OLLU Winning Games, Changing Lives
Our Lady of the Lake University’s Saints have a long-standing history of excellence in women’s basketball.
The San Antonio school has won seven of the past nine Red River Athletic Conference regular-season titles. This year they are led by new head coach Jillian Flores as she begins her first season as a head coach in college basketball, having been hired in August. After two losses on the road to start their season, the Saints did celebrate a big win against Southwestern Assemblies of God University at their home opener.
But the wins and losses are only part of the math for the Saints. Lives changed and support given counts every bit as much. Their success originates not only from having the right coaching staff but, more specifically, the recruitment of players who bring more than typical talent.
Emiko “Miko” Hemphill smiles surrounded by teammates, responds to questions with her Texas manners and is humble when asked about her role. But behind that smile is a story most of her teammates don’t even know.
Hemphill spent most of her life in adjust and adapt mode. Placed in foster care at birth, she spent 18 years bouncing between family members, including her grandmother and her parents — together and separately — and even her aunt and uncle after their move to Texas from Pennsylvania. Just when Hemphill began to settle into a new place, she would be moved yet again … to a new school, a new family living situation, hitting the reset button all over again.
“I struggled academically because of the different ways things were taught in the various schools I attended,” Hemphill said.
At around 9 years old, Hemphill played basketball with the neighborhood kids in the community or with her dad on the weekends, but never thought pursuing it as anything remotely transformational as it has become.
“I wasn’t serious about it, even when my aunt put me in AAU,” she said. She struggled to find stability with basketball as she transferred between five high schools in four years, most notably four in two years. “I didn’t get to play a full season until my senior year at Seguin High School with Coach Langwell,” she said.
Hemphill was an immediate star at Seguin, having never played varsity or a full season. From the moment she stepped onto the court, newspapers spotted the explosive forward and her face and name became common in the local sports section.
“Miko was a crowd favorite. I’ve never seen or coached anyone like her with her speed and explosiveness before. I wish we had her all four years of high school,” Seguin coach Mollie Langwell said.
Her skill level was relatively low, but her ability to read the floor, quick decision-making, rebounding and defense made her an immediate standout. The team, coaching staff and community embraced Hemphill and boosted her confidence in ways she never imagined.
Colleges soon called, which she had never considered given that no one in her family had ever attended college. She had envisioned joining the military as it seemed the only option post-high school. Langwell was instrumental in helping Hemphill to the next level. She took her to college visits, helped her prepare for Texas Success Initiative tests, SAT and ACT tests, and focused on preparing her for her future.
“She was basically a second mom to me. It was like a real-life movie of ‘The Blind Side’ to me. I felt wanted and understood on and off the court,” Hemphill said.
When many of the scholarship opportunities were slimmed down, Langwell and her husband, Dusty, assisted Hemphill financially in attending Coastal Bend College in Beeville, a Texas junior college located about 90 minutes south of San Antonio.
“There were some scholarships and aid available but not enough to cover a full ride. We believed in her, so we committed to paying for her room and board and some of her tuition,” Langwell said.
The Next Level
Hemphill’s first two years at Coastal Bend included some growing pains as she navigated her way in the classroom and learned to find her place. It was a transition period with the continued guidance of Langwell as well as the coaching staff at Coastal Bend.
“I had good mentors during that time in head coach Nathan Purswell and assistant coaches Mia Ochoa and Chris Godfrey,” Hemphill said. “They convinced me to continue my journey, telling me there aren’t a lot of girls with my athletic abilities and that even though I had the potential, I had to want it as bad and recognize I’ve gotten myself this far, why throw it away?”
After two successful seasons, Hemphill was recruited by OLLU’s former head coach Stacey Stephens. Now, a senior in her fifth season, Hemphill is a team leader who’s averaged 4 points and 4 rebounds per game and is shooting 50 percent from the floor. Hemphill is thankful for the opportunity of her fifth season to complete her bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and be the first in her family to graduate — or even attend — college.
“I’ve had a lot of opportunities and I’ve learned to not take them for granted. I want my younger sister and younger cousins to look at me as a role model, seeing how my family has done things, I just want to do better,” Hemphill said.
Meet Tea... and Bella
Hemphill is not the only player on the Saints to be motivated by her family’s background on the court and in the classroom.
