(Look for 10th anniversary features on all of our teams throughout the season.)
SPECIAL FEATURE (Dec. 1, 2016) – In just a little more than seven seasons, the Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU) Saints men's basketball program has risen to a consistent power in the Red River Athletic Conference (RRAC). The basketball program began in 2009, and together with soccer, volleyball, tennis, golf, cross-country, track and field, softball and baseball, the Saints are celebrating their 10th season of their membership in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).
Heading into this season, the Saints are 153-68 all-time, with a 111-33 record in RRAC play. The inaugural class took a share of the 2009-2010 RRAC regular season title with Texas Wesleyan University, and two years later, they won the regular season outright and made the program's first NAIA National Championship Tournament. That team, led by first-ever head coach, Russell Vanlandingham, made it to the NAIA Sweet 16 round. The Saints have since made two return trips (2015 and 2016) to the tournament under Head Coach Ryan Wall highlighted by last year's Elite 8 appearance -- the farthest any team at OLLU has gotten.
The Saints have had six players receive NAIA All-America nods, with Robert Martinez earning the honor twice—first as an Honorable Mention, then on the Second Team. Dionelle Rucker (2009-2010), Marco Cooper (2011-2012) and Daniel Skinner (2014-2015) were named Honorable Mention All-Americans, while Xavier Roberson (2013-2014) (also the first Saint to be selected to the NAIA National All-Star team) and Joe Jackson (2015-2016) (also the first Saint to be selected to the NAIA All-Tournament) were named Second-Team All-American. Twenty-two Saints have been named RRAC Scholar-Athletes (including Melanio Ebendeng, Keonte Logan, Alex Tomic and Ricardo Zanini from the inaugural team) and four players (Martinez, Zanini, Lo'Ron Smith, Eddie Ortiz) have joined the Saints 1,000-Point Club. Other major accomplishments from the inaugural team and those who followed include: NAIA Player of the Week honors to Robert Martinez, Dionelle Rucker and Josh Orta and NAIA record for steals by Marcus Thompson.
"[The athletics program] has grown. I've been here for five years and it's grown each year," Wall said. "It's become a winning program quickly because of all the coaches and recruits who have come through here and gotten things done."
OLLU basketball has never known a losing season. Behind a suffocating pressing defense, the Saints hit the ground running, both figuratively and literally.
|Russell Vanlandingham poses in Mabee Gym before any branding was installed.||Vanlandingham started the tradition of training with boxing champ Jesse James Leija.|
Training camp from hell
Building a basketball program from scratch can be a daunting task. With no history to draw from and little infrastructure established, there isn't much to sell besides opportunity.
Vanlandingham (affectionately known as Coach V) started the program with a blank canvas. One of his first acts was to convert an old upstairs track and outdated weight room in the University Wellness and Activity Center (UWAC) into what is now a student-athlete lounge—painting the blank white walls with the Saints' colors and logo and arranging for the installment of a striking mural featuring Saints' athletes. He also renovated a room into a film room, where players and coaches could go in and review upcoming opponent games and discuss plays from their own games. Throughout the upstairs and locker room, there are posters that he had produced with his favorite mottos that invoke practicing hard and winning attitudes.
|Vanlandingham talks with the team during a timeout in a game against the University of the Incarnate Word. The Saints lost 88-103.|
Though the school's athletic history was limited to nascent soccer and volleyball programs, the history of OLLU—and San Antonio—were deep wells of inspiration from which too draw.
Located on San Antonio's West Side, OLLU has proven as resilient as the neighborhood around it. With the city steeped in a military, blue-collar culture, Vanlandingham sought to create the program in its image.
"Starting a program, I had a bunch of players no one wanted; kids that weren't good enough to earn a scholarship," Vanlandingham said. "I might've been able to recruit more talent, but I wanted to instill a culture. So, I took a bunch of kids I thought were willing to work and build a foundation both on and off the court.
"I didn't know if we'd win a game that first year, but I wanted kids that would represent the school well and who were here to graduate. That's what I cared about, the winning would take care of itself eventually. I wanted kids who'd be here four years and be great ambassadors for the University. One of my greatest accomplishments was having the highest men's GPA on campus, which is really hard to do with first-year programs."
To say that Vanlandingham was an intense coach would be an understatement. In the first weeks of the program, Vanlandingham pushed 30 or so young men through what some would later call the training camp from hell.
The origins of the basketball team began at nearby Woodlawn Lake Park. Vanlandingham had the team run miles full tilt under the scorching Texas sun. Former players weren't sure what burned hotter, Texas in August, or their new coach's demeanor. The Saints were forged in that fire. No flame burned brighter, no steel was more tempered.
"Coach V was very intense," point guard Curtis Bowens Jr., the Saints' first team captain, said. "That preseason, he put us through one of the hardest camps I'd ever been through playing basketball. Throughout preseason, we had some quit, but the ones who stayed with the program and believed in his system, I think it brought us all together."
