SPECIAL FEATURE (May 12, 2017) –Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU) tennis coach Sal Castillo came on board in 2008 to begin a men's and women's tennis program, but before that, he was brought in to help begin the Andy Roddick Youth Tennis Program at OLLU. Its aim was to introduce tennis and its lifelong fitness and social empowerment benefits to the youth of San Antonio's West Side. Castillo helped cultivate the program that bore the name of tennis professional Andy Roddick and was produced through the Roddick Youth Tennis Foundation founded by the Roddick family. The program was at OLLU for a few years with OLLU tennis players assisting in weekly tennis instruction.
Before his association with OLLU, Castillo enjoyed an illustrious professional tennis career. Several of his achievements include: a No. ranking in the United States by the USTA in Men's 45 and older singles; a No. 1 ranking in the world by International Tennis Federation; and most recently, he and partner Daniel Waldman captured the men's double over-60 crown representing the USA at the ITF 25th Seniors World Individual Championships in 2015. And, Castillo along with OLLU Athletic Director Jack Hank captured the 60-64 age group tennis championship at the National Senior Games Tennis Tournament in Minneapolis.
|Andy Roddick was on campus Oct. 3, 2007, to kick off the|
Andy Roddick Youth Tennis Proram at OLLU.
In 2008, Castillo didn't have much time to put together a full-fledged recruiting package for tennis, but he was able to gather a core group of male and female college students, some recruited, some walked-on, to begin the inaugural team at OLLU. Castillo loved the beauty of the campus, and used that as a strong selling point to bring players in. "One of the things you have to appreciate about the campus is its history and the first thing you notice is the beauty of the setting. It's a perfect environment for kids to play and also to go to school. You always want to create that warm and friendly home-feeling environment, and we did that the first year."
Castillo added student-athletes from throughout Texas, including Edinburg, La Feria, Kingsville, Harlingen, as well as from San Antonio and his home town of El Paso. A few came from out of state, as well.
One of the first players he added to the roster was Jesse Rojas, who was a graduate of Horizon High School in El Paso.
Rojas said, "One of the main reasons why I came to OLLU was for the opportunity to play for the tennis team. Being one of the first members of the team was a great experience. We had the opportunity to set the bar for future teams to overpass and continue to improve."
That first year was definitely a challenge. Both the men and women went winless, with the men recording a 0-5 record, and the women, 0-6.
Despite the outcome of their first season, inaugural member Ernest Silva II enjoyed his role in OLLU's athletic history. "Being part of the first-ever men's team was nerve-wracking and fun. Nobody knew who we were and didn't have a clue what kind of strategy to use against us and vice-versa. Coach Castillo had to instill his ideas early on about what we could do as a team but he really brought a bunch of guys who didn't know each other together to do our very best. The one thing we were still figuring out at the time was our brand, so everything had different logos."
Silva came to OLLU after graduating from Harlingen High School in Harlingen, Texas.
|Jesse Rojas is one of the first players added to the team.|
In the first season, the Saints played St. Mary's University twice, Texas Lutheran University, Sul Ross State University and the University of the Southwest. Of those five matches, the Saints won two sets against Sul Ross.
Castillo lamented that it was not about winning those first few years. His team members were here to go to school and to graduate, and he was proud of that. "My graduation rate has been phenomenal, and that is what I tell players who come here. First and foremost, you are going to come to OLLU to graduate.
"We had a lot of challenges, but my goals were to teach them some fundamentals on the court and hopefully they could take those lessons and apply them off the court, as well. I wanted to make sure that they were very respectful but also I wanted them to know that they should be enjoying themselves. Yes, it was important to be competitive, but not to where you cross the point where it does not continue to be fun for them. I rarely lost my temper with the team the first year; the only times I did was when I saw that they were not trying their best. That holds true to today."
|Ernest Silva hailed from Harlingen, Texas.|
Silva was very competitive on the court, but he was also very serious about his academics, earning high honors throughout his time at OLLU. "What I liked most about coming to OLLU was the support system and how understanding the university was for student development. There was a rich understanding that the students came first whether for the blessings we received before matches, professors giving us extra time outside the classroom, or demonstrations of how important the culture of being a Saint was with the parades and acknowledgements. I honestly chose OLLU because when I showed up to view the campus before my first year, it felt like the kind of place I could call home."
Joining the team in 2009 was Kudakwashe Sengai. "I knew coming to the team that it would be a growing team, and there was a lot of effort to be made for us to be recognized as one of the good teams in the NAIA. We worked hard, and above all, we were more of a family." Sengai hailed from Mutare, Zimbabwe.
The Saints fared better the second year with the addition of Sengai and the men finished out the season with a 5-13 record. The following year, they logged their first winning season with eight wins and six losses.
