(Look for 10th anniversary features on all of our teams throughout the season.)
SPECIAL FEATURE (Sept. 13, 2016) – Ten years have passed since Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU) formally opened its athletics program and gained acceptance into the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).
In that time, the program has grown exponentially, from two teams to 13. Across many of those sports, the OLLU Saints have established a foothold near the top of the Red River Athletic Conference (RRAC), grabbing some conference championships—regular season and tournament—along the way.
"The culture of Our Lady of the Lake University is success. Every other sport pushes you to be better," volleyball Head Coach Jeremiah Tiffin said. "This is a place where, if you want to come here as an athlete, the culture is in place for you to win no matter what sport you play."
|Relive some of the memories from the first season.|
History of the volleyball program
It didn't take long for the volleyball program to establish itself. After a first season in which the team only won three games, the team rapidly improved—making the postseason every year since 2008, and the finals of the Association for Independent Institutions (A.I.I.) in 2008 and the RRAC in 2013.
Last season, Tiffin's first, the volleyball team won its first conference championship. This year, the women are off to a 7-3 start punctuated by avenging their first round 2015 NAIA Championship Tournament loss to Evangel University with a five-set victory over the then-ranked No. 20 Crusaders. It's a long way from the 3-13 record that marked the Saints' inaugural season, and yet, not so long as to not see the contributions that first group of women instilled in the program's foundations.
This weekend members of former teams will reunite at Our Lady of the Lake University for the annual alumni game. Ten years is a milestone to be proud of, but still too short a time to consider the program much more than a promising work-in-progress. Sarah Ortiz (formerly Sarah Lindsay), a member of the inaugural team, still has direct ties to the current senior class—the former having stayed on the coaching staff for a few years after her graduation and the latter having attended her wedding.
Given the relatively short amount of time that's passed, the story of OLLU's athletics program isn't adequately measured in terms of years or victories, but in miles and memories.
Humble beginnings and a shoestring budget
"Not having a program to talk about or sell was a problem for recruiting. I think every year we grew the program and the players got to come in and make history, which attracted new recruits and make the program even better."
- Mark Lee, first OLLU volleyball coach
Proximity played a key role in shaping the early years of the volleyball team. For a team with no tradition or a recruiting pipeline, and a tight budget, the University's location in San Antonio was an important selling point.
Groups of 30-40 young women showed up to each tryout, looking for a place to play college athletics near home. And though the volleyball team still draws most of its talent from the same region, there's now enough history established to draw from a deeper well of that talent.
"There wasn't a lot of talent or height," Lee said (though the depth of talent has been improved on, height remains an issue the team works around to this day). "We had to choose from a small group of hitters and a large group of short defensive specialists."
What talent the school did draw to those tryouts came from athletes looking to find their way closer to home.
Jessica Hicks (formerly Jessica Ramirez, pictured at left), one of those few outside hitters, transferred from Western New Mexico University (an NCAA Division II school) for her junior season because she was tired of the 15-hour drive to her hometown Laredo, Texas. Hicks led the team in kills that first year with 168 (3.2 per set).
Ortiz says she received interest from Liberty University in Virginia and the University of Texas-Dallas, but chose OLLU because she wanted to be away from her hometown El Paso, Texas, but close enough to reach within a day's drive.
Even Lee who is originally from Santa Clarita, Calif., was drawn to the position because of its location in San Antonio, his father's favorite city. Two years ago, Lee returned to California to be closer to his family.
The trade-off for playing closer to home on a startup program was, well, playing for a startup program.
"We didn't have the equipment they have now," Ortiz said. "In high school, you have nice uniforms, warm ups, new equipment, a big locker room. Then you come to OLLU, and that first year there's not enough balls? It was rough.
"[College volleyball] was new to almost everyone there, including the University. That appealed to me, but it was also very rough with everyone figuring things out as we went along."
From Lee and his coaching staff to Athletic Director Jack Hank, Associate Athletic Director Adrienne Rodriguez, and Sports Information Director Patty Constantin, University staff stepped in to fill the gaps; but what got the volleyball team through the ups-and-downs of that first 3-13 season was the bond developed between teammates.
"It was frustrating taking loss after loss, coming from a place where I won," says Ortiz (pictured at right). "We managed to get through it because we had each other."
To this day, ask the volleyball team what appeals to them about Our Lady of the Lake University, and more often than not the answer will be the small campus with a family atmosphere.
Each August, the volleyball team arrives on campus before the rest of the general student population, bonding over two-a-day practices and empty dorm rooms—playing volleyball in the hallways and other bits of harmless mischief.
These first moments were a crucial hub for the first team to build around for a program starting from scratch. On the first day on the court, Ortiz recalls Lauren Eveler (now Lauren Glover) approaching her to warm up. The first few moments of connection were trivial: same cell phone, same bag, close hometowns. Over the course of their four years together, those small things grew to becoming best of friends.
"The relationships we built were strong," Ortiz said. "We were able to work hard and have fun even though the outcome wasn't always what we wanted or expected. Nobody really knew what to expect, but we always had each other."
