“I knew when I signed my letter of intent to come to the University of Mobile that this chapter of my life would be pivotal, but I had no clue as to what capacity,” says Melea Wenzel Meadows ’22.
The University of Mobile became her second family, showing love and support through some of the most difficult times she faced in her life.
For Melea and thousands of student-athletes throughout the years who have worn a Rams uniform, some of the most memorable experiences don’t happen on the field. There are other moments that shape lives even more.
“When my Dad unexpectedly passed just a week before preseason in August of 2021, Coach Jon (Campbell) called me to check in and make sure I knew that they didn’t have any expectations for me to be there for preseason and that they were continuously praying for my family and I,” Melea says. “Everything was such a blur for me at that time, but I knew what my Dad would want for me, and that was to play my senior season from beginning to end.”
Melea eventually did play her senior season, and it was her best yet as a collegiate athlete. She was named 2021 SSAC Volleyball Defender of the Year, the conference’s top defensive player honor.
Additionally, she was a first-team all-conference selection and broke the school record of defensive digs recorded in a single match, with 40.
“I knew going into that season things would be different for me, but I also knew God had prepared that second family for me at UM who would take care of me every step of the way,” says Melea, who graduated in 2022 with a Bachelor of Science in kinesiology with focus in pre-physical therapy.
Melea recalls what UM meant to her during that season of unimaginable heartache.
“I returned to campus where I felt safe, taken care of, and endlessly loved because of who Jesus had placed there for me,” she says. “The Lord used the girls on my team, as well as coaches, professors, faculty, staff and fellow students at UM to transform me from the inside out. I am who I am today because of the growth that occurred over those four years.”
Focus on Excellence
It was 1985. Four students embarked on a new journey at the 24-year-old small college located in Mobile, Alabama, attending classes to receive their college degrees while being members of the first intercollegiate athletic team, Men’s Golf. Little was known then about the future of Mobile College Athletics, but now history will tell you it was the year that began a remarkable journey for the University of Mobile collegiate athletic program and set the stage for the impact it continues to make in countless lives.
Ultimately, the UM Athletic Department’s focus on excellence is two-fold: to win championships and impact a student-athlete’s life.
“We want to develop athletes who graduate and continue in their sport, go on to a higher education or enter the workforce ready to take on the world,” says UM Athletic Director Sally Shouppe. Now in her first full season as athletic director, Shouppe has been with UM in multiple capacities since 2007.
“Through practices and games, our coaches lead our athletes to develop their best possible skills, preparing them for championships. Coaches become mentors to our athletes and, in turn, teach our athletes to be leaders on and off the field. They strive to continue to develop students with not only skills in the sport they play, but with character, integrity and life skills that will last for the rest of their lives,” Shouppe says.
Record of Success
The athletic department grew rapidly since its birth in 1985, becoming one of the largest programs in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). Across the 21 competitive sports that make up the UM athletic program, each year well over 400 student-athletes representing more than 20 countries call the Christ-centered campus “home.”
Overall, the program has created an incredible record of success, claiming seven NAIA National Championships and seeing over 400 student- athletes selected as All-America collegiate athletes. Additionally, 227 conference titles have been won, with many more national tournament appearances made.
One 28-winning-streak record set by the 1997 Rams softball team stood for 25 years – until the 2022 Rams softball team shattered it with a win over Talledega College. Sitting in the stands cheering on the 2022 Rams were members of 1997 team, now mothers watching their own daughters on the field. It was a proud moment for Lesley Head and Jennifer Bowden ’99, who had passed on to their daughters, Katie and Carleigh, a love of the game – and a love for their alma mater. (See Torchlight Extrafor their story and video.)
There is little doubt that the UM Athletic Department has proven to be one of the best there is. But, through all the success on the field or court of play, something stands out a little bit more – the impact that is made on a student-athlete’s life.
Influence for Christ
“It has always been my goal as head of the women’s soccer program to be an influence for Christ to all of the athletes He brings to UM and our program,” says Brian Person ’02, head coach of the UM Women’s Soccer program.
The former men’s soccer player at UM took over head coaching duties for women’s soccer in 2007 after spending six seasons as an assistant coach. Each year he strives to not only lead his players on the field of play, but to be a witness to them off the field.
“It is also a goal of our program to strengthen and encourage those players who know Christ and witness to those players who do not know Him,” says Person. “In order to influence, you must have a relationship, and the deeper the relationship, the greater the influence.”
Investing in students while building long-term relationships is a goal common among UM coaches.
“I love being able to continue relationships past the four years our athletes are here, while watching them grow as adults and into families,” says Alison Sellers-Cook. She is in her sixth season at the helm of the UM Softball program, following a season where she led her team to the 2022 NAIA Softball National Championship game.
However, Sellers-Cook looks beyond the success her program has experienced on the field. “My goal beyond winning is to invest in my athletes and to help them grow as a person in all aspects of their life. I want to help them be well-rounded in life and prepared for the future,” she says.
Sellers-Cook believes pouring into athletes spiritually while they are in college can help shape their lives far beyond collegiate athletics.
