SAN ANTONIO (Oct. 28, 2018) – Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU) women's basketball celebrates its 10th anniversary this year – a decade filled with success beyond the highest expectations. In the Saints inaugural season in 2009, they finished with a 12-8 Red River Athletic Conference (RRAC) record, earning their first of nine trips to the conference tournament. The following two seasons, the Saints logged conference regular season records of 34-12, plus a postseason title that took them to their first of seven trips to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Championship Tournament.
Then the Christopher Minner reign began.
Minner, who was part of the inaugural team as an assistant, was promoted to the head-coaching job in the 2012-2013 season. Under his regime, the Saints have finished five of six seasons as regular season champions; last year, they had a little bit of a hiccup, ending as runners-up to the season and the tournament.
This year's expectations are nothing less than capturing a regular season title, a conference postseason title and a national title.
Minner commented, "It's been great the last 10 years. At the beginning, we had trouble getting the most talented players, but after the success we've had, recruiting has gotten easier. We don't have to settle. We have been able to be more picky with who we recruit, which gives us the opportunity to sign the most talented athletes out there."
As they do every year, the Saints play one of the toughest schedules in the NAIA. According to Minner, this is what makes them so effective.
"Our preseason will definitely challenge us. The preseason rankings came out this week and we are 15th, which is about right. A lot of that (being ranked) is because of our tradition of what we have done in the past. We are always trying to win a national championship."
In the 2018-2019 NAIA DI Women's Basketball Coaches' Top 25 Preseason Poll, the Saints improved to 15 after finishing out last year ranked No. 16. They lost in the opening round of nationals to Loyola University 89-86 in double overtime.
The Saints have made the Top 25 Poll every year since Minner took over the team. Their highest ranking was No. 1 in the 2015-2016 season. All together, they have earned top five rankings 10 times, top 10 rankings (6th-10th) 12 times, top 15 (10th-15th) rankings 19 times and top 25 (16th-25th) rankings 26 times. Since 2012, they have never not been ranked.
This preseason, the Saints will face current Top 25-ranked Wayland Baptist (6th), Carroll (7th), Montana-Western (9th), Oklahoma City (10th), Menlo (16th), LSU-Shreveport (18th) and Rocky Mountain (24th). They will also face Dillard, who received votes.
Dominating the conference has been the norm for the Saints throughout the decade, but one team that causes the most strife for the Saints is LSU-Shreveport – currently ranked No. 18. Against the Pilots, the Saints are 13-11 – last season, the Saints lost both regular season games by three points each and the postseason championship game against the Pilots.
"They had a better team last year, but it's good that we have a lot of teams challenging us; we don't want to steamroll through everybody. It used to be Langston, then Wiley and now it's Shreveport, who's taken over as our rivals. They should be good again. But it's always about us and what we can do, especially since we get everyone's best shot, and we expect that."
Minner indicated that Huston-Tillotson University (22-1) should be a lot better this year. Other conference opponents and OLLU's record against them include Jarvis Christian College (17-2), LSU-Alexandria (8-0), Paul Quinn College (15-1), Texas College (16-2), University of St. Thomas (14-0), University of the Southwest (17-1) and Wiley College (15-5).
Statistics-wise, the Saints rank among the best in the NAIA. At the conclusion of last year, they were first in scoring offense/game (87.79), second in turnover margin (9.697), third in total scoring offense (2,900), fourth in total steals (418) and scoring margin (18.182), sixth in steals/game (12.667), eighth in field goal percentage (.448), ninth in 3-point field goal percentage (.363) and 10th in 3-point field goals made per game (7.939).
In the conference, OLLU ranked first in scoring offense/game, scoring margin, field goal percentage offense, 3-point field goal percentage offense, steals, assist/turnover ratio; second in assists, turnover margin, 3-point field goals made/game; third in free throw percentage, total rebound offense, blocks/game; fourth in field goal percentage defense, assists/game; and fifth in scoring defense/game.
The Saints lose NAIA All-American First-Team Quintianna LeShore, plus all-conference standouts Julia Rendon and Francesca Patrick. LeShore, who ran the Saints' offense for two seasons, will be especially missed; however, Minner has confidence in the new players he added this year.
"Patience (Okpe) and Samantha (Atkinson-Roach) will take over running the offense; they are two junior college transfers – one from Panola College and the other from Coastal Bend. The only difference is that they are both right-handed, so it'll be the first time [under me] that we will have a right-handed point guard. That will be a little bit of an adjustment for us. But they are really good and were highly recruited, so we're lucky to have them."
Other newcomers include: freshmen Mikayla Capone (FR/Houston, Texas), Dezeree White (FR/Houston, Texas), Alexis Casillas (FR/Santa Ana, Calif.) and Alexis White (FR/Houston, Texas); sophomores Zerina Shatri (SO/Prishtine, Kosovo), Nileyah Vaughn (SO/Allen, Texas) (redshirt last year); juniors Charisma Shepherd (JR/Cibolo, Texas), Patience Okpe (JR/Benue, Nigeria), Samantha Atkinson-Roach (JR/Houston, Texas), Jamia Miller (JR/Odessa, Texas), Jayme Slay (JR/Vallejo, Calif.) and Anabelle Tovar (JR/San Antonio, Texas); and senior Mikki Flores (SR/San Antonio, Texas).
