SAN ANTONIO (Oct. 23, 2017) –The women's basketball team at Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU) is unquestionably the most successful team in Saints' history. Since competition began in 2009, the women have qualified for the Red River Athletic Conference (RRAC) every year; the first year reaching the semifinals, and the second, the quarterfinals. In 2012, the fourth-seed Saints shocked the conference with a 76-73 win over LSU-Shreveport in the tournament finals to advance to their first national appearance.
Five conference titles/six national tournament appearances
In the team's fourth season, Christopher Minner was promoted to head coach of the Saints, and in the subsequent five years through 2017, the team has captured the regular season title. Four of those years, the Saints were tournament runners-up, and in 2016, they won their second tournament title.
With five regular season titles, two tournament trophies and six trips to the NAIA National Tournament, Minner described why his team has been so dominant:
"A lot of it is because of our preseason. We play the best teams in the country, so when our conference [schedule] rolls around, we are ready. Last year, we started out 3-5 but we were still ranked. It takes courage to play [those teams], and I really think it's a benefit because it makes us better. Plus we have very, very high expectations in our program and recruiting-wise, we are very selective on who we recruit."
Dominant in the NAIA
The Saints are not only the most prosperous team at OLLU, they are one of the NAIA's top teams in statistics. At the conclusion of the 2016-2017 season, they ranked first in steals and turnovers, in the top five in scoring offense, in the top 10 in offensive rebounds and total rebounds, in the top 15 in 3-pointers and scoring margin, and among the leaders in assist/turnover ratio, assists, blocks and field goal percentage. Averaging all statistics together, OLLU is fourth among 95 total NAIA teams.
"We are a little bit bigger in size, so I think we'll be a bit more balanced," Minner replied on whether his team can keep up their dominance. "This year we have the depth and size, and we will have our guards returning, but it will depend on how many turnovers we force."
The Saints lost NAIA All-American Alyssa Ward, who was third in the nation in steals last season, but Minner is confident one of his newcomers will be able to step into her shoes. "Regina Sheffield (JR/Menitee, Calif.) is built kind of like Alyssa and plays defense kind of like Alyssa. Also Fancy [Francesca Patrick (SR/Killeen, Texas)] will do well, but we also have a lot of weapons inside that will get us some steals as well. Lena Wilson (SO/Converse, Texas) has improved in the off-season as well, so we will fill that void."
According to Minner, there are two conference teams that he will keep an eye on who might give the Saints some serious competition. "I haven't seen them play yet, but I think Langston is going to have some good size, so we'll have to play up-tempo, and their coach is in her second year, so she will be better prepared. Shreveport is a mystery because they got a new coach and they have very talented players. Also Wiley has a new coach, so I am not sure how they will be. Huston-Tillotson is always tough."
The conference's preseason poll has OLLU picked first with 99 points and nine first-place votes, distantly followed by LSU-Shreveport, with one first-place vote and 76 points (2017 conference finish - 15-3), Wiley College with 73 points (13-5), Huston-Tillotson University with 66 points (11-6), Langston University with 64 points (8-9), University of St. Thomas with 51 points (9-9), LSU-Alexandria with 45 points (8-10), Texas College with 30 points (3-15) and Jarvis Christian College (4-14) and the University of the Southwest (1-17) with 23 points each.
Four-year senior returners
A lot of the team's success will depend upon the Saints returners, including three four-year players Julia Rendon (SR/San Antonio, Texas), Francesca Patrick and Whitney Sandmann (SR/Bentonville, Ark.).
Minner said that All-Conference First-Team recipient Julia Rendon "is very important. She's kind of a quiet leader, doesn't say too much, but they follow her example. When she does say something, it means a lot. She's very consistent. I think she'll be better this year, because we got more shooting help, more inside scoring. Last year, [opponents] started to key on her, but she still did a good job of getting her shot."
Rendon has had an amazing career at OLLU so far. She is the career leader in free-throw percentage (.791), third best in 3-point field goals made (217) and in 3-point percentage (.399) and fourth in assists (211). In a season, she is the leader in 3-point field goals (106), third best in 3-point field goal percentage (.412) and fifth best in free-throw percentage. In a game, Rendon scored the second most points (32) and the most 3s with 10.
Francesca Patrick, who received her bachelor's degree and is currently in her second year of graduate school, is playing her fourth season, as well. "Fancy had a really good year last year. She really emerged. She came out of not playing a whole lot to getting a lot of time on the court. She is very solid and confident." Patrick is tops in academics for the Saints. She earned Daktronics-NAIA Scholar Athlete honors in 2017 and RRAC Scholar Athlete honors in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Patrick is second best in a season in free-throw percentage (.791) and had the fourth most free throws made in a game (12).
