NEW ORLEANS — When Xavier University of Louisiana announced the hiring of Christabell Hamilton in June 2011 as women's volleyball head coach, Hamilton expressed the need for her new student-athletes to "represent their families in a positive light" and that growing up in American Samoa made her "very family oriented."
Ultimately — and not surprisingly — family responsibilities ended Hamilton's incredibily successful 17-month tenure at Xavier.
Her husband, Ronnie, left New Orleans in July. An assistant men's basketball coach at Tulane from 2010-12, Ronnie Hamilton accepted a new position on coach James Dickey's staff at Houston. It's a fact that modern-day college coaches can change jobs and domiciles quickly and unexpectedly. For Christabell Hamilton and her rising XU program — which in 2011 posted its first winning season, won its first Gulf Coast Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament championships and made its first appearance in the NAIA National Championship — this was the worst possible news.
Hamilton's Gold Nuggets were 45-15 overall in two seasons.
"We weren't planning to move," Hamilton said, "but Houston contacted Ronnie and made him a great offer. It happened very quickly."
Added to this plot was a new recruit: Hamilton's first pregnancy. She learned of her condition in May and is due Feb. 9. (The ultrasound says it's a girl.) What to do next?
"You could see that I was being pulled in a few directions," Hamilton said. "I wanted to coach (the 2012 season) because I didn't want to let those players down. It was so close to the start of the season. I had a large freshman class that I recruited, and I felt an obligation to them. But there was zero chance of a commuter marriage long term. I knew I would have to leave Xavier and New Orleans."
Hamilton broke the news to XU athletics director Dennis Cousin and asked for permission to coach one more season. He agreed without hesitation.
"Christabell did us a tremendous favor by staying on for one more season," Cousin said. "She didn't have to stay. She could've gone to Houston with her husband immediately. We were going to support her and give her our blessings no matter what she decided. But we were thankful that she stayed."
When Xavier's preseason practice began in early August, none of her players knew what had transpired the month before. The first day the 2012 team assembled, Hamilton broke the news . . . eventually.
"I couldn't get it out," Hamilton said. "It took 15 minutes for me to get it out and tell the players what was happening. There were a lot of tears. But I was
so glad they got to hear it from me first."
After the eyes dried, Hamilton and the Gold Nuggets set out to assimilate eight freshmen and maintain the excellence they created a year earlier. They succeeded, winning a school-record 11 consecutive road matches and repeating as GCAC regular-season and tournament champions. They became the first HBCU (historically black college or university) to make consecutive appearances at the NAIA volleyball national tournament.
|The Gold Nuggets were 28-0 against GCAC opponents the past two seasons.|
Hamilton became the second coach to win conference championships in each of the first two seasons of an XU tenure. The Nuggets clinched the GCAC regular-season championship by rallying from a two-set deficit against SUNO in XU's final appearance at The Barn on Nov. 1. Nine days later, they swept Tougaloo in the GCAC tourney final and extended their two-year run against GCAC opponents to 28-0. Overall, the Gold Nuggets were 45-15 in Hamilton's two seasons — 23-7 in 2011 and 22-8 in 2012.
"If you had told me when I started that we would do all that in the first two years, I probably would've laughed at you," Hamilton said.
But Hamilton faced challenges in her final season. First, there was the separation from her husband. "It didn't hit me when I was at work and when we were practicing and playing," Hamilton said. "But it hit me when I got home every night to that empty apartment. There were several doctor's appointments where I went by myself because Ronnie was in Houston." Citing a need to be around people, Hamilton moved to another apartment in October with two roommates. She felt better immediately.
Then there were the physical demands of her pregnancy, increasing as late-season matches coincided with the end of her second trimester.
"One time during the conference tournament, I got really flustered and slammed my clipboard on the floor," Hamilton said. "And when I did that, I felt a rush of heat. I just sat down and didn't say a word to the team. I told (assistant) Hannah (Lawing) to coach the team for awhile. (Trainer) Tiffany (Gary) was worried about me dehydrating and made me drink some water.
