Winning Big: Celebrating 25 Years of Islanders Athletics

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Los Angeles is known as the center of the entertainment world — a place where underdogs and happy endings come together. For a moment this past March Madness, it was the site of a historic moment for Islanders Athletics as the Islanders Women’s Basketball team competed in its first NCAA Tournament. They fought valiantly but would ultimately fall to the No. 1 seed USC. It was the end of a historic season, one worthy of a sequel.

“This team and its coach, Royce Chadwick, represent everything that is great about the Island University,” said Adrian Rodriguez, Vice President of Intercollegiate Athletics. “This trip to the NCAAs and this team’s success will no doubt take this program to new heights going forward.”

It was just a week earlier that gold confetti littered the floor of the Legacy Center in Lake Charles, Louisiana. There, the same team hoisted the Southland Conference trophy for the first time in program history after beating the Lamar Cardinals in the conference championship game and punching their ticket to the big dance.

“It was a big moment for everyone, including our fans,” said Paige Allen ’24, ’26, senior guard. “We love the fans. They support us through everything.”

These milestones come as the athletic program, now an NCAA Division I school with 16 men’s and women’s intercollegiate sports, reaches its silver anniversary.

“We’ve come a long way,” said Steven King, Assistant Athletic Director for Corporate Sales and Broadcasting. “We truly came from some humble beginnings.”

In the late 1940s, the University of Corpus Christi had a football team called the Tarpons, which in time proved too expensive to maintain, along with swimming and boxing programs. By the mid-1950s, intercollegiate athletics on the Island were gone. It wasn’t until the 1990s — 1997 to be exact — when the late Dan Viola, the university’s first athletic director, took the reins to revive a program that had been dormant for more than 40 years.

“Dan did an amazing job getting us started again,” King recalled. “He had a shoestring budget, and there were some hiccups along the way, but he really connected with the community and got people on and off campus excited about Islanders Athletics.”

Viola hit the ground running with a five-year plan to get the athletics program back on its feet. That meant assembling an administrative and coaching staff, with one of his first hires being Ronnie Arrow, the inaugural coach of Islanders Men’s Basketball.

The Texas native had success in his previous head coaching position at the University of South Alabama, where he won two Sun Belt Conference titles and took his team to the NCAA Tournament twice. However, it would be his stop in Corpus Christi that would prove the ultimate challenge.

“In those early days, we had no uniforms, no basketballs, and no permanent offices,” Arrow said. “We knew we were going to have some growing pains, but our staff worked hard.”

Success and viability came quickly for Islanders Men’s Basketball. In their first year of existence, they finished with a 13-13 record, which included a five-game winning streak to conclude the 1999 season. In the program’s sophomore season, they would finish with a 14-14 record.

Meanwhile, Islanders Women’s Basketball got off to an even hotter start. In their inaugural season, 1999-2000, they finished with a 14-12 record, which they followed up with back-to-back 16-win seasons. Sheryl Estes, who had nearly a decade of success coaching the Wayland Baptist University Women’s Basketball team in Plainview, was tasked with building the Islanders Women’s program from scratch, a challenge she was eager to meet.

“We had to convince players to take a chance on a program that had never played a game,” Estes recounted. “We sold over 1,000 season tickets for our first season, sight unseen.”

Momentum for both basketball programs, and Islanders Athletics as a whole, kicked into high gear in July 2002 when the program was granted NCAA Division I status.

“When I got to the university, I thought, ‘There’s a goldmine waiting to happen’,” Arrow recalled. “Getting that NCAA Division I status helped us flourish.”

Four years later, during the 2006-2007 season, Islanders Athletics would find a new home in the Southland Conference. The move gave both the men’s and women’s basketball programs a manageable pathway to their respective NCAA Tournaments. It’s something the men’s team capitalized on right away. In their first year in the Southland, they won the conference tournament and punched a ticket to the 2007 NCAA Tournament where they would hang tough against the No. 2 seed Wisconsin Badgers.

“In my opinion, there’s nothing that can get a school and a community more recognition than playing basketball in the NCAA Tournament,” Arrow said. “It was great for us.”

In more recent years, the Islanders Men’s Basketball team got back to the Big Dance with back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Tournament between the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons. They began both trips with the First Four in Dayton, Ohio, with the latter featuring a historic 75-71 victory over Southeast Missouri State for the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament win. The men went on to ultimately face No. 1 seed Alabama in the NCAA First Round.

Islanders Athletics would earn their first NCAA Championship in 2007, courtesy of the endurance of long-distance runner Shadrack Songok ’08, who ran his way to a gold medal in the 10,000-meter run and would repeat that same feat the following year at the Indoor NCAA Championships. To prepare for his championship run, Songok trained at Corpus Christi’s Cabaniss Field. Not having a track on campus was just one of the hurdles that Shawn Flanagan, the legendary coach who built the Islanders Cross Country/Track & Field Team, had to face.

“Not having a locker room, much of a weight room, or a training room was not fun,” Flanagan said. “But we emphasized what we did have — good kids, good coaching, and a great place to live.”

Flanagan would go on to coach 11 Islanders cross country/track & field teams to conference championships before retiring in 2017.

Student-athletes have enjoyed significant facility upgrades over the years, including the opening of the Dugan Wellness Center in 2009 and the Thomas J. Henry Tennis Center in 2011. Led by coach Steve Moore, a 13-time recipient of the Southland Conference Coach of the Year title, the men’s and women’s tennis teams held a combined 33 Southland Conference titles and 16 NCAA appearances going into the 2024 season.

“What makes me most proud of this program is not just national rankings and NCAA Tournaments, but that Islanders Tennis has excelled with high character players who have earned a team GPA of over 3.0 for 33 straight semesters,” Moore said. “They are ready for success in the real world.”

In 2013, the university welcomed an additional sports facility, the Dr. Jack Dugan and Family Track and Soccer Stadium. From there, championship culture has continued to become engrained in Islanders Athletics.

The Islanders Cross Country teams have each taken a turn at a Southland Conference title in the last three years with the women winning on their home course in 2021 before the men took their first-ever championship in 2023 under first-year coach Bryan Jackson. It’s under the direction of these SLC Coaches of the Year that success emulates itself, something Islanders Beach Volleyball is also no stranger to.

Quickly matching that winning mindset, coach Gayle Stammer has taken the Beach Volleyball team beyond expectations in just seven years. The program has seen four championships in the last three seasons alone, with back-to-back Southland Conference regular season and tournament titles. Their reign has extended into the postseason where they won their first-ever NCAA Tournament match in 2023 after topping No. 16 UT-Martin 3-0 in the first round.

All programs have combined to win 15 championships between the 2021-22 and 2022-23 academic years and Islanders Athletics has no intention of slowing down that prosperity anytime soon. With 25 years of excellence already in the books for Islanders Athletics, the department looks to expand on its success that continues to reach new heights each year.

“As we mark the 25th anniversary of Islanders Athletics, we reflect not only on our past achievements but also on the remarkable journey of growth and evolution that has defined our program,” Rodriguez said. “This milestone is a testament to the hard work and dedication of our student-athletes, coaches, staff, and supporters who have helped shape Islanders Athletics into the thriving program it is today.”