(Look for 10th anniversary features on all of our teams throughout the season.)
SPECIAL FEATURE (Sept. 22, 2016) -- The Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU) cross-country program debuted in 2009, two years after the University joined the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), and this year OLLU is celebrating its 10th anniversary.
With the addition of cross-country, basketball and softball in 2009, OLLU also joined the Red River Athletic Conference (RRAC).
Head Coach Stephen Sherman, the program's first and only coach, said: "In some ways it seems like yesterday and in other ways it feels like 20 years ago. I was ridiculously driven and fairly naïve back then, which it turns out were both good qualities to have coming into the situation that existed in 2009."
First-ever NAIA qualifier at OLLU -- Miriam Vazquez
In 2013 and last season, the women's team captured the RRAC title and the men won their first-ever championship in 2015. However, that does not mean the women's and men's programs have not been successful in other seasons.
In 2009, the inaugural team of five women placed fourth out of six teams in the RRAC meet, and Miriam Vazquez (pictured at left and below) finished seventh overall to qualify as an individual in the NAIA National Meet in Vancouver, Wash.
Sherman said of Vazquez in 2009: "Miriam's performance today was outstanding. She has worked hard to get to this point. I could not be more proud of Miriam in the way she has represented herself, our team, and OLLU with her efforts on the course."
Today, Sherman is as driven as he's ever been. "But the naïveté is gone. The support from Jack [Hank/Athletic Director] and most of the administration were there but our resources were lacking. We were very fortunate to land Miriam Vazquez the first year. Certainly not to discredit the four other young women we started with but Miriam brought a certain amount of instant credibility to us, which added more fuel to my vision for what was possible. Miriam was not only the first cross-country athlete to represent OLLU at a national level championship, she was the first athlete period to represent OLLU at a national level championship. That's certainly not a bad way to start, and that's something no one can take from her or our program."
Vazquez, a native of La Feria, Texas, who graduated from OLLU in 2014 with a management degree, had challenges being a part of the first team. "We went very unnoticed when the program started compared to all the other sports that had already established themselves. It was quite a challenge for me knowing that I was the first recruit to have signed and I had some high expectations on my shoulders before the season even started.
"We didn't really have a [full] team in 2009, which made it fairly difficult for me to pace myself at meets or practice. I never gave up and trusted in Coach Sherman all four seasons at OLLU."
Men fields first team in 2010
In 2010, the women's team added several more student-athletes and the men fielded its first team with five members. One of the first to sign on for the men's team was Eric Lucero (pictured at left).
"Being a member of the first men's cross-country team at OLLU was interesting," Lucero said. "Like a lot of start-up programs, the results were not really something to be desired. However, meeting each morning before the sun came up and spending time with the other members of the team, who put in the countless miles for the opportunity to represent the school, was a great experience."
As a U.S. Marine veteran, Lucero attended OLLU using his post 9-11 GI Bill. "It was a blessing to be able to use that to pay for my school. Between covering tuition and allowing a stipend for books, it provided me a monthly tuition allowing me to not have to worry about bills at home; thus allowing me to concentrate on my studies. The GI Bill wasn't something I was concerned with when I joined the military, but I am glad it was there."
Lucero was the first cross-country student-athlete to graduate from OLLU. He majored in public relations and earned a Bachelor of Arts in 2010. He is currently enrolled in the master's program for sociology at OLLU while balancing that with his current job as a Public Affairs Specialist with the U.S. Army at JBSA- Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.
Record-breaking performer - Jonathan Yanez
The program has featured 25 all-conference selectees, 25 top 10 conference finishers, 13 conference runners of the week and two freshmen of the year.