But, more than a month since the season ended, baby girl Hamilton is doing fine, mom-to-be reports. No problems. Life is good.
Xavier formally announced Hamilton's departure — and the promotion of Lawing to head coach — on Dec. 11. But many of the players shared their feelings about Hamilton in the final home-match program of the season. Here's what they said:
• Sophomore Jeanay Butler: "Coach Hamilton is someone I look up to and respect very much. She has never given up on me. Wherever she goes she lightens up the room. It is upsetting to see her go as she is a great coach, but I wish her and her family the very best."
• Freshman Jodi Chatters: "Coach Hamilton is very compassionate. She is always here for us on and off the court."
• Junior Kerris Crier: "I'll miss Coach Hamilton a lot. She is a beautiful, kind person and will be a great mother. She is an awesome coach that is very understanding, has patience, and knows a heck of a lot about volleyball. I love her and will miss her dearly, and I know she will make an impact wherever she goes and definitely the next place she coaches at, just like she did here at Xavier."
• Sophomore Chinedu Echebelem: "It has been a blessing to be able to play under Coach Hamilton. I love having a coach who knows when it’s time to be serious and when it’s time to be playful and funny. I will always have a special bond with coach, not only as my coach but also as a friend."
• Freshman Jodi Hill: "Coach knows that in this day and age women can still be degraded. But she’s constantly telling us that we must respect ourselves, work hard and set goals. Furthermore, that we have the power to attain all our goals. That is a great mentality!"
• Sophomore Moira Kirk: "Thanks for being more than just an amazing coach. Your presence and guidance in my life will always hold a special place in my heart as an athlete and person! You will truly be missed!"
• Freshman Franziska Pirkl: "Coach Hamilton is a very understanding person. Even though she is merciless on the court, she is always ready to listen to our wishes or concerns."
• Sophomore Taylor Reuther: "Christabell has really taught me many things about volleyball and life in general. She has enhanced my game as a player on the court, but she really has made me the person I am today. I’m so lucky to have spent two years with her and have her help shape the person I am today, and I will be forever thankful to her for that. She is more than just a coach, she is a mentor. She is always there whenever you need her, and she always gives you her advice whether you want to hear it or not, which is a good thing. Things definitely won’t be the same without her, but I wish her the best in life. I love you lots, Coach! Thank you so much for everything."
• Freshman CeCe Williams: "It was a pleasure having you as a coach! I will miss you and will never forget the great memories that we shared as a team. Good luck with everything! I love youuuu"
"That was not the place for crying," Hamilton said. "I was more proud of the performance. Our freshmen weren't afraid. They played all out. They accomplished what I set out to teach them before the season started. Our group of freshmen and sophomores played older than you would expect."
The plan in Houston is clear. Hamilton is a full-time wife, and soon she will become a full-time mother. Coaching again may be on the table one day, but for now it's on the back-burner. Hamilton, though sad about leaving Xavier, is thrilled about the next chapter of her life.
"I am a product of two parents being there for their children," Hamilton said. "I want to pass that on to my child. I want to take my daughter to practice, to dance rehearsals and plays. I want to be around for all the important moments in her life. Being a parent will be challenging, but I'm not afraid."
Although Hamilton calls coaching "a passion of mine," she doesn't foresee a return to college coaching. "Maybe club, maybe middle school, maybe high school," she said. "A club team would probably be best because I could set my own hours. I would like to be around college athletics one day. Maybe as an academic adviser, maybe in promotions. We'll see."
The next best thing to returning to college athletics will be for Hamilton to maintain ties with her 2012 team. That would fit well in her family oriented world.
"I told the players that it's not the end of our relationship," Hamilton said. "I said they can visit me in Houston, and I will come back to watch them play. We will have a bond of friendship that will last a lifetime."