Sometimes the fickle natures of time and opportunity can create curious pairings, intertwining unlikely paths like pieces of a puzzle.
When the Lady Lions open their season on Aug. 18 at the Sheaffer Center, Nikki Almaguer, Celi Bruce, Mollie McBride, Nicolas Moore, Emmalee Smith and Jessica Sodich will be some of the components. The Southwestern Assemblies of God University volleyball program will be the puzzle.
The combination of the intricate roads each traveled to the land of purple and gold could very well piece together a picture of 18 women hoisting a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics National Title — the first in university history.
"I went to Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas the first year. It was a great experience but there's a only Waffle House there. That's pretty much all you get to do," said Bruce, a former Waxahachie High School libero. "Our family's really close and I really didn't like being all alone when they were here altogether. I called Coach (Hank) Moore and asked him if he knew the coach at Texas Wesleyan (University). He immediately asked me, 'Now Celi, If you're coming home, why in the world would you go to Texas Wesleyan and not come to SAGU?' I didn't think there was a spot for me on the roster and at first, I didn't want to go to college where I went to high school."
Bruce, who is in the same grade classification as former Midlothian High School outside hitter McBride, set WHS season record in digs (733) in 2013.
She helped Head Coach Sandy Faussett and the Lady Indians reach the University Interscholastic League regional semifinal round twice between 2012 and 2014 and was the first WHS volleyball player to sign a National Letter of Intent with the SAGU.
Some were summoned to the volleyball court by the siren-like call of grunts and sounds of bodies crashing to the hardwood during game-saving plays. Few, like Nick, have found their way to the net by way of a bad toss of a baseball.
While pitching in a game for Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri, Nick, tore his rotator cuff. It's failure to heal fully led him back to his father's side and onto the SAGU sideline as a graduate assistant.
"I never thought I'd be doing this sport," Nick said with a chuckle. "I always thought I'd do something in baseball. I just didn't work out. Though I tore my rotator cuff and it wasn't fun, everything worked out the way it was supposed to, I think. [My shoulder] is still not right, but it's liveable. The opportunity to become a student assistant opened up my junior year and this will be my fourth year as an assistant coach."
He clutched his shoulder softly, rotating it as if to relieve pressure. Years before, the younger Moore was a former pupil of WHS Head Baseball Coach Tracy Wood and a key rotational piece in the Indians' bullpen. Before that as a pre-teen shagging volleyballs on the SAGU Gymnasium floor, he'd watch a much younger Bruce run into one of the side rooms to go practice.
He winked at a giggling Bruce and McBride, as if passing an unspoken message of their story.
What was common knowledge to Hank and Nick, though, was unbeknownst to Bruce. There was a single scholarship slot open. Not as a libero — Smith held that position — but as a defensive specialist.
"When he called me to make the offer, I didn't know If SAGU was where I wanted to go. I'd always said I didn't want to go to college where I went to high school," Bruce continued, adding that she almost didn't make a home at SAGU while brushing her sleek brown hair away from her face. "I kept denying it and denying it [on the way back to Waxahachie] for a long time, but as soon as I got home I knew I was going to SAGU. It kind of came out of nowhere."
Because of the decision to return to the Gingerbread City, Bruce may etch her name in the history books again. She is within earshot of breaking SAGU's career digs record despite only playing three years.
Bruce, who has two years of athletic eligibility despite being a senior, is currently No. 2 on the Lady Lions all-time career digs list with 868 and is 989 away from Smith's record of 1,857 digs. If she keeps up last year's pace of 552 digs, she will break the record before her 10-semester eligibility period ends.
And while she didn't make it to a state title under Faussett, she may have the opportunity to claim NAIA glory beside one of the most talented rosters in Lady Lion history. Breaking Smith's record would be a cog in the SAGU volleyball machine if a national title were to come to pass, though.
