By Sarah Naron
GRAPELAND – There were likely many other things that the individuals filling the pews on the evening of Monday, Sept. 24, could have been doing…but God led them to attend the annual meeting and membership drive of First Christian Memorial, Inc.
Upon stepping up to the pulpit, speaker Trenia Tillis-Hoard confessed to her audience that she had neglected the first two notifications she received from First Christian Memorial, Inc. Board President Dr. Jerry Owens regarding the event…but God eventually turned her attention to providing a response.
Tillis-Hoard is well known in Houston County for leading the Sandiettes to back-to-back state tournament appearances in 1987-88 and 1988-89. Trenia averaged 25 points and 16 rebounds per game as a freshman, 29 points and 18 rebounds as a sophomore, 35 points and 15 rebounds as a junior, and 27 points and 12 rebounds as a senior. She was a four-time All-State selection and was named Miss Texas Basketball in 1989. She will be inducted into the Texas High School Basketball Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2023.
According to Tillis-Hoard – who is now a basketball coach at Tyler Junior College (TJC) and led the Apache Ladies to their first National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) championship title earlier this year – her life as a whole has consisted of a series of what she describes as “but God” moments.
“There are 44 places in the Bible where it’s mentioned, ‘but God,’” Tillis-Hoard shared. “And I always tell my players, ‘When you say ‘but,’ you cancel everything you say in front of that ‘but.’ And I just feel like my life has been nothing but ‘but God’ moments.”
Raised in Grapeland below the poverty line, Tillis-Hoard faced a number of challenges, including discouragement regarding her future as a college student. On the scholastic aptitude test (SAT) that all students were required to take to gauge their readiness for higher education, Tillis-Hoard – who aspired to play basketball while working toward her degree – scored a 700, the minimum score at which college acceptance was still possible.
“I had a counselor that said, ‘You only got a 700; I don’t think you’ll be successful in college,’” Tillis-Hoard recalled. “But that’s the reason I tell y’all that my life is a ‘but God’ moment. That counselor said because of my 700, I wouldn’t be able to go to school. But God said, ‘Go to college anyway.’”
As many others have learned on their own journeys, coming from a small town is sometimes enough to be a bit of a hindrance on its own.
“You know what people think about small towns,” Tillis-Hoard pointed out. “They think we’re a bunch of country hicks; we got some straw in our mouth; we got on cowboy hats and boots and say, ‘Yee-haw!’ But we’re not like that. I don’t see straw in anybody’s mouth. Everybody thinks when you’re from a small town that that is the reason and the rationale for you not being able to go out and have an amazing life.”
As a child, Tillis-Hoard lived with her grandmother in lieu of her own mother – a fact that she now has a profound appreciation for.
“My mother was here, but God put me living with my grandmother. And I think growing up with my grandmother was really one of the best things to happen for me,” she shared. “But as a kid, you don’t know that. You’re wondering why, you know, ‘Everybody else is with their mommies and daddies; why can’t Trenia be with her mommy and daddy?’ But now, at my age, I can appreciate Grandma. I can appreciate being in church every time the church opened up.”
Tillis-Hoard stressed the importance of people being grateful for what they have, using an example from a book written by celebrity Kevin Hart.
“Kevin Hart said, ‘You’re on an airplane headed to Hawaii. You’re in your economy seats,’” Tillis-Hoard explained. “And he said, ‘We have a tendency when we’re in our economy seats to be looking at first class and wishing we were in the first class seats. But the big deal is, you’re going to Hawaii. And we have a tendency to cancel out what we have already trying to compare ourselves to everyone else.’”
Rather than focusing on negative aspects of coming from a small town – such as the aforementioned stereotype of being a mere “country hick” – Tillis-Hoard has chosen to keep her attention on the good it has done for her.
“I think there’s kids out there that come from big cities that didn’t get the raising I did,” she said. “They didn’t get to grow up the way I did. They didn’t get the compassion; they didn’t get the love.”
Tillis-Hoard fondly recalled the large amount of support that she felt from her fellow Grapeland residents.
“When I played basketball in Grapeland, everybody came out to watch us play basketball,” she said. “Everybody supported us. And everybody took their time to sow a seed, fertilize us, and nurture us so that we believed we could be greater than we were. We may not have been the most talented team out there, but God put people in our lives to grow us, to sow us, and to make us believe.”
As a student at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Tillis-Hoard obtained a Bachelor of Science in Rehabilitation Counseling, was inducted into the Lumberjack Hall of Fame as a result of her achievements in basketball and continued to experience “but God” moments.
“I didn’t think I could get my master’s degree when I was at SFA,” she said. “One of my professors just walked up and said, ‘You’re such a good person. I want you to apply for the master’s program.’ And I kind of just laughed at her and was like, ‘I was lucky to get these degrees. I had to take out loans to do that.’”
Incurring debt is an unfortunate reality for many individuals furthering their education – but in Tillis-Hoard’s case, it ended up becoming another “but God” to add to her testimony.
“To this day, I’ve never seen a bill from college,” she said. “I don’t know who paid for those loans. But God made sure that happened.”
