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SPORTS: University of Oklahoma

Master Builder: OU Volleyball Coach Building Program From Ground Up, Part 1

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Restrepo has turned the Sooners into a solid program, making four straight trips to the NCAA Tournament. (Photo courtesy of SoonerSports.com) Restrepo has turned the Sooners into a solid program, making four straight trips to the NCAA Tournament. (Photo courtesy of SoonerSports.com)
NORMAN, Oklahoma -

The University of Oklahoma is known in the athletics world for its historic football program with occasional notoriety coming from gymnastics, softball, baseball and its basketball programs. Meanwhile, Oklahoma has never been known for volleyball, but six trips to the NCAA tournament in seven years—two of which resulted in Sweet 16 runs—have gone a long way toward changing that.

That success can be attributed to Sooners coach, Santiago Restrepo. Now in his 10th season in Norman, Restrepo has brought the Sooners up from the dregs of the Big 12 to a consistent top-30 program.

This season, the Sooners are 14-4, one of the best starts in program history, and Restrepo won his 300th game as a head coach Sept. 14 against Middle Tennessee State. With the NCAA Volleyball Final Four coming to Oklahoma City next year, Restrepo has his program emerging as a national player at the right time.

***

On a mid-September afternoon, the Sooners begin practice by singing "Happy Birthday" to freshmen Abbie Higgins, Madison Ward and Lauren English, as well as congratulating senior Sallie McLaurin for being named Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week for the third consecutive week. It's the first time this has happened in Big 12 history.

The Sooners are beginning their last week of nonconference play, and it's a busy one: a Tuesday night road tilt at Tulsa followed by a tournament at home Thursday through Saturday with Miami, LIU-Brooklyn and Nebraska-Omaha.

After Restrepo finishes giving announcements, the team pairs up and forms a circle and begins warm-ups by… playing tag.

For the next 10 minutes, the group of Division I athletes more closely resembles a bunch of elementary school children playing at recess. As the laughter and yelling reverberate around McCasland Field House—the Sooners home arena and one of the oldest buildings on campus—Restrepo stands to the side and laughs with them. At one point, sophomore setter Julia Doyle stops chasing the person she's trying to catch. "It's supposed to be a warm-up," Restrepo yells. Doyle responds with a cheeky, "If she's not running, I'm not running." Restrepo laughs and the game continues for a little while longer.

Restrepo was born to play and coach volleyball. As a young boy in Bogota, Colombia, Restrepo was raised on the sport thanks to four older brothers. Restrepo recalls his oldest brother, Javier, would hit balls to him and his other three brothers, forcing them to dig and dig and dig. Restrepo eventually began playing organized volleyball when he grew older. His father put a premium on education in the Restrepo household Santiago recalled, requiring all his sons to make good grades before going off to train in the evenings.

"I was training with the high school team from 2-5p.m. and the Bogota team from 6-9 p.m.," Restrepo said in his office on a recent September morning. "I think the teachers were really, really nice to me. They passed me because I had no idea when I studied. Either that or I was very smart. I think it was the first one."

An ex-girlfriend led Restrepo to California where he learned English at Santa Fe Springs High School. Restrepo was offered scholarships to USC, UCLA and Pepperdine, but because of money restraints, those schools divided their scholarships amongst 12-15 players, effectively giving each player a third of a scholarship. Restrepo's family couldn't afford to pay the other two-thirds of the scholarship, so he ended up at East Strousburg University in Pennsylvania for four years, graduating in 1986.

After several years playing professionally, Restrepo returned to his alma mater to become the head coach. After three years, he moved on to Saint Louis to be an assistant under legendary coach Marilyn Nolen. In 2001, he took over as head coach at Southern Mississippi.

Kelly Files has been with Restrepo as an assistant coach his entire time at Oklahoma, and was a player and assistant for him at Southern Mississippi as well. As part of the search committee that brought Restrepo to Hattiesburg, Miss., Files said she was all for him the moment she saw him and his abundant supply of energy and passion.

"The coach before us did a really good job recruiting; he got athletes to go to school there," Files said. "When Santiago came in, we were ready for someone to take us to the next level. There was a little bit of a transition because for a while we were taking it easy. We needed a kick in the butt, really, and he did it. After that set in a little bit, it was go, and the team just responded."

In 2004, Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione placed a phone call to Restrepo, asking him if he was interested in taking the head coaching position at Oklahoma. Restrepo had led Southern Mississippi to program-best 27-6 record in 2003, his third year with the program. The opportunity to coach in the Big 12, one of the best conferences in college volleyball was too good to pass up, even though the most Restrepo knew about Oklahoma was where the state was on a map.

