By Brian Roe, Sports Writer
Sarah Butler thought she was returning to Canyon to have her number retired by the West Texas A&M Lady Buffs volleyball team.
After all, she earned three NCAA Division II national player of the week awards, 10 tournament MVP awards and 19 Lone Star Conference South Division Player of the Week honors and was even a finalist as the Division II Female Athlete of the Year in 1997 and 1998. So, receiving the honor of having her jersey number retired was no surprise.
Receiving an engagement ring on the same night? Now, that was a surprise.
Colby Carthel, an ACU assistant football coach, left at halftime of the Oct. 21, 2001, game against Eastern New Mexico and flew from Abilene to Canyon in his uncle’s crop dusting plane with ring in hand and marriage in mind.
As the newly engaged couple stood in the West Texas A&M gym in front of all three local TV station cameras and a teary-eyed crowd, it was clear this was not your ordinary couple. And Sarah is not your normal volleyball coach.
Sarah and Colby met in the spring of 2000 when both Lone Star Conference student-athletes were seniors. Introduced through Colby’s sister, Courtney, the volleyball player from West Texas A&M and the football player from Angelo State eventually went out on their first date and knew from the beginning that love was on the horizon.
“Colby and I are both in our own worlds, so we are grateful for Courtney,” said Sarah, who still holds the LSC record for kills and kills per game in a season. “Courtney basically set us up and the rest is history, I guess.”
In Sarah’s world, college graduation came in December of 2000 and soon after she landed a coaching job as a graduate assistant coach at Metropolitan State University in Denver, Colo. While coaching, she doubled as player on the United States national team and trained for about three months during the spring semester.
When summer came, Sarah competed in national competition with the U.S. national team traveling all over the world, including parts of Switzerland, Puerto Rico, Taiwan, Thailand and Hong Kong.
“It was one of the best experiences of my life being able to practice and play at that level,” she said. “It was really amazing to travel around all over the place. I learned so much about that game by playing internationally.”
In August of 2001, Sarah decided six months was long enough and decided to leave the national team.
“I had a great time playing at that level and learned so much, especially from my coach, but it was time for me to move on,” Sarah said. “The environment was pretty cut-throat, and the team wasn’t that close, but I really appreciated everything I learned from my coach, and I try to translate that through my coaching today.”
Immediately after leaving the national team, Sarah pursued a professional volleyball career by moving to St. Louis and playing for the St. Louis Quest of the U.S. Professional Volleyball League.
After a promising first season, the league planned on expanding and adding a team in Dallas where Sarah was interested in playing. However, one of the main sponsors backed out of its financial commitment and the league could no longer survive.
By the beginning of 2002, the soon-to-be-married Sarah agreed to play professionally in Puerto Rico. The season was only three-plus months long beginning in January and concluding with a post-season in early April. This January, Sarah will begin her third season with the Moca Rebels of the Puerto Rican league.
“I’ll be leaving in December to start working out with the team and getting ready for the season,” she said. “I can’t help but be around the sport, it’s in my blood. I want to play as long as possible.”
Sarah came to ACU in 2002, working under head coach Brek Horn with a title of graduate assistant for a year.
“I told Brek that I had to help out with the team,” she said. “She would have to kick me out of the gym to keep me away from volleyball.”
Naturally, when the assistant coaching position became available after last year’s assistant coach left to become a head coach in Missouri, Sarah was immediately elevated to assistant coach.
“Sarah does a great job for us,” Horn said. “She’s definitely in a unique situation.”
Sarah said she would not recommend her situation to most young, married couples.
“It is tough on our marriage sometimes, but we are honestly used to it,” she said. “Pretty much our entire relationship has been long distance so it’s not a big change for us. Colby is busy with recruiting season in the spring and he takes his spring break to come visit me in Puerto Rico. It really teaches us to cherish the time we have together.”
Sarah said she plans to one day become a head coach, but for now wants to focus her game in Puerto Rico and helping out with the ACU volleyball team.
“Coach has some great stories to tell,” said freshman setter Malia Plumlee. “She has so much experience with volleyball and knows so much about the game. She is pretty direct and let’s us know when we mess up, but she just helps us out by bringing such a high level of intensity to our team.”
Sarah said she is learning a lot from Horn and from playing in Puerto Rico and plans on applying all that she’s learned if she becomes a head coach someday.
“I like to watch Coach Horn because she has her own, unique style,” Sarah said. “I plan on taking everything I’ve learned here and from playing internationally to create a different kind of program.”
Something different: that’s the only thing normal for Sarah Carthel.