Loyola Athletics picks up Southern States Athletic Conference awards

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Loyola Wolf Pack Athletics

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Southern States Athletic Conference announced its end-of-the-year athletic department awards at its annual banquet on Sunday, honoring Loyola Athletics Director Brett Simpson, volleyball coach Jesse Zabal and the men’s basketball and women’s tennis teams in the process.

Simpson was selected as this year’s SSAC AD of the Year and Jesse Zabal was presented with the SSAC Coach of Character award. On top of those honors, the men’s basketball team earned the Men’s Team Champions of Character award and the Wolf Pack women’s tennis team was picked as the Women’s Team Champions of Character winner.

Sunday’s honor was Simpson’s third SSAC AD of the Year award in the last four years, also collecting that title in 2019 and 2020, as well as a National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) Under Armour Athletic Director of the Year award in 2020.

Simpson’s leadership during the 2021-22 academic year was key to Loyola’s success on the court and in the classroom. After Loyola’s central hub – The University Sports Complex – was damaged during Hurricane Ida, Simpson helped guide each program through a year of uncertainty. Because of his efforts, Loyola won five Southern States Athletic Conference championships and six different sports either ended the season ranked or were ranked at one point during the season. On top of that, the Wolf Pack men’s basketball team earned the school’s first NAIA National Championship in 77 years.

Speaking of national championships, 10 of the 18 sports at Loyola competed in an NAIA National Championship or national tournament.

In the classroom, the Wolf Pack had 88 student-athletes named to an SSAC All-Academic team, and seven sports (baseball, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, men’s cross country, men’s golf, men’s track and field, and women’s track and field) led the conference with the most selections.

Another notable impression Simpson made this year was the announcement of two more sports entering the Loyola Athletics catalog for the 2022-23 school year. Wolf Pack beach volleyball had an abbreviated season this spring, but it and Esports will kick off official competition next year to add to Loyola’s successful department.

Having just wrapped up her fifth season with the Wolf Pack, Loyola volleyball coach Jesse Zabal was honored Sunday evening with the SSAC Coach of Character award.

Zabal focuses on three concepts of character development for her student-athletes: accountability, responsibility, and vulnerability. She preaches to her team that those concepts are constantly put on display on the court, in the classroom and in the community, and it’s inevitable that growth in those areas will benefit them even after their time at Loyola.

“Coach Zabal is the kind of coach we wish to play for—she is compassionate, focused, and willing to bend over backward for her players,” Emma Fahy, a rising sophomore on the team, said. “Ultimately, my coach has committed herself to be the definition of character, and it shows in the ways she handles her job as head coach of volleyball for Loyola Univerisity New Orleans. She prepares her players for the real world and gives out some hard love. She is the definition of a strong female coach. Coach Zabal expects us to do our best and ask questions. She is the first coach I have had that expects me to come to her for any help.”

With Zabal at the helm, the Wolf Pack volleyball program has been on a steady trajectory since she took over prior to the 2017 season. The Wolf Pack played for their first-ever SSAC Championship title during the spring-2021 season, then the team won their first-ever SSAC Regular-Season title last season.

When the five core values of this award and the idea of “champions,” the Loyola Wolf Pack men’s basketball is the perfect example. The hardships they’ve faced this season were powerful enough to overcome any team, but the Wolf Pack had high aspirations they wanted to achieve and nothing would get in the way. This team full of high-character men came together for one goal while being gracious and respectful in the process.

The Wolf Pack had to overcome a damaged home facility that caused the team to hold preseason practice in Dallas, Texas, then once they returned to New Orleans, they were forced to practice all over the city at early hours. Loyola didn’t have a true home game until January, and even then it was on a temporary floor donated by the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner. The team was also forced to shut down for nearly two weeks due to COVID-19 protocols, and the rescheduling of those games made it seven games in 13 days to close out an SSAC Regular-Season Championship. After the team claimed the SSAC tournament title, a number of players on the roster dealt with stomach bug-like symptoms while in Kansas City playing in the national tournament.

Still, though, the Loyola Wolf Pack men’s basketball team was still able to turn in an impressive 37-1 overall record the school’s first NAIA National Championship in 77 years.

Another example of the Champions of Character five core values was the role the “Juicemen” played for the Wolf Pack. Making up the bench players on the roster, the Juiceman knew their role on this championship-winning team. They knew their impact on the game could be felt by being the hype-men from the bench, or the “Juicemen,” as they called themselves. Throughout Loyola’s 38 games this season, it would be hard to miss the energy and enthusiasm the Juicemen displayed, and the impact they had on the players on the court was immeasurable.

Finally, while dealing with the obstacles listed above and in the midst of a historic season, the team still found the energy to donate their free time to the elementary school located next to Loyola – Holy Name of Jesus School. The team had 100 percent participation in reading to the younger students at Holy Name this school year, and they helped pass out Valentine’s Day candy to the students, which was the same day as Loyola’s 90-83 overtime over Stillman College.

The women’s tennis team at Loyola University New Orleans truly exemplified the NAIA’s five core values of champions of character through the Smash Cancer event. Sophomore Isabella Leano’s passion for tennis inspired her dedication to give back to the community on the tennis court, specifically her very own organization – Smash Cancer. This 12-hour tennis-a-thon benefits the ‘Stand Up To Cancer’ Foundation. After her paternal grandfather passed from Acute Myeloid Leukemia, she was motivated to create the ‘Smash Cancer’ organization. The ‘Smash Cancer’ tennis-a-thon Isabella created has raised over $15,000 over the past 4 years amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

On April 10, 2022, the women’s team at Loyola University New Orleans graced a tennis court for 12 consecutive hours for the fourth annual Smash Cancer Tennis-a-thon to raise funds for cancer research in cooperation with Stand Up To Cancer. 2022 marked the inaugural year of this event at Loyola University New Orleans. Building off the last three events and encouraging all to aid in the essential fight against the terrible disease, the Loyola women’s tennis team continued to raise awareness about cancer’s effects on the lives of warriors and their families.

The women’s tennis team truly bonded over the Smash Cancer event. Because of all of their time and efforts, the 2022 event raised over $5,500 towards their benefactor, ‘Stand Up to Cancer.’ The team selflessly dedicated themselves to this event by promoting Smash Cancer through various social media platforms, tabling throughout campus, providing interviews to the university’s newspaper, and soliciting donations. Most importantly, they attended the entire event from sunrise to sunset. The culmination of their actions shows the women’s tennis team goes beyond the court: they are true champions of character.

You can keep up with the Pack by following Wolf Pack Athletics on Facebook at Facebook.com/LoyolaWolfPack, Twitter and Instagram @LoyolaWolfPack, and by checking out our website at LoyolaWolfPack.com.

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