As a youth growing up in Tennessee, Chyna Ellis opted to play softball and soccer instead of basketball in the state where the iconic late Pat Summitt once roamed.
But a few years later, when middle school athletics became a reality, Ellis would begin to focus sorely on basketball as her primary sport, and she set her sights on becoming a Lady Vol.
Unfortunately, the reception was lukewarm at best in Knoxville during the early signing period of her high school career. So South Alabama materialized as the front runner for Ellis.
After a very fruitful college visit to the campus in Mobile to meet with the coaching staff, Ellis securing an athletic scholarship to become a Jaguar appeared to be only a mere formality. But before she could suit up for her senior season at Cordova High School, Ellis received a bit of startling news that would alter the course of her life forever.
She was pregnant with her first child.
The announcement would not only alter the direction of the program during Ellis’ senior season, but it effectively left all of her future plans in limbo.
Her uncertain future became less cloudy when South Alabama coach Terry Fowler assured her that her scholarship she was awarded would remain intact despite the pregnancy.
“After I got pregnant I had to call coach (Fowler) and tell him what I was going through, and it was pretty hard, but he said that I would still be able to come play, so I was grateful to him for that,” Ellis said. “The hardest thing was getting back into game shape. I worked harder than I had in the past to get back to where I needed to be.”
With her basketball future solidified, Ellis enlisted the help of her mother, Shontia Bradley, to assist with the upbringing of young Londyn, now four while her focus shifted to becoming a college athlete.
The road back to the court wasn’t easy, but Ellis admits the strength and conditioning work and extra hours in the gym has paid dividends.
“I am a small girl naturally so I definitely had to rebuild some stuff,” Ellis said. “But it was important for me to get back into basketball shape as quickly as I could.”
It still took some time for Ellis to blossom on the court, she has now ascended into the Sun Belt’s top echelon of players in her final season as a Jaguar, and her sparkling resume speaks for itself.
Ellis currently holds both the Sun Belt Conference record, along with the school record, for blocks with over 300, and she is one of only 19 players in South Alabama women’s basketball history to score over 1,000 career points.
As a sophomore, Ellis was named the Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year.
But before she hangs up her sneakers for the Jaguars in March, Ellis will have already set a high standard for others to follow, both on and off the court.
On Jan. 18 against Coastal Carolina, Ellis recorded the program’s first triple-double since 1989, and also eclipsed the previous conference’s record for blocks with 10 – which was a career high – on the same night.
Ellis also made history as the only women’s player to be in the Top-10 for a season statistic over her four-year career.
Currently, Ellis is among the SBC’s top ten in six different categories – scoring (14.4), rebounding (8.7), three point percentage (.387) and blocked shots (3.2) and both offensive and defensive rebounds.
Although the accolades have been widespread for the highly-decorated senior, who may graduate with many of the school’s all-time individual records in tow, Ellis has remained the consummate team player.
“Every season we have had a great group of girls and great leadership, but this year we want it,” senior guard Genesis Perrymond said. “Chyna and I both have had to become leaders earlier in our careers than most. We were part of the same recruiting class and I am happy to have seen not only myself grow, but her grow, too.”
The Jaguars opened conference play winning eight of their first nine games – which stands as the best start of a conference season since the conference schedule expanded for the 1991-92 season – behind the play of Ellis.
In addition, the team has boasted a six-game SBC winning streak, a three-game road streak and a five-game home win streak in conference play, which are all school records during the current season.
Ellis’ coaches say her improvement since she arrived on campus is remarkable.
“I have seen her mature each and every year from a standpoint of making better decisions,” Fowler said. “She listens more than she did when she first got here. It has been a steady progress of her continuing to grow into a young lady.”
But while she has obtained numerous accomplishments on the basketball court, Ellis readily admits it hasn’t come without a cost on the personal side.
“There are times where I wished I would have waited a little longer to become a mother because I have missed so much of my daughter’s life,” Ellis said. “Those are moments in time that you can’t get back. Everything I do is for her. She is what motivates me to give everything I have in the classroom and on the court.”
With only five games remaining on the regular season slate for South Alabama, Ellis is determined to lead her team to the SBC championship, and secure the coveted automatic NCAA tournament berth that comes along with it.
Though they are currently mired in a season-high three-game losing streak, Ellis and South Alabama trail only Little Rock and Texas State in the Sun Belt women’s standings.
The Jaguars lost to both teams earlier in the season are in a tight battle for the third place slot with Troy and Lafayette in what should be a frantic finish for the SBC title.
“There are so many good teams in this conference I can’t really pinpoint one that is the team to beat this year.” Ellis said. “But if we play our game and do the things we have done well, we have a good chance (to compete for a championship).”
Although a future in professional basketball certainly remains a possibility, Ellis has worked diligently to have the tools to succeed in life, even if she decides not to pick up a basketball again upon graduation.
“She is a focused young lady and she knows what she wants to accomplish on and off the floor,” Fowler said. “She has been able to stay focused. But if you talk to her, the one thing she’ll always say is everything is for her daughter.”
“Even though it’s been a challenging situation, there’s an end game. She knows what that is and she has been able to stay on track, keep pace and do all of the things necessary to have success.”