"When I got here, I was blown away by the school, the architecture, the surroundings, the support," Restrepo recalled. "Everything was pretty neat, the facilities as well. When I came here, I looked at this facility (McCasland Fieldhouse) and was told it was an only volleyball facility and I was like, ‘What?'"

An athletics department staff member would later tell Restrepo that the school looked at several candidates, but all of them identified reasons that kept them from taking the job. For one, McCasland Fieldhouse didn't have air conditioning and was in need of some hefty renovations to the locker rooms and coaches offices, as well as cosmetic needs to make the building more appealing to the eye. On top of those issues, the pay was the lowest in the Big 12 conference. Yet, where other coaches saw problems, Restrepo saw nothing but opportunity.

"I was telling everyone here I loved everything I saw," Restrepo said. "I was telling the truth. It wasn't like making it up because I wanted this job so I was going to tell everyone that this was the best thing I have seen in my life. I wasn't blowing smoke in everyone's ear."

He jumped at the chance when Castiglione called to formally offer him the job.

"I said I'll take it," Restrepo said. "He says, ‘Wait a minute. Wouldn't you want to talk to your wife first? You just talk to your wife and give me a call.' I called my wife and I knew she was going to say yes because I had already asked her what if they offer me the job. She said I had to take it. I called her and within 30 seconds, I called back Joe. I told him I want to take it. He asked, ‘Have you already talked with your wife?' I said, ‘Yes I did.'"

Fast forward back to September and it's clear Restrepo's enthusiasm and positive outlook has only increased.

After the team finishes their "warm-up" the team stretches while Restrepo and Files discuss how practice is going to go that day. Restrepo says the team often warms up by playing some sort of game, including soccer, dodgeball and basketball.

"Kelly doesn't like it when we play soccer or basketball because she's afraid they'll (the players) get hurt," Restrepo says.

Files shoots him an incredulous look. "Like they can't get hurt playing dodgeball?" she asks rhetorically.

The team transitions to 4-on-4 drills with Restrepo serving. He's still in a joking mood, laughing at some of the player's mistakes while not saying a lot in terms of instruction. At one point, freshman Jody Larson hollers out, "Point!" Restrepo responds with, "You have to be on the winning side to get a point."

After the drill has concluded, Restrepo gives the team 10 seconds to gather all the balls, his countdown booming in the arena as the girls scatter in every direction. Balls have found their way into every corner of the building, including in between rows of folded up bleachers.

The balls scattered across the gym would be the perfect illustration for what Restrepo found when he arrived at Oklahoma. It was a situation similar to what he encountered at Southern Mississippi. The players were very athletic, but there was no confidence, no winning attitude and absolutely nothing that resembled a volleyball culture at the university.

"It felt like in the state of Oklahoma, volleyball was never really one of the most important sports," former player Joanna Schmitt said. "I think that (not) having a good program was probably part of that. It was a little more relaxed before he got to OU. It was a little bit less structured and I think that showed in some of the performance areas."

Restrepo's inaugural season, the Sooners went 12-17, the program's best record since 1997. The next year, OU dropped down to 7-22, but Restrepo was pleased the Sooners were much better statistically than the year before, despite not winning as many games. Those two seasons were simply setting up the Sooners' turnaround in 2006, when OU went 28-6, had two players garner All-American honors and advanced to the Sweet 16 for the second time in program history.

Schmitt was the leader of that 2006 team, garnering All-American honors for her performance.

"Honestly, no," Schmitt said when asked if she thought her team was capable of reaching the Sweet 16 after three bad seasons to start her career. "I knew we had a good team and had good players and knew that Santi was going to do everything he could to get us there, but it just seemed so far off. With the right players and the right coach, anything is possible. I think my team in my years at OU kind of proved that."

Rebuilding projects are never quick endeavors and Restrepo and his staff knew that going in.

"We understood it was going to take a little bit of time for them to develop and for them to realize they were good," Restrepo said. "A little bit to develop the confidence, to be confident in what their abilities were. In that third year, we made the biggest turnaround in school history, again. I knew we were on a very good track."

The impact of the 2006 run to the Sweet 16 continues to be felt throughout the program, which has now gone to four straight NCAA tournaments. Even those players who have left the program can see the impact NCAA tournament berths have on the growth of the program and its national perception.

"Now, he's getting some great recruits in, top-notch girls," former setter Brianne Barker said. " I think the culture he's brought about is—and I heard this from multiple players who played against us—just toughness. No matter what, if you lose a point, it doesn't affect you. He's just bringing in great recruits and he keeps teaching to not let one point affect the rest of your game."

For part two of the story, click here.

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