Her defense could be a boon to arguably one of the best 1-2-3-4 hitting combinations in NAIA volleyball with Sodich on one side, Paulyae Dawkins in the middle, Kali Shaw on the other and McBride as a dangerous fourth rotational option. Moore and Smith will help guide them all.
While Bruce was frustrating hitter after hitter with death-defying dives at George W. Solis Gymnasium in 2013, McBride was busy closing out her senior season with a third-place and 9-5 District 7-5A finish as well as a bi-district berth in the UIL playoffs.
"It's a shame we weren't in the same district," McBride said. "Our schools are now in the same district as Red Oak and get to play each other twice a season. When were in high school, we only got to play each other once at the beginning. I wonder what it would have been like to play each other in district or the playoffs."
McBride, who sat out the entirety of last season because of a rotator cuff injury and subsequent surgery, played a part in the seemingly random hodgepodge compilation of Ellis County athletes on the Lady Lions' roster. Her arrival may have been most affected by Sodich, one of the best volleyball players to come out of the Ovilla Christian School system.
"I had a lot of college offers, but I was going through a lot during my senior year. I actually ended up quitting [club] volleyball. After that, Coach [Hank] Moore was the only one that kept in touch with me and was interested," McBride said. "He offered me a scholarship and at first, I declined it because I didn't know if that was really what I wanted to do. I ended up coming a second time. I remember thinking I couldn't deny that one. It may sound crazy, but it felt like God was speaking to me and telling me to go to SAGU."
Though the former Lady Panther turned down an offer from Hank and Nick, a higher power may have been at work.
"Jessica's been out of volleyball three years, but if you saw her on the court, you wouldn't know it. Before she had her twins, she was a National Christian College Association First Team All-American as a junior," Hank added. "When Jessica left, that created a pretty significant hole on our team. Now, the team she's coming to play on is better than the one she left."
"If Jessica had stayed on the team, I probably wouldn't be here," McBride cut in, looking upward through the ceiling and flashing a momentary smirk.
She placed her elbows on her thighs and leaned in, as if ready to divulge a weapons-grade secret of epic proportions.
"When she left, that created the opportunity for me to step in and accept a scholarship I'd already turned down once," she continued. "That was a really big reason me being here in this place right now."
Hank said that when she turned it down, the staff filled it with another student-athlete. When Jessica contacted him in July and let him know she wouldn't be playing, he said McBride literally called him the next day wanting to come to SAGU.
"The timing was perfect," he said. "The Lord knew what we needed and answered our prayers."
Those chance emails and phone calls, as well as a working relationship with the Ellis County Juniors volleyball organization, brought something Hank said the Lady Lions have never had more of — depth.
By Sept. 5, the Lady Lions had sped to an 8-4 overall record powered by four consecutive wins to kick off the 2017 season. McBride's injury and lack of depth, though, helped SAGU finish below .500 in both overall (16-17) and Sooner Athletic Conference (7-9) play.
It was a drop-off from the previous season, where they finished 18-16 overall and 8-6 in the SAC in 2015 with digs leader Smith providing adept defense and former Midlothian setter Caitlin Paschall helping power the offense.
The amalgam of curious combinations, Hank and Nick agreed, created strength where there was once weakness.
"The weakest part of our team was the right side," Hank said. "When you mix Jessica into the equation, keep Paulyae in the middle, slide our kills leader last season, Kali, to the right side and have a player like Mollie that can play all three [front row] positions, you've got a good chance. Combine that with the fact this is the deepest team I've ever coached, I look for us to be significantly better than we were last season. Nick and I play with it all the time. We're 14 players deep. That includes Nikki, a freshman, who should come in and immediately compete for playing time.
He said provided they stay healthy, that newly-found strength could buoy the Lady Lions to a level of play that they've never enjoyed before.
"We can play 14 different girls in a myriad of combinations and that's never, ever, ever happened while I've been here," he continued. "Once teams' get past nine or 10 players, that's where they usually run into the problem. That shouldn't be one for us."