Also returning for her fourth season is Whitney Sandmann. Minner said, "She's one of those players who can play inside and out. She can hit 3s, she can post up, she was our best post scorer."
Nakia Page (SR/Bakersfield, Calif.) was expected to make a huge impact on the team last season, but had to sit out due to a serious injury. "She is way ahead of schedule," Minner said. "Really a huge loss for us last year, so she's really motivated to play. She's a tremendous weapon we have both inside and out."
Sophomore returners include Annie Lenoir (SO/Brady, Texas), Kasey Saldana (SO/San Antonio, Texas) and Lena Wilson. "Lena has improved a lot," Minner said. "Their sophomore years will see a lot of improvement, because they are now used to the demands, the physicality and the long practices. Kasey has improved her shot, and Annie is a shooter, but they all have to find their way onto the court because we have a lot of juniors and seniors."
Minner also has a junior varsity team that will help the younger players develop, so he expects great things from his fledgling players.
Minner cites his "culture of excellence" among his squad. "We have higher expectations than most other teams, and I am lucky that my players buy into that."
Second-year seniors on the team are All-Conference Honorable Mention and All-Tournament First Team recipient Quintianna LeShore (SR/Indianapolis, Ind.) and Rachel Baity (SR/San Jose, Calif.), who made the record books with her rebounding and blocks.
Minner said LeShore did an excellent job last year as point guard adjusting to the Saints' system. "We really expect big things out of her; she's leader on the floor and is tough to guard. I expect her to be all-conference, maybe player of the year."
On Baity, "Rachel is solid, a really good rebounder, solid defensively, and she plays hard. Our seniors this year are very experienced, and they are good to coach. I don't have to worry about their behavior or drama."
The junior newcomers on the team include Jade Barber (JR/Chicago, Ill.), Tichina Coleman (JR/Dallas, Texas), Irma Jean Ealy (JR/San Diego, Calif.), Brianna Henson (JR/Dunlap, Ill.), Destinee King (JR/Antelope, Calif.), Regina Sheffield and Jayme Slay (JR/Vallejo, Calif.). "I'm not sure if a lot of them will travel and play; we have a very competitive team, with solid newcomers. Brianna should have a good year, and Destinee is going to be an excellent player for us. Regina is going to be a good guard for us. We've had some injuries already, but most of our newcomers are adapting to the speed of our game.
"Sophomore Alexis Oaks (SO/College Station, Texas) is going to be really good for us, she's a really fast guard."
New Assistant Coach Stacy Stephens
Perhaps the biggest news for the Saints over early fall was the addition of Assistant Coach Stacy Stephens. 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.
"She's been in charge of individuals, our posts. [With her here] we are going to be better rebounding and in the post simply because of what she brings. She's played at the highest levels, she knows what a standard of excellence is because she's been part of winning programs. I've known her for nine years. Lots of people applied for the position [after two-year Assistant Coach Katie Peebles moved to become the head coach at Sul Ross State University]. She's here because she wants to be a part of a winning program. The girls are excited to have her here. They are all getting used to her seriousness. Her knowledge base and experience – how can you match that?"
Returning coaching staff
Kari Wallace will return helping coach during games, and Brandon Postell is here most of the time. "It's good to have coaches with different personalities; Postell is more one-on-one with the women, and Wallace, being a high school coach, she's more nurturing, sort of a mother-figure, and she's great during games. I definitely don't want to clone myself; I want different perspectives on everything because it helps our players learn and [having a variety of coaches] motivates them in different ways."
New Graduate Assistant Nikki Davis
Minner has also added former OLLU standout Nikkia Davis to his coaching staff. In her two seasons at OLLU, she was named to the All-Conference, All-Tournament team and NAIA All-American teams, and she was a conference scholar athlete. Davis is the career assists leader with 381, season leader in assists with 212, in assists average with 6.24 and in steals with 109. In two seasons at OLLU, Davis played in all 68 games.
"I always like to bring players back, like Courtney Bayliss, and I know Nikkia wants to be a coach. If I can help Nikkia, who was one of the best players in the history of our program, one of the hardest workers and one of the best people, to get her to where she wants to go in her career, I think that is part of my job. Because then you have 'why did you go to Our Lady of the Lake,' 'well, I went there and won, I went there and got an education, and also, the basketball program and the coaches stayed in my life to try to help me become a good alumni,' and that really resonated with me. So if Nikkia wants to be a coach, and if I can help her become a coach, and if she does become a coach, then I've succeeded in helping her in her life."
Overview of schedule
The Saints, which are ranked 15th in the NAIA, will begin their season with two games scheduled during OLLU's Homecoming Weekend – Nov. 2-5. To kick off the four days of festivities on campus, the Saints will play on Nov. 2 against NCAA D2 Texas A&M International University – a team the women has defeated three of four times and a team that Minner coached prior to coming to OLLU in 2009. On Saturday, Nov. 4, the Saints will return to the court to host Southwestern Assemblies of God University.