A particular standout according to Minner is Casillas. "Alexis is a six-foot forward out of Santa Ana, Calif. She can post-up, shoot the three, rebound and she's an inside and outside threat. It's going to be exciting to see her.
"We have Dezeree White, who is going to step in and immediately make an impact. We also have Mikki Flores, who played at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi and then went to Mid-America Christian, where she was a first-team all-conference in the Sooner. She transferred to OLLU last spring and sat out, but she will be eligible this year. She's a local kid, who can really shoot."
Someone else Minner is expecting to succeed is Alexis White, who joined the Saints last year, but before the season started, she suffered an injury and was out all year. "She's coming back from an Achilles injury, and she's slowly getting better. I expect her to do very well by the spring."
Minner also cited Zerina Shatri, who came last year, but had to sit out. "She's really stepped up after being here a year. She was only able to practice with the team. I'm excited about having her on the court this year."
Returners include juniors Alexis Oaks (JR/College Station, Texas), Kasey Saldana (JR/San Antonio, Texas) and Lena Wilson (JR/Converse, Texas) and seniors Brianna Henson (SR/Dunlap, Ill.), Irma Jean Ealy (SR/San Diego, Calif.), Regina Sheffield (SR/Menifee, Calif.) and Destinee King (SR/Antelope, Calif.).
"With juniors Kasey and Lena being here for their third year, they really are the leaders; they understand what I am asking for and they understand the presses and the offense. That's the thing about this year – we are not a team that is senior-dominated. All of the returners will contribute."
Minner has high expectations from King this year. "She averaged a double-double last season. She's in better shape this year, and she knows what to expect. She's going to be really good for us this year."
Overview of schedule
The Saints begin their season in Laredo, Texas, against NCAA D2 Texas A&M International University. They hope to continue their 4-1 series lead against the Dustdevils on Nov. 2.
On Nov. 10, they will play their first home game of the season against NAIA Xavier University of Louisiana – the Gold Nuggets hold the 3-2 lead in the series.
OLLU will head out to Oklahoma City next for two games against Wayland Baptist University (3-3 series) on Nov. 16 and Oklahoma City University (OLLU-2/OCU-4) on Nov. 17. The Flying Queens from Wayland were NAIA National Tournament semifinalists in 2018. The Stars were the 2017 National Champions, and last year, they ended their season in the first round.
The Saints will host a tournament Nov. 23-24 with Dillard University (OLLU-2/DU-1), Oklahoma City University and Edward Waters College (first matchup). The weekend will begin with a game between Dillard and Oklahoma City on Nov. 23 at 2 p.m., and at 4 p.m., the Saints will play Edward Waters. On Saturday, Edward Waters will play Oklahoma City at 2 p.m., and the Saints will close out the tournament with a game against Dillard at 3 p.m. Dillard was an NAIA National Tournament first-round participant.
After a matchup against NCAA D2 Lubbock Christian University (OLLU-0/LCU-2) on Dec. 1, the Saints will begin their RRAC schedule against Paul Quinn College (OLLU-15/PQC-1) in Dallas on Dec. 6 and Texas College (OLLU-16/TC-2) in Tyler on Dec. 8.
The Saints return home for two conference games on Dec. 13 against the University of St. Thomas (OLLU-14/UST-0) and on Dec. 15 against Huston-Tillotson University (OLLU-22/HTU-1).
OLLU will travel to Arizona for the Frontier Challenge Tournament at Chandler-Gilbert College Dec. 19-21. The Saints will first face University of Montana-Western (first matchup) on Dec. 19 at 4 p.m. On Dec. 20, the Saints will play Rocky Mountain College (first matchup) at 6 p.m., and the following day, they will face Carroll College (first matchup) at 2 p.m. Montana-Western made it to the semifinals at the 2018 NAIA National Tournament, while Rocky Mountain was a first-round participant. Carroll was a second-round participant in the national tournament.
The Saints will close out the year with two games in Atherton, Calif., against Valley City State University (first matchup) on Dec. 29 and Menlo College (first matchup) on Dec. 30. Menlo made it to the quarterfinals of last year's NAIA National Tournament.
On Jan. 3, the Saints will have their first of a two-game conference series against LSUA (OLLU-8/LSUA-0) and on Jan. 5 against LSUS (OLLU-13/LSUS- 11). LSUS was a first-round NAIA National Tournament participant.
They will hit the road for their next three conference games from Jan. 12-19 against USW (OLLU-17/USW-1), WC (OLLU-15/WC-5) and JCC (OLLU-17/JCC-2). PQC and TC will come to OLLU on Jan. 24 and 26 to begin their second round of conference games. The Saints will travel to Houston for a game against the UST on Jan. 31. OLLU will continue on to HTU on Feb. 2 in Austin, Texas, LSUA on Feb. 7 in Alexandria, La., and LSUS on Feb. 19 in Shreveport, La.
