Take Flight is more than a slogan for Golden Eagle athletics at Laramie County Community College. It's an embodiment of what's taking place across campus for these student-athletes: the ability to ascend to new heights, overcome challenges, and soar ahead.
This past season, the LCCC women's volleyball and soccer teams made it to their respective National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) tournaments. They are the only two teams to accomplish this at LCCC since athletics was reinstated in 2002. While this was not the first time the women's soccer team soared to such heights, this was a breakthrough year for volleyball, finishing with a 34-8 record—the best ever for an LCCC volleyball team—and winning the Region IX tournament for the first time.
"The great thing about this year's team is that we were just too young and dumb to be scared of anything," Austin Albers, fourth-year head volleyball coach, said. "We had seven freshman on the floor...what we had out there were kids that didn't know any better, so we were just fearless."
On the other hand, Jim Gardner's program built on past success to find their way back to the national tournament for the ninth time in his 16 seasons as head coach of LCCC women's soccer.
"You start to see players that want to come here because they want to play at a higher-level program," Gardner said. "This year's team was a phenomenal group, as students and athletes. I never had to worry about them working hard."
When Albers took the reins of volleyball in 2014, he turned things around quickly,
taking over a losing program and leading the Golden Eagles to four straight 25-win
"First thing we had to do was change our culture: change the type of students that we recruited and change the idea of what LCCC volleyball was going to be about," Albers said. "Setting those big unrealistic goals early, and then not really wavering."
The soccer team made fast work in building a program that became synonymous with winning. In 2005, Gardner's third season, his team made its first national appearance and took third place. The success continued with eight more NJCAA tournament appearances including the past three years. They've created an expectation of making it to the big tournament and continue to seek that elusive championship game appearance. On three separate occasions, they've missed that opportunity by just one win.
In Gardner's second season at LCCC, his team lost to the defending national champs Dixie State College in a shootout. In that moment, he realized how close he was to having a team ready to break through to the next level. The following season, they beat Dixie State and made it to the national tournament.
"That directly had to do with who we played," Gardner said. "We had beaten the best team in the country."
Both coaches credit playing top-tier competition as crucial to building successful programs. Whether they win or lose, the teams learn and grow from those matchups. The 2016 volleyball season had one of those learning moments from a heartbreaking loss in the Region IX championship game against Northwest College, falling just three points shy of making the national tournament. Coach Albers said he used that defeat to motivate the 2017 squad.
"We made a video of us losing that game and they were assigned to watch it once a week all off-season," he shared.
And the method worked.
"Even though it was really annoying to watch that clip over and over again, it really motivated me to work harder," Kyra Brandt, graduating sophomore and team setter, said. "[Coach Albers] is hard on you, but for a good reason. He knows what you are capable of, even if you think you're not capable of this. He'll push you until you get there."
The coaching styles of Albers and Gardner certainly have their differences, but the core of what they do is quite similar. Both talked about bringing in players that have great work ethic and character, not just raw talent. This includes the efforts outside their sports: when it comes to their GPAs, women's soccer has a 3.2 and volleyball has a 3.11. They instill a family-like atmosphere that creates expectations of helping each other and holding one another accountable.
Expectations and accountability don't come without discipline, which Gardner takes an interesting approach to when it comes to minor offenses like being late to practice or not following instructions.
"I've taken the discipline away from me and we leave it to chance and use a deck of cards. I let the cards dictate how many exercises they have to do and how much they have to run. If they pull an ace they have to do 20 sets and if they pull a two they have to do two," Gardner said.
Graduating sophomore midfielder Abby Morillon said her decision to come play at LCCC was focused on finding a competitive program, which she knew Gardner had created when she had played for him at East High School. Gardner coached at East for 26 years.
"One of the quotes he always says is 'failure to prepare is preparing to fail.'" Morillon shared. "He loves the game, but he also knows that it's not just about the game. And that's what makes us play harder for each other."
Albers encourages his players to approach volleyball at LCCC as a business deal. Some are receiving a scholarship to play, so he wants them to treat it like a job.
"We try to really separate business from personal. For example, I have a freshman right now that came in and said, 'In practice, you're intense and you're on us. Then five minutes after practice you're in a great mood.'—Trying to get them to understand and buy in to flipping that same switch," Albers commented.
As for differences between these coaches, one is their approach to recruiting.
"I don't recruit. I call people or they call me, or I watch video that's pretty much it," Gardner said. "I've been fortunate enough to know a lot of people across the country from my high school and college experience that I can call and get a name and video sent to me, and I'm able to work those kids into my team."
Gardner said that his high school coaching experience gives him an inside track on bringing in some of the top local talent. Albers, even without those sort of connections, also focuses on the players within driving distance.
"You recruit a little bit more from your own backyard, and that's a philosophy that I've always kind of had. I wanted to try and do it regionally and with local kids as much as possible."
Looking ahead, finishing even better next year isn't just a goal, but a realistic expectation for both programs.
"It's not easy to win a championship no matter how good a program you have," Gardner stated.
With the group that's coming back, Gardner thinks they're going to be the same type of leaders. "And they'll be just as hungry," he added.
In their first match at nationals, the volleyball team was "like a deer caught in the headlights" according to Albers. They found their footing and got two wins under their belt and played to the final day, but lost in the final match, putting them in tenth place out of 16 teams.
"We're going to have to be better, because it's going to be tougher to get there. But to make it back to the national tournament and then try to finish somewhere in the top four or six would be nice," Albers said.
Keep an eye on women's basketball as well. That program is in its infancy, but head coach Brian Ortmeier is looking to grow it fast. He's building a program from scratch after women's basketball was brought back to LCCC just two years ago. They won 11 and 15 games respectively in those two seasons, and made the postseason both times. Next season, Ortmeier hopes to see his team win 20+ games and make a run in the playoffs.
"We're right on the brink of being able to jump to that next step where you're talking about conference championships and finishing in the top two or three of your division," he said.
Ortmeier shared that the team averaged 70 points per game this year, and hopefully next year it's up to 80. "We're going to play fast, we're going to be able to press more. It should be a fun style to watch."
He hopes to build a program with the same credibility as the soccer and volleyball teams.
"Being able to bounce ideas off those coaches and ask them different things, it's a great spot to take that feedback and use it for our program."
With the competitive nature of these programs, the race is on to see which group will raise the first national championship banner for LCCC. Winning a title or not, watching these teams compete at such a high level is something special for the campus and the community. They really are taking flight.