"TAMIU is a whole new team, the coach last year got rid of everyone, so they will be a whole new look. SAGU has a new coach – second year. They used to be in our conference but are now in our rival conference Sooner. But they are solid. I expect those two games to be very competitive."
The women will head out for a game in Plainview, Texas, against Sooner Athletic Conference's Wayland Baptist University - the 15th ranked team in the NAIA - on Nov. 13, and then travel to Kansas City, Mo., for the Baker Classic from Nov. 17-18. The Saints will play Benedictine College - the No. 13th ranked team in the NAIA - and Baker University - the eighth ranked team in the NAIA.
They will return to host an NAIA three-day, three-team tournament. First, the Saints will play Culver-Stockton College on Nov. 22, and two days later, the Saints will host the reigning NAIA Champions Oklahoma City University on Nov. 25 at 1 p.m. Oklahoma City, the fifth ranked team in the NAIA, and Culver-Stockton will play a neutral game at OLLU on Nov. 24.
"Playing these types of teams challenges us because if you play teams that aren't that good and you beat them, then you might develop bad habits and you get a false sense of how good you are. So in that way, if we don't win, and we've played the best teams in the country, then we'll know how far we are from being in the top 10. And we'll have a really good feeling and really good experience on what it takes to being in the top 10. Secondly, if we beat them, then we need to be nationally ranked. Last year, we were 3-5 [in the preseason] and ranked 21st because people had respect for our schedule."
After a trip to New Orleans for games against Dillard University and Xavier University of Louisiana Dec. 1-2, the Saints will begin their conference schedule against the University of St. Thomas in Houston on Dec. 7.
The Saints will play a pair of nonconference games in Montana Dec. 29-30 against the University of Great Falls and Montana State University – Northern, which is ranked 11th in the NAIA.
On Jan. 4, they will return to their conference schedule with a home game against Langston University. The Saints will continue vying for their sixth conference title through the end of February. No other RRAC team is ranked in the NAIA; however, LSU-Shreveport received 48 votes. On Feb. 17, the Saints will play their last home game of the season.
Minner said, "Our conference needs to be better. Other conferences have five teams ranked nationally. One of the things that hurt us is when we were ranked No. 1 in the nation, we blew everyone out in our conference by 15-20 points. That hurt us going into the national tournament because we had not been challenged. Now, some of the teams in our conference are getting better, but I can't rely on that. I want to play the best teams every night, so that way we know when we get to the national tournament, we've played the best teams. We may not have beaten them, but we know what we need to do to beat them. It's a formula that's worked for us. We have a reputation that we will play anybody, anywhere at any time. Winning a national championship is our goal."
The RRAC tournament will return to LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas, March 1-3, with Wiley College hosting. Last year, the event took place at Alexandria, La., with LSU-Alexandria hosting, and prior to that, in 2016 and 2015, the event was at LeTourneau. 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 RRAC champion receives an automatic bid to the NAIA National Championship Tournament. The tournament will begin Nov. 14 and conclude on Nov. 20 in Billings, Mont.
Last season, the Saints surpassed 200 (201-60) wins in eight seasons, and Minner's record in five seasons is 138-28. "I still enjoy coaching. I love basketball. Winning just means I have good players. I mean, I haven't played a game in six years, haven't scored a basket in six years, but obviously I have good players that buy into the system and want to win. I enjoy it because the players I have are non-dramatic, they're very serious, they want to win, they're good people, I don't have to worry about them on the road, I don't have to worry about them fighting. They are here for two reasons – to go to school and to play basketball. Obviously the ultimate goal for any coach at any level is to win a national championship. That takes a lot of luck, staying healthy, getting in the right bracket."
Strong fan base in-game and live-stream
Minner encourages the community to come out to the games or watch his team on the Saints live stream broadcast. "We have a pretty consistent fan base, because we have consistently won. Livestreaming for us is huge, because most of my players are not from Texas – a lot are from out of state, overseas. So their parents are able to watch, plus other coaches like to watch us. People like the way we play, it's fast-paced. I think we are the best women's basketball team south of UT, no one's disputed me on that, and no one will play me to prove me wrong. So if you want to see high-level basketball, watch us."
The Saints are welcoming a brand-new in-game "Voice of the Saints," after the departure of long-time announcer Jay Tope last season. Coming in this year is Karl Shoening, sports broadcaster with iHeartMedia and Texas State University. Shoening is the co-founder of SHN | sports, which focuses on the three big sports at the high school and collegiate level - football, baseball and basketball. He will announce all home soccer, volleyball, basketball, softball and baseball games.
Michael Thompson, the livestreaming "Voice of the Saints," will return to call all home games that will broadcast on the OLLU Saints Network.
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.