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In 2008, Emily Holombek was a volleyball player for East Central University. She’s been on quite a journey since then.
Last October, East Central finally announced that Holombek would be the interim head coach for the ECU women’s basketball team. Holombek was thrust into the position after Kent Franz, who coached the team for over two decades, was arrested last September on suspicion of leaving the scene of a personal injury accident. Franz was reassigned to other duties. (His case is ongoing and is scheduled for a court appearance in late June).
So the one-time ECU volleyball player found herself as the face of the women’s basketball program just weeks before the 2013-14 season tipped off.
“There wasn’t much time to think about it,” Holombek said. “You look over and you realize you’re the only one standing there. That’s when it kind of hits you.”
The circumstances in which she became the interim head coach were shocking to everyone involved in the women’s basketball program. But Holombek realized she couldn’t get too caught up in the emotions of the moment. There was work to be done.
“For the sake of the girls, you can’t worry about it, you can’t think about it. You just have to find a way to win. That’s all I kind of did every day is work on a way to get this team to win,” she said. “It was emotional, but when it comes time to do the job, you either take that emotion out of it or you have to be able to use it. I did a little of both.”
Holombek said her veteran team handled the news as well as could be expected.
“We have a lot of different types of girls on our team. We had those who heard the news and were instantly mad. Very angry. Then you have the younger ones who don’t really know what to think,” she explained. “We just tried to assure them that we brought them here to play ball and regardless of what happens, that’s still their job. You have to play no matter what. You don’t get to sit out just because you don’t like how things go.
“I’m lucky to have that group of girls. They did really well,” Holombek continued. “They took it upon themselves and no matter who they were mad at ... they took all that and no matter what their motive was, they played for each other. I hope that showed throughout the season. I’m glad we were able to keep everybody focused.”
Under Holombek, the Lady Tigers finished the 2013-14 campaign at 19-9 and were second in the Great American Conference regular-season standings. They advanced to the GAC Tournament semifinals before dropping a hard-fought 87-83 decision to eventual champion Southwestern.
One of the biggest moments of the regular season was a 61-60 overtime victory over then-No. 6 Harding, which entered the contest riding a season-long 18-game winning streak.
“It was a great season. We were second place in the conference, and we had never finished that high before,” Holombek said. “We got a win over undefeated Harding. One of our biggest accomplishments that I was really proud of is that we beat every single team in our conference. Nobody swept us. I think that was a big confidence booster going into the (GAC) tournament. You’re not ever going to play somebody you haven’t beaten before.”
The Red Oak, Texas, native said it was victories in practice that led to success during game time.
“Everybody saw the games we won, but they didn’t get to see the little battles every day in practice. Maybe Taylor Fischer overcame a defensive bad habit that she was able to correct. Little battles like that kept the girls going. We made sure they noticed those little battles they won every day, and that’s kind of what fueled them for the big fights,” she said.
Holombek is grateful for the encouragement and advice she received throughout the season, especially from Franz himself.
“Everything I did and I was able to do, I learned from Kent. It’s his program, and I ran it the best way I knew how and to the best of my ability to the standard he would. I talked to Kent every day,” she said. “I wasn’t completely alone. I had a lot of support, whether it be from the girls or their parents. And Jeff McGaha (former ECU assistant) and Matt McGaha (kinesiology instructor) were both very welcoming and helpful. They were very supportive.”
Of course, there were plenty of fans who supported Holombek and the ECU women’s program throughout the season.
“Just the other day, I was walking at the park and someone came up to me and said, ‘Hey, you coached the girls this year. You did a good job.’ Just stuff like that, knowing that other people noticed was great,” she said. “But also knowing that throughout the whole year, everybody was there for the girls, whether it was a team dinner from a church or things like that. It was nice to see people still wanted to be a part of it.”
Folks won’t see Holombek’s smiling face around campus next year. She’s accepted a job at the head volleyball coach for the University of Dallas, an NCAA Division III school. Soon after the GAC Tournament, ECU officials informed her that they were taking applications for a new women’s head coach.
“Yes, I’m going back to volleyball and going back to Dallas,” she said. “It seemed as though East Central wanted to go in a different direction, so I kind of had to look out for myself.”
Holombek believes she is leaving a great group of players for whoever takes over the program next season. That includes seniors-to-be Erin Walling (an Ada High graduate), Dilan Webster, Ashleigh Kelman-Poto, Janee Garza and Fischer.
“We’ll have five seniors next year. Two have only played a year and then you’ll have Erin, Taylor and Dilan, who have been here all four years. I told them as long as they take what we’ve built this year and the last few years and expand on it, they’ll be fine. They can’t ever be satisfied where they’re at,” she said.
“It’s a good nucleus, but it’s a different type of nucleus. You don’t have an Ashley Robinson in that mix. You don’t have an Alycea Price in that mix. Those are just different types of players,” Holombek explained. “They’re going to have to redefine themselves a little bit. If you add a couple of the right pieces, you should be good to go.”
It was a long, winding journey for Holombek to get to where she is today. Franz convinced her to play basketball for him midway through the 2009-10 season and the entire 2010-11 season once she arrived on campus to play volleyball. She was then a graduate assistant to Franz and volleyball coach Dave Thorn for two years.
Holombek never dreamed she would spend time as the head coach of the women’s basketball program.
“I played basketball in high school, and boy, did I jump for joy to get the chance to play for Kent. I was just an athlete. I just wanted to play,” she recalled. “I never thought I would be back here doing this at this time.”
However, leading the Lady Tigers through the emotion-packed 2013-14 season is an experience she’ll never forget.
“I wouldn’t have traded this year for anything. I hate the way it happened, but I’m very lucky to have this opportunity. I’m glad I got to take that journey with the girls,” she said. “I never saw myself wanting to coach when I got here, and now I can’t see myself doing anything else.”