The first team started with roughly 30 players, including some former NCAA Division I talents. Hours of running until legs turned into Jell-0 whittled that number down to 14, casting off most of its higher level talent.
|Eddie Ortiz was an integral member of the Saints inaugural team.|
"There were plenty of days where we wondered, 'what's wrong with this guy,'" Eddie Ortiz, a freshman on the inaugural team, said. "By the end of our four-week preseason, half the team dropped off. These were [NCAA] Division I players. They were like, 'Hell no, we never did any of this stuff in DI.' That's how ridiculous his workouts were. People said if they didn't do this in DI, they weren't going to do it here."
Ortiz was the first player to challenge Vanlandingham in practice. From what he remembers, it was for not touching a cone during sprints. It ended in a shouting match and Ortiz getting thrown out of practice. Looking back, Ortiz believes the incident was about more than an error on a drill.
"It wasn't always about a mistake," Ortiz said. "I think sometimes it was just to test your character, to see what you were made of."
Ortiz was allowed back in the gym after setting the terms for his own punishment: a seemingly endless number of sprints to be executed in a very short time. But the experience revealed a lot of truths.
"Eddie was special to me for a couple of reasons. I appreciated that moment, that fire," Vanlandingham said. "Now, if he were lazy and uninterested as a teammate, he wouldn't have been around long. But Eddie's yelling back? He's emotional, I'm emotional—he's a winner.
"We didn't have a team of Rudy's," Vanlandingham added, referring to the iconic Notre Dame underdog. "Everyone could play a little, but to be at the level we needed to be with the talent we had, we needed that extra edge."
|Curtis Bowens Jr. was the Saints' first team captain.|
The first recorded NAIA men's basketball game in school history occurred on Nov. 4, 2009. It was a 107-103 overtime win over the University of St. Thomas. Five players scored in double figures, led by Bowens' 16 points and eight assists.
"That overtime win, the way the school rallied behind us, it gave us something to play for," Bowens said. "We felt like we won the championship, but Coach V brought us down to earth by reminding us it was a long season."
In the moment, it may have been hopeful to see the victory as a sign of things to come. In reality, that win was one brief moment to tide the team over through what would prove to be rough times.
Across all sports, OLLU has a history of putting together some of the toughest schedules in the NAIA. The school has no qualms about scheduling early games against nationally ranked opponents, or even taking on schools from traditionally higher levels of basketball.
Vanlandingham wanted his team to get an early firsthand look at the gap it would have to overcome, the work they'd have to do, to compete at the highest levels.
|Robert Martinez was the first player signed to the men's basketball team. He went on to set several OLLU records, as well as tying the NAIA-tournament record of 10 3-pointers.|
"I wanted to show them this was what we were trying to beat," Vanlandingham said. "I wanted them to know every time we went to work, this was the level we needed to play at."
Vanlandingham admits that he was tougher on the first team than any other, but there was a method to the madness. In the preseason, OLLU was picked to finish last in the RRAC, which is understandable for a first-year program.
"He let us know that being a new program wasn't an excuse. We were going to compete," Ortiz said. "He set the precedent from day one that no matter where you came from, what you did before, everyone was going to compete for what they earned."
Vanlandingham says he ignored advice from some of his most trusted peers to bring in talented transfer players. The handful of DI level players he had were from previous connections at Texas State University, but they were quickly weeded out. Everyone else was selected for their demeanor and work ethic more than talent.
The coach had a long term vision and wasn't willing to sacrifice or take short cuts for instant gratification. He wanted culture before talent, so when OLLU began to find better talent, it would have the cachet and voices required to mold that talent.
"To do what I wanted, I needed nine voices instead of just mine," Vanlandingham said. "I needed to know that if I brought in a junior college transfer, we'd have people here who would hold them accountable to the rest of the program. I needed people to tell any new people, 'don't screw this up. We've worked too damn hard.'"
OLLU is an institution rooted in the belief of divine providence. Some from the team would describe Bowens arrival as such.
"Curtis Bowens was, without a doubt, the glue to everything we did that first year," Vanlandingham said. "As hard as I was on them, pushing them—the discipline I was trying to instill in the classroom and how we looked and acted on and off the court—it wasn't easy to do. Curtis really helped me there.
"I had to let my most talented kids go early because they were testing me. If I'd allowed it for the sake of early success, I don't think the program would have developed into what it has become. I didn't have to lose any sleep over Curtis. He just naturally led. I pushed him really, really hard and he just backed what I was trying to sell when he didn't have any reason to be loyal to me."
|Ricardo Zanini recorded 1,023 points while at OLLU. He graduated in 2012.|
There's an idea of the military where drill sergeants break down and unite units by being a figure to rally against. Tough love, so to speak. And through the first weeks of the season, the team bonded off the court, venting about the hell the coaches put them through.
