SPECIAL FEATURE (March 1, 2017) – Success in athletics for Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU) was never guaranteed, but from the start, hard work was always going to be a given.
It is from that ethos and humble origins that the Saints have risen to some national recognition within the NAIA in such a short time, and few groups of student-athletes have personified that climb more than the first group to reach a national tournament from the men's golf team.
|Aaron Flores is shown with his family and Coach Moore during his signing day.|
Aaron Flores was the first Saint to make a NAIA National Tournament appearance, reaching that level individually as a freshman in 2010, and with the team following with trips in each year from 2011-2013.
By the 2010-2011 season, the golf team was comfortably in the NAIA Men's Golf Coaches' Top 25 Poll, climbing into the top 10—reaching as high as No. 7—in the senior season for the first full recruited class.
Golf is often considered an elitist sport, with expensive green fees and remote courses far removed from OLLU's west side campus location. Startup programs at small universities operate with shoestring budgets. Yet, those first golf teams didn't thrive in spite of these disadvantages, they thrived because of them.
Eric Moore, OLLU's original head golf coach, came across the job by chance. He'd moved to San Antonio when his wife found a job. He had a master's degree with hopes of getting into coaching, but of the programs he knew of, none had vacancies.
"To be honest with you, I'd never heard of Our Lady of the Lake University until I saw a billboard for soccer on one of my trips to San Antonio," Moore said. "I decided to research what sports they had and it just so happened that they were starting golf."
|Arnie Martinez was part of the inaugural team and now is the Saints' assistant coach.|
With an athletic program in its infancy, OLLU provided Moore with precious few resources in the way of scholarship money or time to construct a team. Where he chose to allocate those resources—through his own decision-making and, truth be told, by luck—made all the difference.
The first official golf year, which took place during the 2008-2009 season, was something of a soft open, starting without even enough players to field a full team for an event. But among that group was Arnie Martinez, who transferred to OLLU after a semester at St. Mary's University, having already played two seasons of golf at Schreiner University.
With no program history or coaching experience to draw from, having an upperclassman with two years of golf was a crucial resource for Moore.
"He was pretty vital," Moore said of Martinez. "He knew golf, so it wasn't a big learning curve. He knew what we were supposed to do and what we asked of him. A lot of guys have a hard time coming from high school to college.
"You go from being the best player at your school or in your area, to all of a sudden being surrounded by people who were the same. Your work ethic has to be different, you have to improve all the time."
Martinez, who is now the assistant golf coach at OLLU, described some of the obstacles the school faced early.
"It took time for everyone getting used to representing the school. It was their first year," Martinez said. "It being a startup program, you don't have as many resources or equipment. There's always a barrier, with golf being such a technological sport, for being a small program and working your way up."
Fortunately, Martinez had experience with this, going back to some family connections that would prove useful to OLLU. His cousin, Aaron Flores, would join him a year later, providing strong foundations for the program.
Aaron Flores played
Flores is the most decorated individual athlete in OLLU's brief history, earning NAIA All-America Team honors in each of his four seasons; named to the second team in his first two seasons, honorable mention in his third and to the first team as a senior. To this day, he is the only male to receive first-team All-American honors.
Read through the record books and from career tournament wins (six) to career scoring average (70.15), his name is atop most of the school's rankings.
But growing up within walking distance of OLLU, practically in its shadow, he was overlooked as a prospect coming out of Holy Cross High School. Flores says he was offered spots at DI schools, but not much, if anything, in the way of scholarship money.
"He should've been recruited to a NCAA Division I school. I have no idea why they didn't recruit him harder," Moore said. "I didn't think I had a chance to get him, but without him, I wouldn't have been able to go get some of the other players that I did."
Flores attributes some of the light recruiting to circumstances, noting that most NCAA Division schools recruit from the American Junior Golf Association, something his family simply couldn't afford at the time.
"It was too expensive. I was making due with what I had, knowing the talent that I had," Flores said. "But it was a blessing in disguise, to be honest with you.
"For me, coming from where I come from, the sport of golf doesn't really…it's not gifted upon the community I was raised in. It's a rich person's sport. But for me, the game is more than that. It's a representation of who I am, and there's nothing better than representing a school that's five minutes away from my house, holding the values I grew up with. It was God's calling, saying, 'this is where you need to be.'"
In a way, it's where he'd always been. Flores' father, Andrew Flores, got his master's degree from OLLU, working three or four jobs, taking Aaron with him to classes. The small classes and one-on-one time with professors were familiar and welcoming.
|Larry Lopez came to OLLU from El Paso, Texas.|
Andrew would go on to coach his son and Martinez at Holy Cross High School. Absent access to golf pros and training sessions, the family kept a black binder full of magazine clippings and tutorials; references to go back to in order to tweak a swing here or there.