Throughout the first few years, Rojas, Silva and Sengai all have fond memories.
Sengai explained, "Being at OLLU, was a great experience as I met new friends, professors and OLLU staff who paved the way for me to become the man I am now. I joined the Providence Retreat Program that made me grow spiritually, and I saw myself graduating on the right path.
"Some of the good moments I can think of are the times that we traveled as a team. I remember when my team went to California to play the best teams, top 10 in the nation. Even though we were the underdogs, our team showed great team spirit, and we won good matches. That trip gave us our first-ever national ranking."
|Kudakwashe Sengai hailed from Zimbabwe to play for and attend OLLU.|
Castillo said, "Kuda was a special case because he came from Zimbabwe. He struggled in many ways, and he overcame a lot of adversity to come to the United States and do what he has done. He is one of a kind."
"Playing for Coach Sal was a much different experience than playing for my high school coach," Rojas said. "Coach Sal taught us how to win with the skills that we brought to the court. He showed us strategies that we had never been exposed to before and he showed us how to adapt to our opponents."
"Jesse is very near and dear to my heart because I knew his background, and it was a joy having him on the team."
Castillo said there were just a few players from the early years whom he felt were not quality players; the great majority were exceptional. "The first thing I look for, whether it was in 2008 or now, is attitude and character and then, 'can you play ball?'; Of course you want them to be able to play and to be competitive."
Due to low interest, the university discontinued its women's tennis program in 2015. That gave Castillo the opportunity to expand his men's recruiting program to add athletes from Australia, Brazil, Columbia, Haiti, Spain, Venezuela and throughout the United States.
Through the years, the Saints have improved and have seen much success, especially in the last two seasons when they captured the Red River Athletic Conference (RRAC) Championship title and moved on to the nationals. In 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 the team made it to the RRAC/NAIA regional semifinals. In 2014, the Saints fell in the quarterfinals, and in 2015, they were the runners up in the regional event. Last year, and this past April, the team overwhelmingly won the RRAC championship, and they will be heading out to their second consecutive trip to nationals later in May.
"We've come a long way from that first year when my team played a match at UTSA and all six of my players lost all of their matches – not one won a single match," Castillo chuckled. "The good thing about that is that it's never happened again. Nevertheless, that first group was outstanding."
Sengai still keeps in touch with many of his first teammates, especially Matt Ellis, Tanis Martinez, Zahry Edmond and Luis Rovira. He resides in San Antonio and teaches tennis in Boerne, Texas. He started his own tennis business and works with Rovira at the Boerne Tennis Center and offers clinics, tournaments, league and private lessons to players of all levels and ages. He also runs programs for the Spring Branch Tennis Association as its Director of Tennis. He received his BBA in December 2013.
|Ernest Silva II also started the first-ever Saints bowling team at OLLU.|
Silva feels it is important to keep in touch with former players, as well. "It's great to be able to offer any advice on the tough times that come from being a collegiate athlete to the younger generations coming through. It's also a great feeling seeing all the legacies come through and cheer them on as they break barriers you only wished of before."
"Ernest was very competitive – he won some very close matches. He was a great representation of our team, whether it was competing or in the classroom, he gave 100 percent."
Silva works as an injury adjuster for USAA, and he is the Chief Marketing Officer for Sentry Six Defense Group. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Management in 2012 and his MBA in Finance in 2014. He will become the first student-athlete to earn a doctoral degree from OLLU, when he finishes his program in Organizational Leadership with an emphasis in Sports Management. Silva also started the first-ever collegiate bowling team at OLLU. "I have stayed at OLLU for all degrees entering my ninth year here. I still play tennis and bowl competitively. I married my college sweetheart, Callie Silva, and we celebrated our one-year anniversary in September." Callie received her bachelor's and master's degrees in psychology at OLLU and is now an in-home counselor with Crystal Counseling."
Rojas, whose cousin Cornelio Gutierrez (SO/El Paso, Texas) joined the team this season, is very proud of the team winning back-to-back championships. "It shows how much the team has improved throughout the years." Rojas graduated from OLLU in May 2012 with a degree in math and also earned high academic honors. He too married his college sweetheart and former Saints Dance Team Captain Alyssa Parga, who received her degree at OLLU in early childhood education in 2013.
Through all the ups and downs of the Saints tennis team in the early years, the players have worked hard to persevere and reach their goals. Every year, new student-athletes are added to the team, each contributing to maintaining a high-level of success on the court and in the classroom. Tennis athletes at OLLU have consistently excelled in the classroom and the majority have graduated to become leaders in their community and profession. They also return to their alma mater to cheer on their successors – something greatly appreciated by Coach Castillo, the team and the university.