Tillis-Hoard’s 22nd year as a women’s basketball coach at TJC has proved to be an eventful one, starting with her team’s unexpected journey to becoming the NJCAA Division I National Champions.
“We were ranked, and then, we took a skid,” she explained. “We lost two of our last games of the season – one being a playoff game. With that loss, they were saying, ‘There is no way TJC is going to go to the national tournament.”
As it turned out, the Lord had other plans for Tillis-Hoard and her Apache Ladies, and they were bestowed one of the coveted spots on the championship tournament’s roster as an at-large bid – though they were still met with a great deal of skepticism.
“Out of 24 teams, they saw us as the 17th team,” Tillis-Hoard explained. “So, pretty much, that said, ‘Y’all might win the first game, but there’s a good chance you won’t win another one.’”
The team began the tournament by facing off against the Lady Indians of Chipola College in Marianna, FL, who were ranked at number 16.
“They were beating us by 12 points with three minutes to go in that game,” Tillis-Hoard said. “So, I was like, ‘Lord, what am I gonna do?’ I called a time out, and we got back in that game, and we won that game in overtime.”
The team’s next opponents were the Raiders of Three Rivers College in Poplar Bluff, MO, who had received the ranking of number one.
“They were 33-0. Hadn’t lost a game,” Tillis-Hoard said. “It was just the craziest thing. Before you knew it, TJC had 22 points. That team [the Raiders] had zero. They did not score until two minutes in the first quarter. And all I could do is stand there and pray, ‘God, You gotta help me. Please help me not make a mistake and lose this ballgame.’”
When halftime rolled around, the Apache Ladies maintained a 36-point lead.
“And then, we ended up winning the game by 33 points,” Tillis-Hoard said. “That was a ‘but God’ moment right there. And so, we just stayed in the tournament. We were the underdog. I kept saying, ‘God, do what You want to have done.’”
Tillis-Hoard expressed her belief that “God is the greatest comedian.
“I was just living on God’s good humor, because I though it was hilarious that we really were winning,” she recalled.
In the end, the Apache Ladies fought their way to victory against the Chargers of Georgia Highlands College with a final score of 92-80.
“My team was all over the place, and they were diving on each other,” said Tillis-Hoard of the first moments after their championship win. “My husband was watching on TV, and he said, ‘Your arms were out, and you were just praising God.’”
Immediately giving her thanks to the Lord, Tillis-Hoard said, was fulfilling a promise she had previously made through prayer.
“That’s what I feel like we have to do,” she said. “I try to praise God in everything I do. Am I perfect? No, I’m not gonna sit here and tell you I’m perfect. I’m a cussing Christian; the Lord’s still working on me. But God has such amazing grace that He continues to allow me to run this race.”
Continuing the race is something Tillis-Hoard does with a deep hope of making her hometown proud.
“Everybody says, ‘You’re the face of Grapeland,’” she said. “I’m worried more about disappointing y’all than disappointing anyone. You’re my hometown, and I want everybody to say, ‘This is Grapeland. This is what Grapeland’s made of.’”
After this year’s successes – which, in addition to the championship victory, included Tillis-Hoard being named Coach of the Tournament and Coach of the Year – Tills-Hoard shared that she potentially has some challenging times ahead.
“This year’s gonna be really, really tough. I don’t have any players returning, and then, I lost three players that were supposed to come in,” she said. “And everybody’s like, ‘What are you gonna do? This is probably gonna be a losing season for you.’”
In spite of this, she remains optimistic and clings to the importance of upholding her faith in the Lord.
“God’s never gonna give me more than I can handle,” she said. “The load might get heavy. It might get tough. But I’ve gotta keep showing faith. I feel like in our society right now, we walk out there, and we profess our Christianity and how much we love God – until He’s not giving us what we want. And then, I wanna showcase, ‘This is what faith looks like.’ Faith means, ‘I might not win a game, but you know what? I’m still gonna praise Him the same.’”
Tillis-Hoard also opted to become a member of First Christian Memorial, Inc. and expressed a deep affection for the church building – which, at 127 years old, is the oldest church in Grapeland and a Registered Texas Historic Landmark. Prior to her Monday night visit, Tillis-Hoard had only ever seen the church from the outside.
“I’ve driven by, I’ve walked by, I’ve seen it, I’ve looked at it – I’ve done everything but come in this building,” she said. “Walking into this building for the first time, I feel like I lost something in my childhood. I feel like I lost an opportunity. But God has allowed me to be here at 52 years old. Now, what can I do to utilize this?”
Overall, Tillis-Hoard looks to be an inspiration in all she does going forward.
“People come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime,” she said. “And I don’t want anybody to ever feel like the season that we had wasn’t anything. Every season that we have is a ‘but God.’ I’m standing in front of you guys this day – and it’s just another ‘but God.’”
First Christian Memorial, Inc. – also commonly referred to as “the little, white church” – is located at 213 North Market St. in Grapeland. Its facilities are available to rent for events such as funerals, reunions, and weddings. For more information or to become a member of the organization, please visit www.firstchristianmemorial.org.