LOS ANGELES – When Lipscomb‘s Brandon Rosenthal recruits a volleyball player, he gives them more than the opportunity to play on the NCAA Division I level. He also gives them the opportunity to be part of a family.
A look around the stands at Allen Arena during a Lipscomb match will usually reveal a cluster of former players representing the 13-year range of Rosenthal’s time at the helm of the program which likes to go by the brand name LUV. Some were stars. Some were reserves. Some were winners. Some were part of the sometimes painful early years. But they still return to provide support.
“I think some of it is the idea they all helped build it,” Rosenthal said. “There is an extreme amount of pride when they leave here. In every four-year period another team has won a championship and that helps.
“When you sign up for Lipscomb volleyball, you sign up to be a part of it for longer than your four years here. We push so hard. It is hard to put in words and hard to understand. You have to live it and go through it. At the end they understand it was all worth it.”
Like any family, Rosenthal and his players have faced good times and bad times. There have been conference titles and trips to the NCAA Tournament like this year’s visit to UCLA for rounds one and two.
There have been marriages and births. But there have also been moments of sadness and defeat. Rosenthal is always there to provide support. Weekly he is usually in contact with a least half a dozen former players through phone calls, letters and emails.
“He was at my grandfather's funeral,” Alex Scruggs Young recalls. “He called me on my wedding day from Brazil because he couldn't make it back in time from their volleyball mission trip, and visited me right after I came home from the hospital with my baby boy.
“Like with the family you grow up with, there will be good and bad times but they are always by your side. Brandon is more than just a coach. He's family and that's why LUV has worked so well. "
Young was Rosenthal’s first recruit. He was up front with her about his vision for the program.
"LUV is a brand that Brandon decided would encompass our family within this program,” Young said. “Brandon specifically recruits great people that just so happen to be great volleyball players as well. I think that is something that makes Lipscomb stand out.
“Brandon promises that if you want to be a part of LUV, it is for life, not just your four or five college years. “
Rosenthal has taken the Lipscomb program from being one of the worst in the country to a perennial top 50 program where seasons of 20 wins or more and trips to the A-Sun Tournament Championship and the NCAA Tournament are expected.
His players know wins and losses are important. Rosenthal can be a tough taskmaster. He wants his players to excel on and off of the court and he is up front with them during the recruiting process about what to expect. But while he expects a great deal from his players in terms of commitment, his players know they can count on him as well.
Stefine “Jake” Pease House is one of the most honored players to be part of the Lipscomb program. She also served in a coaching role with the team and is the head coach of the Lipscomb Academy volleyball program. That commitment from Rosenthal is the foundation of the LUV family.
“The secret behind the LUV program is knowing that Brandon cares about the wins and losses the team goes through but he also cares about us as women more than the volleyball games,” House said. “Brandon cares about who we are before we are a part of the program. He cares about who we are while we play for him, and during that time he cares who we will become and what our lives will be after.
“That is something not all athletes genuinely feel from the head coach. Brandon is as involved in our lives as our parents and it makes each of us want to perform for our new family. Just like you don't want to let down your parents, it is the same feeling for the family you become a part of when you join LUV.”
House agrees with Young that Rosenthal seeks players who are not only solid volleyball players, but have character and depth as well. House calls it a "common volleyball DNA."
“We are hard-working, selfless, caring, tough, gritty, `blue collar’ girls,” House said. “When you have a group of girls that all can understand one another because of their volleyball make-up, there is a common ground to build upon.”
When the Bisons played in the Atlantic Sun Tournament at Allen Arena last month former Lipscomb player and coach Samantha Sullivan Crane made the trip to Nashville along with her husband, Kevin, and their barely three-month-old daughter, Bailey Raelynn. It was a family reunion of the volleyball variety for Crane.
When Rosenthal first approached Crane, he didn’t ask her if she wanted to play volleyball. He wanted to know if she wanted to be part of something that was bigger than her.
“When I was first recruited by Brandon, I was asked to be a part of something special and to be a part of a family,” Crane said. “It did not register to me at first what he meant by being a part of a family.
“Throughout my time at Lipscomb, I quickly learned what family meant to Brandon and to this program. Day in and day out, no matter how tough it was on the court or in the classroom, you knew you were surrounded by your best friends and a coach that truly cared about you.”
Like most families there is sometimes some bickering and disagreements to work out. The atmosphere is not totally harmonious, but solutions were often formulated through those conflicts.
“Brandon and I have had our differences,” Crane said. “But I know, no matter what, Brandon would do anything to be there for myself or any of the other athletes or coaches that have been a part of this program.”
That commitment from Rosenthal is even more impressive when his own family responsibilities are considered. He and his wife, Kate, have two young children, a daughter, Jake, and son, Jack. But whether it is a birth or a death, a wedding or a personal setback, his players know the “family” commitment is not an empty promise.
“Brandon has been faced with tough circumstances as a coach at Lipscomb,” Crane said. “Each time something has happened to one of his athletes or friends, he has been there. I won’t get into details on the personal situations but I can say that I haven’t heard of many other coaches that have done that for their programs and players.
“It means a lot when you have been a part of a program and see a person so dedicated to putting others first when it means the most. I believe that is what attracts players and coaches to play for Lipscomb volleyball and keeps the alumni returning “
Rosenthal always talks about Lipscomb volleyball in terms of being a program and not necessarily a team. Developing a consistently successful program takes time. Rosenthal’s family vision took some time as well.
“The family atmosphere around Lipscomb Volleyball didn’t happen overnight,” Crane said. “It happened through a vision Brandon saw with this program. He took the time to learn about the athletes and recruit players not only for their athletic ability, but for their character.
“He knew that by showing each and every player that deep down inside he truly cared for them, it would create this feeling of safety away from home. Each team that has played for Lipscomb volleyball has been unique in its own way. Year after year, the alumni show up and continue to be a part of this program. That says something about the vision Brandon had when he took over this program.”
Crane uses one of her favorite quotes to illustrate how she views the Lipscomb program - `Family is like branches on a tree. We may grow in different directions, yet our roots remain as one'.
“Every person to pass through Lipscomb volleyball has their own story and their own path,” Crane said. “But in the end, we all support one another.”
Another surprise visitor for the championship match with Kennesaw State was Sophie Kellerman. She has been living in Australia and flew back to her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky to be in a wedding. But when she found out Lipscomb was going for the title she made the trip to Nashville.
“There was never a doubt in my mind that I was going to find a way to watch the girls,” Kellerman said. “I made sure I had the weekend cleared of plans. It was definitely a top priority.“
Kellerman liked the way Rosenthal always allowed his players to make their feelings known, even if he didn’t agree with what they had to say.
“Brandon is very up front with his expectations, but he also encourages us to be up front with ours,” Kellerman said. “Being able to speak up and talk about those things also helps bring everyone together and give every player a voice.
“I think Brandon keeps the team together by making sure we all have the same goals and we are all on the same page from day one. When a team can work towards one single goal versus several different individual goals, the family atmosphere comes naturally.”
Winning is important, but Rosenthal thinks the family approach which even draws in players who didn’t finish their careers at Lipscomb is what the program is ultimately all about.
“Every team uses the word family, but I think it is different for us,” Rosenthal said. “We warn our girls it is going to be more than you expect. I am sure that their high school and club teams used the word family as well.
“But what does it really mean when the dust settles or when times get tough? We work hard to make sure that everyone understands they may have played here 10 years ago but they are always welcome. It is not my program, it is their program. There is always a bond.”