One of those freshmen of the year was Jonathan Yanez, who attended OLLU for two years and made a significant impact on the team. He holds several records:
Overall: 8K – 25:47.7: UIW Invitational in 2014 (XC); 6K – 20:11:70: Alamo City Opener in 2013 (XC); 5K – 15:42.19: UIW Invitational in 2015 (TF); 10K – 32:45.25: Victor Lopez Classic in 2015; Half Marathon – 1:12.21: S.A. Rock-N-Roll in 2014 (shown at right finishing in 14th place)
Conference Meet: 5-Mile: 26:58.1: 2013; 2nd Place In 2013
NAIA Meet: 8K – 26:05.68 in 2013; 91st Place in 2014
Yanez ran for cross-country in 2013 and 2014, and for track and field in 2015, but he did not get recruited by Sherman. "I exhausted my last resort to be able to run at the collegiate level."
The reason was because of his time in the military. Yanez spent eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps and had two tours to Afghanistan before leaving the service.
"I was denied by the NCAA to compete at that level because of my military running experience. I thought I was never going to get a chance to run in college until I reached out to Sherman and asked him if there was a chance that I would be able to compete for the NAIA."
Sherman did some research. "He found out I could run. It was a great experience for me as it almost felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience for considering all that I had been through with running for the Marines and then getting denied by the NCAA."
Yanez, a single father of four, made some huge sacrifices being away from his family. "I wanted to show them that your dreams and goals can be achieved through hard work no matter the circumstances."
Vazquez, shown at left with Sherman at the NAIA nationals in 2009, also keeps in contact with the team. "It's not so much as a choice, but more like it just comes naturally to talk to present and ex-teammates along with my coach. Coach Sherman and I walked into this program together and stuck with it even when times got hard, therefore we created a strong bond. That allows me to stay on top of what is going on with the teams.
"There are times when I am not physically at meets, but I catch myself just simply sending a congrats and words of encouragement to some. I remind them to keep working and pushing hard. It's great keeping up with Jazmine [Garcia] and seeing her accomplishments. We were big, big, big time high school rivals, and now to know we are family of the same college, is great."
Vazquez attended La Feria High School, and Garcia, Zapata High School – both part of the 16-4A in Texas. After finishing at OLLU, Vazquez went to the oilfield to work as a frac hand. She also restores classic vehicles from the ground up and runs a small mechanic paint and body shop on the side, as well as works for a company that sells and repairs appliances.
Lucero said he treasured his time at OLLU. "I enjoyed my time at OLLU because of how close to the community the school felt. An added bonus was being able to run through the neighborhoods during cross-country practices."
"I have felt nothing but honored to have attended such a University," Vazquez explained. "Simply because even though I have graduated, I still feel part of the OLLU family."
Yanez (shown at right with three of his children at the conference meet last year) was the first in his family to attend a four-year college and compete in athletics. He left OLLU last year to be closer to his family, but he does keep in touch with the team and has even attended several meets. "My overall experience was amazing and the OLLU family made that possible." He will earn an associate's degree in process technology from Wharton College in December and hopes to return to OLLU. He currently works at a refinery plant in El Campo, Texas.
Continuing the legacy
The cross-country teams have not only grown on the field, in the classroom the student-athletes have excelled, as well. More than 30 have received conference scholar athlete recognition, three have been named to the NAIA Academic All-District Team and five have received NAIA Scholar Athlete recognition. In 2014, the team earned OLLU's Top GPA Award and was named an NAIA Scholar Team.
Sherman, together with third-year assistant coach Terry Smith, is happy with how the program has grown. "Since the beginning, every year has quite literally been better than the last. I am appreciative to Jack and everyone else who have believed in us at OLLU. Also, I and OLLU as a whole are forever indebted to the runners, both women and men, of the past who believed in the cause and helped build us up to where we are at today."
10th Anniversary celebration
Our Lady of the Lake University will celebrate the 10th anniversary throughout the 2016-2017 season. Throughout the season, all student-athletes who played at OLLU and who graduated will receive free admission to home volleyball and home basketball games – all other home games (soccer, softball and tennis) are free. Alumni attending may bring up to two family members for free admission.