Sophomore Tea Lawson of Corpus Christi, Texas, comes from a background completely opposite Hemphill’s. When Lawson was in seventh grade, her family became a foster family unexpectedly. Her mother, Claudine Lawson, received a phone call asking if they could care for the 13-month child of a relative.
Tea’s family immediately began the emotional and rigorous process to apply for kinship placement to open their home and their hearts. After weeks of rigorous home study, background checks, fingerprinting and interviews for all members of the household, along with purchasing a bigger vehicle and equipping their home with necessary items and toys for a little one, they were ready to bring Isabella “Bella” home to join their family.
“I remember when my mom came to pick me up from basketball practice that night and Bella was in her car seat in the back. My mom asked me to keep it down because she was finally sleeping after having such an emotional first day with my family,” Tea said.
Bella had a rough start in life. When she was welcomed into Lawson's home, she was tiny for her age. She had a horrible haircut that was chopped at a previous temporary foster home. She was also scared and insecure and needed time to adjust in these new surroundings.
“She was really scared of men, and she couldn’t talk or walk when we got her at 13 months old,” Lawson said.
Even though Lawson already had an older sister, Lainie, and two younger brothers, Pancho and Luke, she felt like her prayers were answered.
“I had always wanted a little sister, Bella is our blessing,” Lawson said.
An Act of Sacrifice
Lawson learned from her older sister, Lainie, what “family comes first” truly means. After her family took guardianship of Bella, Lainie took a gap year before college to help with childcare.
“Lainie sacrificed a lot by starting college a year later to stay home and teach Bella how to walk and talk and committed herself to seeing Bella thrive,” said Lawson, “I really look up to my sister for that choice.”
Lawson grabs every chance she can to head home to visit her family and catch one of Pancho’s baseball games. She also video chats with Bella daily.
“I can’t imagine my life without Bella, she’s my mini-me! We are very much alike, she has my unique personality,” Lawson said. “I play for Bella and for other kids in her situation! I want her to see that if I can do it, then she can do anything she wants to in life.”
Lawson brings this sense of family to OLLU’s Saints as well. Teammate and roommate, Cormia Lewis, describes her as the voice of their team.
“Tea’s that voice you hear on the court, she always brings so much positivity with her, even when she’s not feeling well or having a bad day,” Lewis said.
Hemphill agrees that Lawson is just what the Saints needed: “Tea is the glue that holds us all together.”
Eye on What’s Next
Both Lawson and Hemphill opted out last season due to Covid restrictions and a shortened season. Lawson is ready to put up some stats at the college level in the Red River Athletic Conference this year.
Lewis and Lawson agree that Hemphill is the positive vibe and fun of the team with her random one-liners and antics.
“Miko creates diversity with the funny things she does. At the end of a game, she’ll just throw herself on the court and tumble to lighten the mood,” Lewis said.
Lawson and Hemphill both may come from different backgrounds but the two share reasons in common as to why they play at the college level: family, camaraderie and community.
“You have to be that voice for all of the kids in foster care, advocate for them. Being bounced around between foster families can hold them back from opportunities,” Lawson said.
“I wanted to share my story because I know there are others out there with a similar background. I want to show them not to be afraid to share a story that tells people who you really are and the journey it took to get where you are,” Hemphill said.
The Saints are in for an interesting season facing a challenging schedule because of the newly created East and West divisions of the RRAC with the addition of two new teams to the conference: Louisiana College and Xavier University of Louisiana. Their schedule is intense with seven opponents ranked in the Top 25 or receiving top NAIA Coaches’ Poll votes.
“We just have to stay positive,” Hemphill said.
“We’re focused on becoming a stronger team, while learning to adjust to new concepts with a brand-new coach,” Lewis said.
“I am very fortunate to have these ladies as teammates, I trust them,” Hemphill said.
Lawson said she will continue at OLLU as a junior in criminal justice at the end of this season. Hemphill is not sure if she’ll continue her education to become an occupational therapist after graduation but says that the thought of joining the military is still not off the table.
Hemphill is staying focused on school and her last season while she reflects on why she plays hard and is committed to graduating this year.
“I want people to know that I am more than the good things and bad things that have happened to me and that I am more than basketball,” Hemphill said.
“You never know what people are going through. I truly love my teammates, what I’ve been through has changed my mentality. I love what basketball brings into my life,” Lawson said.
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