"Just having that mutual struggle brought us together. We were all just trying to make it through the day, we were all in the same boat," Ortiz said. "Thank God we had Curtis, because he had other basketball experience where he understood the process and what it took. He understood what Coach V was trying to do. It really helped us to hear Curtis let everyone know everything was going to be alright."
Bowens arrived as a junior from Weatherford Junior College on the recommendation from one of Vanlandingham's former players, who was coaching Bowens. Vanlandingham admits hesitation bringing him in.
"I didn't really think he was good enough. But he played for a guy who played for me who was the toughest guy I ever coached," Vanlandingham said. "He kept telling me, 'you've got to take my point guard, he's a winner.' Thank God for that relationship, because that kid made me look good in my first year."
Bowens wasn't the most talented player on the team. That distinction probably falls to Robert Martinez or Ricardo Zanini. But he was the glue who held everything together.
"The pressure was definitely on. Coach V put his trust in me and, if you know anything about Coach V, the point guard was the key to his system. I had to be a role model on and off the court," Bowens said. "That preseason was like a boot camp. Players wanted to skip practice, but I knew that we had a plan and that we had to give it all we had."
After their first win, the Saints lost five in a row. Vanlandingham knew it would be a tough start with the schedule he put together, so he needed tough-minded kids who would work through it. Bowens helped keep things together, but the team would still need a rallying point.
|Alex Tomic was the first men's basketball player to be named an NAIA Scholar Athlete.|
On Jan. 30, 2010, the Saints hosted Texas Wesleyan University. The Rams were something of a regional powerhouse, having won the NAIA National Championship in 2006 and RRAC Championships in 2008 and 2009.
The Rams had size, athleticism and an All-American. And the Saints ran them off the court.
"You walked into the gym and see 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-9 players doing 360 dunks and windmills in warm-ups, and we have a team full of short guards doing layups," Ortiz said. "But we were so much better conditioned."
The Saints managed a 36-34 lead at halftime. Their speed was wreaking havoc, dictating the tempo and forcing Texas Wesleyan to adjust to them.
"All season long we were getting killed in practice. Coach was conditioning us like race horses, everything was so tough. He wanted us to work harder than anyone else," Ortiz said. "Then we got into the second half of this game and there's like 14 minutes left and you start seeing them put their hands on their knees during free throws. They were tired and we were like sharks in blood-infested water."
Ricardo Zanini and Robert Martinez both played professionally after leaving OLLU.
The Saints dominated the second half 49-32, winning the game 85-66.
"The way we beat them, the way they got frustrated, that was the turning point," Vanlandingham said.
"We were rated last and Coach V would remind us every day: 'That's how much they think of you,'" Ortiz said. "It became a fire. We were like, 'screw this, we'll show you guys.' By conference, the gloves were off."
Improbably, the Saints went through RRAC play 16-4, finishing 19-11 overall and winning a share of the RRAC regular season title in their first season of existence.
Though the team would go on to greater levels of success in subsequent years, that first season remains the favorite for many involved.
"They weren't really high-level…hell, they weren't even really low-level college players when they arrived," Vanlandingham said. "But they became that. They worked hard and pushed themselves to the that level. That's one of my favorite teams. We worked so hard for every victory. They could've left. Others would have and did. But they kept chipping away, just evolving into a team who believed."
There was no bickering over stats or minutes. Most of the time, if a player could stand more than a five-minute stint, it was a sign they weren't competing hard enough during that time.
"It didn't matter what happened from then on because we went through hell together," Ortiz said. "I knew we all had each other's' back and we were all tough as nails."
"We all came from different backgrounds, but coach made sure we were all on the same page," Bowens said. "There was no favoritism. He let us know whatever we did, we were going to have to earn it. That was something that brought us all together. We looked out for one another. I think that's what made us so successful our first year."
To congratulate the team and to prove to them he meant what he said about how they "were going to have to earn" their success, Vanlandingham spent the rest of the spring and summer arranging for the team to receive OLLU's first-ever championship rings. He received coach of the year honors from the conference - a feat he repeated in 2012.
Many of the inaugural players went on to find success in professional leagues. Ricardo Zanini played in the Brazilian premier professional men's basketball league for Franca B.C., Robert Martinez plays for the Santa Tecla Básquetbol Club of the National Basketball of El Salvador league.
As OLLU celebrates its 10th year with an NAIA program, the basketball program continues to grow. The culture instilled by that first group is evident by more than the banners that hang in Mabee Gymnasium. You can hear it in the sound of squeaking sneakers on the hardwood floors at 6 a.m., or see it in the exhaustion of opponents during the second halves of home games.
Thomas Paine once wrote, "What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. It is dearness only that gives everything its value."
Win or lose, no team worked harder. Years later, those values still resonate throughout the University.
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. Baseball is not included in this special offer. All other home games are free and open to the public.