad that we didn’t get to have that experience.”
Cortez will graduate in August with a degree in public relations and hopes to work in sports public relations or get into coaching. As a student-athlete, Cortez said she spent a lot of time practicing and traveling, so she is using this time to make up for lost time spent with her family.
“Being in Orem was a great experience … this school was great for me,” Cortez said, reflecting on her time as a Wolverine. “The professors were amazing … being able to count on them year after year as athletes. This last year is probably the year I will remember the most … especially with all the winning. These girls will be my lifelong friends and I want to thank these coaches for making this a year to remember.”
Featured image courtesy of Erik Flores, UVU Marketing
Updated Tuesday, May 5, 2020
Valley Life Editor