"We all got along. We had our different personalities, but we got along," Hicks said. "We were always together, not just having fun, but holding each other accountable to each other."
Family is an important concept to athletes in team sports at every level of play. The only way to get players of different backgrounds, personalities, skill sets and levels of talent to work together toward a common goal is to build trust. For those paying attention, evidence of these traits were visible early on.
"They were distinctive," Sister Ann Petrus, Superior General of the Congregation of Divine Providence, said. Petrus (pictured at left) has been among the Saints' most avid supporters, attending many games throughout the years and teaching a few students as a professor at OLLU. "They had this thing they cared a whole lot about that involved the team, and it created a culture within the school."
On the road
"A lot of the traveling that took place helped us bond. You sit on the bus for hours and hours and get to know each other well. Time together off the court helped us to grow on the court."
- Sarah Ortiz
For a group of women drawn to the same place to be closer to home, the best of times happened when they were away from it. Their first season, the Saints spent at least 5,490 miles on the road together; cramped in a charter bus, watching movies, telling jokes and helping each other with homework.
The best times were the team dinners, talking over everything but volleyball, with an occasional Dance, Dance, Revolution game thrown into the mix or a night of karaoke.
"We were at a tournament in Brownsville one night when we went to a restaurant that had karaoke," Ortiz recalled with a laugh. "Mark Lee got up and sang Fergie's My Humps. That was a great time, for sure."
"The players got to embarrass us coaches," Lee said.
"It was so hilarious, watching him sing all monotone with no facial expressions," Kelsey Johnson, another member of that inaugural class, said. "He was singing a ridiculous song with a serious look on his face."
Leaving the table at dinner was an invite for a practical joke. A team favorite was pouring salt into a teammate's water, or mixing ketchup and mustard into their drink, when they went to the restroom—all eyes glued to the unsuspecting victim in anticipation when she returned to her seat. Johnson would often step up to drink those ghastly concoctions for laughs.
Those memories remain more cherished than the victories, few and far in between as they were that first season. On the court, Johnson (pictured at right) was an undersized middle blocker compensating with long arms and natural athletic ability, off the court her sense of humor was as vital a contribution. Johnson would often climb into the carry-on luggage compartments, scaring teammates as they went for their bags.
"Coach always told me to have a real serious mean look across the net, but I was always the one smiling," Johnson said. "He never knew what to do to get that smile off my face. That's why I was a captain for four years; I took over the role of having the positive attitude to keep our spirits high when we were down."
In between crawling under the seats on the bus, grabbing people's legs, or building pillow and blanket forts on the back of the bus, the team got to know each other.
"Long road trips were the best, having time with your friends, doing homework, talking and playing jokes on each other like we were sisters," Hicks said. "It just made it easy for us to be away from home, doing what we loved."
Those times pulled the team together through hard moments. Hicks remembers a scrimmage against Coastal Bend College that first season, playing through an ankle and shoulder injury, diving into the stands to save an errant ball, putting her body on the line for her teammates. When she had to get shoulder surgery after the season from an old, neglected injury, her teammates rallied around her.
"They were there for me. I remember staying a few nights at Danielle Otero's (now Danielle Gonzalez) house," Hicks said. "Or with Madison [Madrid], whose mom became like my mom when my parents couldn't make it."
"What kept me around was I loved who I played with, I loved the school," Ortiz said, admitting there were times when she let losing affect her. "But knowing this was the first year, and losing sometimes happens, we just stayed with it. I'm the type of person who, when I start something, I don't quit."
The next year, with chemistry established and new recruits picked to complement the core, the team improved to 12-18. By Ortiz's senior season, the Saints went 13-5 overall and 11-3 in the Red River Athletic Conference.
"We were young, didn't have a ton of talent, but the group worked hard and came together," Lee said. "That really set the foundations of the program.
"There's been an evolution over the years, and it's still probably evolving, where there's been an improvement every year until now where OLLU is able to compete at a national level."
This weekend, volleyball will draw them together once more. It will be a time to catch up with old friends, or play one more game on the home court. For staff, current students and fans, it'll be another opportunity to cheer loudly.
"It's the only place I like where I get to go and yell," Petrus said. "I enjoy when my students are athletes, going to their events."
The trick to building a successful sports program is much of it has to do with things other than sports. Over the years, it's been life that's held them together: weddings, births, new jobs.
The team came together, drawn to a place close to home. When they went their separate ways, the miles and memories expanded the concepts of home and family further than anyone could've hoped.
Our Lady of the Lake University is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2016-2017 as a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. The University began competing in the NAIA in men's soccer and volleyball in 2007. A year later, they added women's soccer, golf and tennis. In 2009, the Saints began competing in cross-country, softball and basketball. In 2014, OLLU added two more sports — baseball and track and field. There are now 13 intercollegiate athletic teams at OLLU. All athletic alumni and up to two family members will receive free admission to basketball and volleyball games throughout the season. All other home games are free and open to the public.