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Master Builder: OU Volleyball Coach Building Program From Ground Up, Part 2

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NORMAN, Oklahoma -

Oklahoma volleyball coach Santiago Restrepo has taken the Sooners from cellar dwellers in the Big 12 conference to a national player during his 10 years in Norman. There's a lot more to Restrepo than just a coachin who enjoys rebuilding projects.

For the story of how Restrepo got into coaching and how he came to Oklahoma, check out part one here.

THE MAN

Growing up in Colombia shaped Restrepo into the man and coach he is today. The boisterous and dramatic culture shines through in his personality and habits, while the family-oriented nature of the Colombian people is seen very clearly in the program as a whole. Conflict has no place in Restrepo's program and the conflict that does work its way into the many relationships amongst team members is quickly dealt with.

"I like and enjoy confrontation, because if you don't have confrontation, you are not going to be able to deal with the problems that are presented on the court," Restrepo explained. "I want players to be able to recognize a bad moment or a good moment and (that) there are going to be confrontations. How are you going to handle them, how are you going to get ahead?"

Restrepo doesn't rule his team with an iron fist. In fact, he very much values the input of his players and gives them every opportunity to voice their concerns or even vent their displeasure with him or something that happened on the court.

"Before every game, after every game, before every practice, he goes around and he says your name and you have a chance to get out whatever you want to get out," Barker said. "That was one of the things that was so special to me that no matter what, I always had the opportunity of speaking or saying something. Not that you had to take it, but there was always that option."

Players both former and current know how much Restrepo cares for them. Current team member Grace Whitley's story illustrates that as much as anything.

Last season, Whitley, a middle blocker, felt soreness in her shoulder during a match against Texas Tech, an uncommon thing for her. She shook off the feeling, but in a match at West Virginia, she looked down at her right arm and saw it was completely blue. After multiple doctor visits, Whitley was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, which prevents her from getting the necessary blood flow into her right arm. She had the choice of redshirting and having surgery but the surgery isn't always successful.

"The doctor said, ‘Would you rather hold your kids or play volleyball for two years?'" Whitley said. "I was like, oh it's that serious. I want to hold my kids so I chose to (stop playing). Actually, it was kind of chosen for me.

"It was awful. It felt like a death."

Normally, in the best case scenario the coach would keep the player on scholarship; the worst-case scenario would be the coach jettisoning the player in order to free up a roster spot. Restrepo didn't do either or those things. Instead, he's kept Whitley involved with the team. At practice, Whitley is tossing balls to Restrepo, keeping things organized and encouraging her teammates throughout the whole two hours.

"They're just trying to get me involved like learning the computer system so I can do stats," Whitley said. "They ask my opinion about things. I'm kind of taking on a coach role but I still feel like a player. I feel like I'm injured and I'll be back at any time, but I know I'm not going to be."

Whitley says she appreciates Restrepo and the rest of the coaching staff's efforts, knowing it's not something they're required to do.

"They've got big hearts; they're awesome," Whitley said simply. "It's hard for everyone. I know there are times they wonder, ‘What are we going to do with Grace?' Every match we figure something else out I can do or other ways I can contribute."

COACHING STYLE

After the players gather together once again, it's time to go to work. The team cycles through their rotations, fine tuning things discovered from the past weekend's tournament at Missouri State. Restrepo is still in a good mood, but the jokes are over. The team doesn't touch the ball twice before Restrepo's whistle—he doesn't use a regular whistle because he doesn't need one—stops play. "We're going to replay that," Restrepo says.

Freshman Lauren English gets caught out of position and can't make a good set off the pass from Kaitlyn Drawe. "The minute you see the ball going to the setter, you have to release," Restrepo says, calm in his instruction.

Senior Eden Williams, tasked with filling the enormous shoes of OU's all-time digs leader Maria Fernanda, dashes several feet out of bounds and makes an impressive cross-court set to Keila Rodriguez. Restrepo isn't shy about handing out praise where praise is due. "Nice set, Eden," he bellows.

Later, the 12 players on the court are locked in a furious rally, full of tough digs and powerful kill attempts. Finally, volunteer assistant coach Orlando Catalan blasts his kill attempt out of bounds to end the rally. "Good job, Orlando," Restrepo responds. "Way to ruin the rally." Catalan shrugs and feigns being hurt emotionally as Restrepo laughs.

During practices, Restrepo tends to be extremely technical, focused on the fundamentals and the intricacies that separate the good teams from the best teams.

"In practices, you see a different Santi than you see in games," Barker said. "He's really aggressive, getting after you and he's pushing you and making you better. In games, he's very positive. He still pushes and he's still pretty aggressive and exciting, but he's super positive in games."

Williams gets caught out of position and can't make the dig. "Eden, what happened?" Restrepo asks. Williams begins to explain, but it's obviously not the answer Restrepo was looking for. "You were moving to your left," he says, cutting her off midsentence. "You have to stay put."

Then there are the games. To say Restrepo gets excited during games would be a gross understatement. Restrepo may stay calm, collected and positive in the huddle, but when the ball is in play, he can become quite excitable. Wild gesticulations, dramatic movements and the occasional clipboard abuse are just a few of the things you might see from Restrepo during a game.

"Whenever Santi gets excited, it lights up the whole gym," middle blocker Sallie McLaurin said. "It's always funny that when he gets mad, he'll always kick the ball. During a match, any other coach will just pick it up and toss it, but he kicks it and I love it when he does that."

