Dixie State: Women’s basketball program mired in controversy
By Lya Wodraska
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Jun 24 2014 01:01AM
One player says she was berated and bullied because she is African-American, another claims she was interrogated by her coach about her sexuality and another says she was disciplined and eventually dismissed from the team for petty things, such as wearing the wrong shoes.
The accusations run the gamut, from seemingly outlandish and implausible to serious, but they provide a sampling of the controversy surrounding Dixie State women’s basketball team.
The little NCAA Division II school in St. George is in the news these days as several players either have quit or have been dismissed from the team following the team’s first season under coach Catherria Turner.
Turner, hired to right the program after former coach Angela Kristensen was fired for repeated NCAA violations, has instead found herself at the heart of a fire storm of personnel moves and NCAA violations.
Turner started her tenure with 21 players but of those, only six are expected to return next year. Eight players either have quit the team or were dismissed following a season in which the Red Storm posted a 14-14 record.
Three players — Austen Harris, Nanea Woods and Miranda Moore — believe they were pushed out of the program based on the color of their skin, even though Turner herself is African-American.
"She would humiliate and punish the black people differently," Woods said.
Harris said she also was discriminated against for being a lesbian, saying she was asked about her sexual orientation in front of the team and banned from socializing with certain players. A team rule that there was to be no dating amongst team members was implemented because of her presence, Harris said.
"She created a hostile environment," Harris said. "She humiliated me on multiple occasions."
‘Did what was best for the team’
Turner denied the accusations. She did dismiss those players, along with Brianna White, but others left for less controversial reasons.
Turner said Jessica Anderson left to go on an LDS Church mission. Megan Hatt quit due to a knee injury and Tia Matthews and Vika Havili were players brought in under the previous coaching system who didn’t fit in well with her team. One other player, Caroline Lantor, is transferring to Salt Lake Community College because she wanted more playing time, Turner said.
Turner said she had no choice in letting go players who did not follow her rules.
"When I took this job I only had four players and it would have been a whole lot easier on me if I could have returned the whole team, but I had to do what was best for the team," said Turner, who was hired in April 2013. "Even if I get reamed for it in the newspapers about it, I had to do what is best for the girls who are here and working hard."
Dixie State officials maintain Turner has done nothing wrong with how she has managed her team and they stand behind the coach. Jason Boothe, the school’s athletic director, said the coach didn’t always handle things ideally, but attributed some of her mistakes to youth and the learning curve of being a college coach.
"We have proven that if a coach gets in trouble, we will act accordingly and quickly," he said, alluding to the firing of Kristensen during the 2012-13 season. "We have found some little things here and there, but at this point, we don’t feel there is anything to be concerned about."
Yet the school did find enough to propose penalizing the 30-year-old Turner for the upcoming season based on NCAA infractions she and those around her committed. Accounts of the NCAA’s concerns were obtained from Dixie State by The Salt Lake Tribune via an open records request.
The main issues involved the coach’s father, Stevie Turner, who contacted potential recruits on behalf of the program, which is against NCAA rules.
There was also an instance in which a school compliance officer found the team in the Burns Basketball Arena on the night of Nov. 6, 2013 taking shots. When asked about the drills, three players said their choice was to take 500 shots or participate in a study table session.
While Turner said the actions were voluntary, the school ruled otherwise and reprimanded the coach. As a result, the school has proposed in its letter to the NCAA that Turner be suspended for the first two games of the 2014-15 season, and preseason practice hours will be cut from eight to six hours per week with three mandatory days off instead of two. In-season practice hours will be reduced from 20 to 16 per week. The school has yet to receive a response from the NCAA, but the governing organization typically accepts such self-mandated restrictions from schools in response to violations.
As for the coach’s father, who former players portray as having a heavy influence on the program and their dismissals, he will not be allowed to work the summer camps nor will he be allowed to travel on any team buses or rentals or be allowed to interact with parents of current or potential athletes.
The actions were prompted by complaints via an anonymous letter that Stevie Turner’s trip with the team to Hawaii was paid for with team funds.
Boothe said an investigation showed no funds were used for Turner’s family, but the school went forward in setting restrictive guidelines for Turner’s father.
Boothe might be satisfied his school has taken the proper steps in disciplining Turner, but the former players don’t believe it is enough.
Harris said the coach’s father was instrumental in creating a hostile environment, yelling at players and shouting directives from the stands. She said he went so far as to tell her parents she and the other ‘sisters’ on the team were going to be removed.
"Come March we were all off the team," she said. "I get it if one or two players quit, but to have so many leave or get dismissed, it makes you wonder. But in the eyes of the administration, she can do no wrong. They dismissed every single thing."
The dismissed players accused the coach of being extremely controlling, such as questioning them whether they smoked marijuana, looking at text messages on their cell phones and having other players act as ‘spies.’
"We just wanted to play basketball," Woods said. "But she was so focused on being an authority figure and creating a lot of drama."
Harris, Woods and Moore all said they were written up for small things they didn’t consider worth disciplinary action, such as wearing the wrong shoes or sitting with family members between games, etc.
The worst, according to Harris, was a team meeting in which she was asked about her sexuality, Harris said.
"She would have these meetings she called ‘100 meetings’ where we discussed everything as a team," Harris said. "Instead of the two people who may be involved, she’d have everyone involved. It created a bad environment."
Turner said she did hold such meetings, but denied asking any player about her sexual orientation in front of her teammates.
"We’d already had a conversation about it and I knew she was gay so why would I ask?," Turner said. "I had others on the team who were gay, but that stuff doesn’t matter. It has nothing to do with it at all. If you work hard and can produce, you are going to play. It is going to be in my best interest to play the best players because I want to win."
‘She doesn’t deserve this’
Haley Holmstead, a senior who led the team averaging 23.5 points last year, backed her former coach and said Turner never directly asked the players their sexual orientation in a team meeting.
"She talked about the rules, that players couldn’t date other players and the same was for the coaches and managers," Holmstead said. "But she never discriminated against anyone. She was a good coach and she doesn’t deserve all this."
While Dixie’s turnover rate is high — just six returning players are back for the 2014-15 season — Dixie athletic director Boothe chalked it up to the typical changes that occur when a new coach establishes his or her program.
"She wasn’t hired during the ideal time," he said. "She was basically starting over and brought a lot of players in. When you start with 20, you don’t really think you are going to end with 20."
Skyline athletic director Deb Bennett, the Eagles’ former coach who has worked two camps with Turner, believes the accusations are merely the result of unhappy players.
Turner has "raised the level at Dixie State," she said.
As a result of their release, Harris, Woods and Moore lost their scholarships, although they were re-instated following an appeal so they could finish school at Dixie State. Moore, who said she wants to eventually get a Master’s in business administration, sounds the most positive in a possible return to the school.
"I’d like to stick it out and see how it goes," she said. "What is hard is we had no warnings from her. I talked to her in February about some of the concerns we had as a team and told her I felt like she gave up on us and she said to not worry about it, she planned on having us all back. But that didn’t happen, we were written up for a lot of petty things."
Woods said she doesn’t like the way her career ended at Dixie State, but is still glad she spoke out.
"I get a coach being tough on you," she said. "But this was abuse on a whole other level. It was definitely wrong."
Turner sees things with a completely different view.
"I had to do what is best for the team," she said. "We have a positive group back that has grown together through the craziness, that is the positive lining."