Even if Flores didn't attract attention from colleges as something of a self-made golfer, he was noticed by opponents at state competitions. That's how Larry Lopez, a member of the Red River Athletic Conference (RRAC) All-Conference Team in 2010-2011 and two-time RRAC Scholar-Athlete from 2012-2014, joined the team.
"We played against each other, him at Holy Cross, me from El Paso," Lopez said. "I was going to go to St. Mary's University, but chose Our Lady of the Lake University to play with Aaron."
A different type of golf
The most common memory shared between each of the golfers interviewed was just how loose and relaxed they were relative to the competition.
"I remember our first tournament, the other teams were so serious and we were just kind of laughing on the range," Lopez said. "We were having a good time. We didn't have an ego."Lopez attributed this to similar backgrounds from a group that also included Adam Palacios, Jacob Torres and Ruben Vidales, finding golf in areas not associated with the sport.
The group bonded over trips to the Boot Ranch golf course, getting time on its pristine greens at least once a month. There, they worked on their swings and team chemistry. Martinez remembers a time when Lopez was going through a slump.
"We joked he should try swinging left-handed," Martinez said. "Maybe he'd do better."
Lopez didn't transform into a switch-hitter on the course, but just goofing around that day helped change his mind set in a game where, even the slightest deviation can lead to a ball veering woefully off course.
To this day, Lopez and Martinez remain the best of friends, stemming from days when Martinez opened up his home to a teammate who was in a new city, far from his own.
"We were, everyone, just teammates always looking out for each other," Lopez said.
|In 2013, the Saints finished seventh in the NAIA Championships, and Aaron Flores received the inaugural Big Blue Top Saint Award from Athletic Director Jack Hank.|
For Moore, finding athletes who were self-reliant was key for a program that would require its athletes to grow beyond its early limitations. Each student-athlete held the others accountable, with Flores and Martinez, Lopez noted, demanding more.
"We knew we had to rally around [Flores]," Lopez said.
For several of the first golfers at OLLU, this was a sport they were not expected to find, finding success at a university whose first coach first found out about the golf program by coming across a soccer billboard.
In a way, the confluence of circumstances that brought the team together make perfect sense and yet, remain highly unlikely. It was, as Flores stated, where they needed to be.
Moore stayed with the Saints through the 2012-2013 season and then moved on to be the head coach at NCAA DII West Texas A&M University. He and former OLLU golfer John Mulholland, assistant coach, have led a highly successful program in Canyon, Texas. Mulholland is the only Saint to hit a hole in one -- and he did it in the 2012 NAIA National Tournament.
Alan E. Baxter joined the Saints as head coach in the 2013-2014 season. In his first year, the team finished fifth in conference; however, the last two seasons, the Saints have captured the conference title, and Baxter has earned coach of the year each of those seasons, but winning the conference title did not come with a berth to the national tournament. Last year, after a lull of three years, the Saints were once again ranked in the NAIA Men's Golf Coaches' Top 25 Poll -- as No. 25. This season, the team earned the No. 16 spot in the poll released Nov. 4. The next poll is scheduled for March 10.
Academically, the golf team has soared under Baxter, earning NAIA Scholar Team recognition for the last two seasons (cumulative 3.0 GPA and above as a team).Christopher Schriedel became the first golfer to be named a Daktronics-NAIA Scholar Athlete (3.5 GPA and above), and nine of 13 golfers under Baxter have earned Red River Athletic Conference Scholar Athlete recognition.
The current team led by captain Christopher Schriedel (SR/Helotes, Texas), seniors Jeremy Gordon (SR/San Antonio, Texas), Omar Ramirez (SR/Fort Stockton, Texas) and Merrick Ramos (SR/Helotes, Texas); juniors Stevan Hinojosa (JR/Mission, Texas), Rafael Jauregui (JR/Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico) and Jon Ybarra (JR/Mission, Texas); and newcomers Alan Crosswell-Karam (FR/Mexico City, Mexico), Gerardo Daniel (FR/San Antonio, Texas), Jonah Guajardo (FR/San Antonio, Texas), David Ray Jr. (FR/San Antonio, Texas), Taylor Kucia (SO/McAllen, Texas) and Kane Ybarra (FR/San Antonio, Texas), are dedicated to returning to nationals and becoming one of the top NAIA teams, once again.
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.