“I love that we as a team can freely talk about God and what He does for us on a daily basis. I love how the girls are invested in praying after practice and hold devotional time before games,” she says. Person agrees.
“Without question, the fact that UM is a private Christian university is what allows me to openly have faith-based and Christ-centered goals for the program,” Person says. “I am able to have my family involved in the program to help minister to students, which in turn allows for more of a family atmosphere throughout the team.
“When people feel as if they are genuinely cared for, they will also reciprocate and will care for you, and do what you ask of them because they know you have their best interest at the forefront.”
Overall, the University of Mobile has seen more than 2,000 students attend college as student- athletes.
Success After UM
Former student-athletes have gone on to find amazing success following their time at the University of Mobile, including Sarah Bailey Thomas ’95 who played for the Women’s Basketball program while at UM. Thomas became the first full-time female official in the National Football League and the first woman to officiate the NFL’s Super Bowl. She received the Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of Mobile during graduation ceremonies in May 2021, where she gave the commencement address on the Great Commission Lawn in front of Weaver Hall.
Both J.C. Romero and Joe Espada, former members of the UM Baseball program, now have championship rings from the World Series in their trophy cases. Romero played 14 seasons in Major League Baseball, winning the 2008 World Series with the Philadelphia Phillies, while Espada earned his World Series ring in 2022 as the bench coach for the Houston Astros.
Former UM Men’s Soccer standout MichaelAzira’12was selected to the Ugandan National Team and later made his debut with the Chicago Fire in Major League Soccer, where he played several years. In January, Azira was named head coach of men’s soccer at Blue Mountain Christian University. Former UM Women’s Track & Field National Champion JoninaBrinson’17earned a spot on the Eastern Washington University Track & Field coaching staff in 2022.
Alejo Binaghi ’22, a Men’s Soccer player from Buenos Aires, Argentina, who was named the 2021 NAIA national soccer player of the year, said the university “gave me the opportunity to receive my degree, improve my second language, and meet real friends that I will keep for the rest of my life.” Currently, he plays for SC United Bantams, an American soccer team based out of Columbia, South Carolina, in USL League Two. His story was featured in the spring 2022 TorchLight magazine and a “Know Your Calling” video. (See TorchLightExtrafor Alejo’s journey.)
Other former student-athletes have found success outside of the sports industry, such as Tramaine Perry ’05, an award-winning member of the Men’s Basketball program. Perry is vice president at Whitney Bank and was selected to Mobile Bay Magazine’s “40 Under 40” in 2022. Treii Pace ’11, another basketball alumnus, earned the 2021 Teacher of the Year Award at Saraland Elementary School and UM’s prestigious Samuel Boykin Medal of Excellence in 2022.
“God led me to the University of Mobile,” Pace says. “My years at the University of Mobile are where I began to see how God has blessed me over the course of my life.”
Other former student-athletes returned to the second family they formed during their time at UM. Jared Baria ’09, a baseball alumnus, serves as the University of Mobile’s campus pastor, while Payton Adams ’20, a former member of the UM Softball program, currently assists Sellers-Cook on the coaching staff.
These former student-athletes and more have seen fantastic achievements in the lives they built after UM – success that creates testimonies each will share for the rest of their lives.
Currently, students from over 20 countries across six continents are represented in the UM Athletic Department, including Uruguay, Japan, France and West Africa, to name a few.
A majority of undergraduate international student-athletes choose majors in the Grace Pilot School of Business or the School of Health and Sports Science, where kinesiology is the most popular major. Many continue at UM after their athletic career has ended, earning master’s degrees.
Brenda Hinson, coordinator of graduate and international recruitment, has seen the number of international student-athletes grow from 45 to 134 during her four years at UM. She says a key to UM’s success in attracting and graduating international students, in addition to the academic program and services the university provides, is the group of volunteers developed over the last couple of years.
“These volunteers, mostly UM students, help me welcome international students to campus, first by picking them up from the airport and then throughout the year transporting them to the store and various other places,” Hinson says.
“International students and student volunteers also spend a lot of time in my office getting to know each other, which then leads to them asking to join each other at a local church. Many of these students will take what they have heard from the gospel with them into their various careers after they leave UM. Faith can be shared in all aspects of life, including the world of coaching, which many of our student-athlete graduates go into.”
Hinson refers to the international students as “my kids” and is intentional about developing strong relationships with each one who makes his or her way to UM. Like many coaches, faculty and staff who work in various capacities at the Christian university, Hinson views her work as her personal mission and is passionate about making the students’ time at UM meaningful and impactful. She cheers them on at athletic events on and off campus, and even serves as a driver for several teams as they travel on the weekends.
When international students eventually graduate and return to their home countries, Hinson hopes their experience at this Christ-centered community will help them make an impact wherever they go.
“What I hope many of them do is remember the kindness that was shown to them by those who were once strangers and show that same kindness to others they encounter in the world,” Hinson says.
The UM Family
The University of Mobile phrase Know and Be Known describes the intentional relationships that are built at UM. Lives are impacted on the athletic field, in classrooms, across campus and through the years. Student-athletes come to play a sport and earn a degree, but soon find so much more as the relationships formed make this college feel like home.