The Saints will end their regular season with three consecutive home games. On Feb. 16, they will host USW, on Feb. 21, Wiley and on Feb. 23, Jarvis. During this last home game, the university will honor returning seniors Brianna Henson, Mikki Flores, Irma Jean Ealy, Regina Sheffield and Destinee King.
The RRAC tournament will take place at LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas, March 7-9, with Wiley College hosting. Six teams will qualify for the tournament, with first rounds played between the third and sixth seeds and the fourth and fifth seeds. The semifinals match will be next with the winners of the first round against the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. On the last day of the tournament, the championship match will be held.
The Saints have captured the tournament title twice - in 2012 and 2016. The RRAC champion receives an automatic bid to the NAIA National Championship Tournament. The tournament will begin March 13 and conclude on March 19 in Billings, Mont. The Saints will vie for their eighth trip to nationals. They first qualified in 2012 and have made trips to the tournament every year since – four ending in the first round and three in the round of 16.
The Saints welcome back Assistant Coach Stacy Stephens for her second year. Stephens played for the University of Texas Longhorns from 2000-2004 and in early October, was inducted into the University of Texas Athletics Women's Hall of Honor. She had an illustrious career with the Longhorns that earned her two Associated Press second team All-American awards, and she went on to play for the WNBA. After her playing career was over, she held several coaching positions, most recently with NCAA D1 Sam Houston State University.
"I've had fantastic assistants. The word on the streets is that you come be my assistant and after two years, you get a head-coaching job. Coach (Valerie) Huizar went on to coach at LSU-Shreveport and is now at Louisiana Lafayette as a DI assistant. Katie Novak is at Sul Ross State as head coach, and Stacy Stephens will be a head coach soon. I've also had Coach Kari Wallace, who has been one of the best high school coaches in Texas for 25 years. I surround myself with good coaches because I don't know everything so they help out and they're terrific as role models for my players. I want my players to be coaches; that's why every grad assistant I've had have been former players. I think it's hypocritical for me as a women's basketball coach to coach a female athlete and not give them opportunities to coach and to be leaders. I want people who want to be CEOs and leaders, not people who want to be mediocre. I'm real lucky to have the players I've had in the last seven years. I'm not the easiest person to play for; our system demands selflessness because it is a pressing system, and I don't exactly sugarcoat things. I'm lucky that I never have to worry about any of the players."
Minner has also added former OLLU standout Nakia Page to his coaching staff. Page played for the Saints in the 2015-2016, 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 seasons. While on the squad, she earned NAIA Champions of Character honors, as well as All Conference in 2015-2016. She is second all-time in blocks with 54 and second best in a season in free-throw percentage (.822). Page is a native of Bakersfield, Calif.
In closing, Minner talked about some of his superstitions he's accumulated throughout the years, including having a never-ending supply of Tic-Tacs.
"I figured if I'm going to be yelling at my players, I might as well have good breath when I'm doing it. That's kind of why I started that. Then we went on a big winning streak, so I had to keep it going. But they have to be orange Tic-Tacs (I switched the flavor, and we lost). I also have to have a red Gatorade – it used to be Coke, but I have to watch my health, plus four bottles of water. I also have the same dry-erase board I've had for 24 years. And, I may eat chicken McNuggets for every home pre-game meal. I have a lot more, but I can't reveal them because then my opponents will try to do something to mess me up."
Minner encourages the community and fans to come out to the games or watch his team on the Saints live stream broadcast. "You'll see high-level women's basketball. South of the University of Texas, we are probably the best women's collegiate basketball team. We don't play a slow-down style, we play up-tempo, and we score 85-90 points a game. Our players are likeable, and they'll never be out of control. Plus I'm exciting to watch – they tell me. You'll discover new ways to stomp your feet and throw air punches!"
Minner also said that if groups come to the games (10 or more per group), he will buy them wings or pizza [writer's note – contact Coach Minner directly for this.]
The Saints welcome back Rudy Rubio as the "Voice of the Saints." Michael Thompson, the livestreaming "Voice of the Saints," will return to call all home games that will broadcast on the OLLU Saints Network. A new charge will be assessed for livestreaming. Women's basketball will have 12 home games, plus two neutral games. Fans can purchase just the games that OLLU will play for a discounted price of $80. If viewers would like to add the neutral games, the price would be $96. If the desire to purchase just the tournament games (Nov. 23-24), the price is $25 - a $6.80 discount. For men's basketball, if purchasing each of the nine games separately, the price would be $71.55. The OLLU Season Pass package will be available for $56.
A basketball bundle can be purchased for men and women's home games including the tournament games for $142 ($10 discount). A basketball bundle not including the neutral games of the tournament will be available for $126 ($10 discount).
Admission charge for basketball is as follows: Adults, $5; children, 7-17, $3; younger than 7, free; OLLU faculty, staff and students with proper ID receive free admission.
Follow the Saints on social media using #OLLUHoops.