By Chandra Harris-McCray
They are not just die-hard fans. Mary Jane and Dean Heavener are warriors for the Lady Mocs on and off the court.
With their calendar revolving around the women's basketball schedule, they never miss a home game at the UTC McKenzie Arena. In their silver Mercury Mountaineer, fittingly tagged with a "MOCS1" license plate, they are hard to miss.
They have traversed the country with the team for away games. They eat where the players eat. "If they cannot exceed $12.99 for their meal, then we do not," Dean says. They stay where the players stay, even if the hotel seems out of the way and miles from the arena.
Cheering "their girls" on, even on the sidelines of practices, they are a constant.
"They are a special and rare breed," says the Lady Mocs' head coach Wes Moore of the Heaveners. "We would not be where we are without them. Without a doubt, they are unbelievable fans and friends."
In an antique curio cabinet, Mary Jane keeps a strand of the basketball net that Moore tossed to her and Dean minutes after the team beat Samford 72-67 in the Southern Conference women's basketball tournament final last spring. The rest of the net hangs in the entryway of their home in a shadowbox of photos that capture the sweet win.
Championship rings, bobbleheads, scrapbooks—they gush, like proud parents.
"She is the team mom. You cannot get past Mrs. Heavener without her hugging your neck and offering inspirational words," says junior Kiara Smith, who had to give up her first love of being a Lady Moc due to a chronic knee injury.
For two summers, the Rome, Ga., native has been able to attend summer school, which will allow her to graduate in the spring, because of the generosity of the Heaveners. The couple established the scholarship for Lady Mocs players who exceed their basketball eligibility or suffer a setback like Kiara and still have a year or so to complete their studies.
"It is not just about basketball. It is about comprehensive excellence-academically, athletically and socially," Dean says. "Above all else, every player must be equipped to lead a meaningful and productive life; and part of that is obtaining your degree. Everything we do is part of that mission."
"If we win or lose," Kiara says, "it does not matter. They are always there cheering for us-on the court, in the classroom, at graduation, and in our careers."
The help of a small scholarship allowed Mary Jane to stay close to home and attend UTC's predecessor, the University of Chattanooga. She eventually earned her business degree in 1967 while taking night classes and working at TVA in market research.
After 37 years at TVA, Mary Jane retired, but she did not let go of the tradition of attending UTC basketball games. What started after a colleague passed along men's basketball tickets quickly turned into a seasonal affair. And after Mary Jane and Dean got a taste of women's basketball, their passion for the game skyrocketed.
"We saw their drive to be stellar athletes and stellar scholars," Mary Jane says. "We saw how Coach Moore kept them on the straight and narrow, and we admired his abilities to not only be a great coach, but also an excellent teacher."
"Seeing all of this, we knew it was time to level the playing field," Dean says. "We could make a difference in their shoestring budget."
Mary Jane adds, "If we could do something that meant they could stay at a hotel closer to the arena or they could ride in the comfort of a coach bus instead of a van, we were going to do whatever it took to ensure they were one step closer to joining the ranks of the 'haves' of other sports programs."
They wasted no time being the first contributors to the Support-Her Campaign. Designed to enhance the quality of life of the Lady Mocs, the five-year initiative seeks to raise $60,000 annually, with the funds filling in the gaps of the team's travel, equipment and operating costs.
"These are simple things that other teams never worry about," Mary Jane says.
"It was all about football when we were growing up," says Dean, who was born in Hickory, N.C., but spent his formative years in Chattanooga. "Our fathers were chained to the field, and then we were at some point. I even played football and ran track in high school."
After a stint in the Navy as a deep sea diver, Dean continued his career as a butcher in a family-owned Wisconsin grocer before he headed to Detroit to discover the mecca of the automobile industry. He was wooed back to East Tennessee by his love for Mary Jane, and the two married in 1987. By then, Dean had pounced on another opportunity as an executive in hospital administration before he ventured out on his own to manage a medical furniture company until 2007, when he retired.
"Now, our job is to be the huggers—a welcoming and warm face—for the team and their families," Mary Jane says.
"Those hugs go a long way," Kiara says. "If only there were more fans like them."
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