Restrepo is always standing during games; he never sits. He says that's just part of his excitement.

"Sometimes I feel like I am playing, or want to play," Restrepo explains. "I have told many people that the minute college volleyball decides to change the rule as far as coaches need to be sitting down, I think I'm going to quit."

At this, Files bursts out laughing. "That will probably be in the near future because of Santiago," she jokes.

Williams and Doyle nearly collide going for a dig, each stopping just short of the other as the ball deflects off them and falls to the floor. Restrepo lowers his gaze to the ground, the first time all practice he's given any indication of visible frustration. "That shouldn't happen, guys," he says at a level of quiet disappointment rather than frustration.

Later, redshirt freshman Madison Ward blasts a kill out of bounds and spins around, clearly frustrated. Restrepo walks over to her and quietly shows that at the angle she attacked with, she'd never keep the ball inbounds with how hard she hit it. Ward nods and immediately corrects the mistake, slamming down a kill on the next rally.

Restrepo's coaching style, like any coaching style, is a conglomerate of ideas and tricks learned from his experiences with other coaches. Restrepo says he's pieced together things from every coach he has had, from his coach in Colombia to his college coach, to the coach he worked under at Saint Louis.

"I think you grow in this game looking at tidbits and pieces of different people and what they've done," Restrepo said. "A lot of things that I have learned throughout the years have been from different coaches and checking different things. I'm talking to different coaches about things they do best and things they don't do best. I incorporate what I think works best with my personality and what I think is best for the team."

One of the coaches Restrepo learned a lot from was Mollie Kavanaugh, the head coach of the Asics Tigers club team in California. Restrepo's coach in Colombia—"the hardest sonofaB you would ever see," as Restrepo described him—was extremely tough on his male players and they responded to that.

"Now I see Mollie, an older coach, with females, and it was the same," Restrepo said. "Both sides could handle it without problem. She was extremely tough in the aspect she was very demanding every second, every minute of every single player. Those two combined with their passion they had for the sport, that's what I wanted."

DEATH OF A SON

Restrepo's world was rocked in 2006 when his youngest son, Javier, was diagnosed with leukemia when he wasn't yet two years old. Javi battled the disease for three years, even going into remission for some time. Sadly, the young boy passed away on July 31, 2009, just a week before preseason workouts began.

Even today, Restrepo and his family are still dealing with the pain and grief.

"It's been extremely tough." Restrepo's voice trails off as tears well up in his eyes. Seeing Restrepo unable to continue, Files takes over.

"I think one thing is that it's a daily battle," Files said. "Every day, it's there. You never get over it; it's how you live your life every day because it's impossible."

Files went on to describe a moment just a week and a half before when Restrepo had been overcome with emotion thinking of his son. He had told the team what he was feeling, just as he had done many times before in the years since Javi's death.

"We had the conversation of whether or not it was the right thing to do and I said of course it is," Files said. "It's best for the team to know what's going on in (his) head. I think that's something he's done really well is communicating to them—whether good or bad—what's going on so they understand he may be having a bad morning or having a hard time with it right now."

That vulnerability has had a strong impact on his team, particularly those who were on the team when Javi died and grieved alongside Restrepo and his family.

"The thing with him is that I saw unfathomable amounts of strength," said Suzy Boulavsky, one of the players who went through Javi's death with Restrepo. "He just sat there and cried in front of us and it didn't matter. I think in a time of weakness he showed an unimaginable amount of strength.

"From a different country, he has all these elements that speak intimidation, and seeing somebody like that not even care to show the vulnerability, it's respect. It makes you think, ‘What am I crying about? What am I upset about?'"

Restrepo wipes his eyes with a Klennex and powers on, recalling a story from the day of Javi's burial. The cook from the daycare where Restrepo's sons went approached him and expressed his condolences, telling Restrepo he had lost two children before walking away. When Restrepo retold the story to his players a week and a half ago, he had a message for them.

"It struck me because I told my players, always understand someone is always at some point worse than you," Restrepo said through the tears. "I didn't want to say this for them to feel pity for me. I don't want that. But understand that in life, somebody is worse (off) than you."

Javi's death changed Restrepo, both personally and in his coaching style. A tough, intimidating man became more soft and personable. Relationships flourished.

"He started to be a little more understanding," Barker said. "I think that's when I saw the Santi that coached me for the next three years; somebody that was very passionate about what he did, but he knew what to say at the right time.

"I think I started to get a relationship with him, an actual friendship with him," Barker continued. "We just got more on a personal level with him. I think that was important to our success when we were older, to have that relationship with him, especially for me knowing what he wanted at what time, what we both thought was the right choice, the right decision."

***

The work Restrepo has done in Norman over the past decade has been impressive to say the least. Before he arrived at Oklahoma, the Sooners were nothing more than an afterthought in the volleyball world. Today, the Sooners are competing for championships and continuing to build the program into a national power.

Restrepo laughs when asked if Oklahoma is a destination job.

"I've been here so many years," Restrepo said after a long pause. "I don't know any other place unless someone comes knocking on my door offering me $1 million, which no volleyball (program) is offering that. I could see me staying here forever. I enjoy it; I like it. I like the administration; I like what the school stands for. They're family-oriented people and I like everything about it."

Before the players close practice with more stretching, Restrepo once again gives the players 10 seconds to gather the balls. As Ward hurries back from the other end of the gym with an armful of balls, Restrepo punts a ball over her head, back where she came from. The whole team lets out a groan while Restrepo just chuckles.

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