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"Formed in Faith" College Athletic Series Spotlights UNC-CH's Joe Sagula

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The cover story in the September issue of the NCCatholics, “Formed in Faith,” featured stories on five Catholics involved in college athletics in the Diocese of Raleigh. In the coming weeks, we will continue the series, showcasing other Catholic men and women “Formed in Faith” whose faith lives play an important role in who they are as individuals and in their professional lives in working with young adults. We continue our online series with Coach Joe Sagula.

Coach Joe Sagula
Women's Volleyball Coach
UNC-Chapel Hill

Like most young boys growing up in an Italian family in the Bronx, Joe Sagula was formed in his Catholic faith early in life. He attended St. Mary Catholic School from K-8th grade and then went on to Cardinal Spellman High School. He began serving as an altar boy in sixth grade. And yes, as many young Catholic boys do, he wondered about the Priesthood.

The thought was generated by a young associate pastor who was assigned to his parish, whom Sagula says made a big impact on the students and their families. “Father James Quinn was an athletic guy,” Sagula said. “When we were playing youth basketball, he’d come into the gym and I remember him taking half-court shots and making most of them. He was Irish-Catholic with a great sense of humor,” Sagula noted. “I remember thinking how as a priest you could be a regular person and have a great faith.”

Sagula remembers one special occasion when Father Quinn took a group of students to the United Nations. The time was during the peace rallies taking place during the Vietnam War. “What I remember most vividly was seeing Joan Baez and Bob Dylan on that trip,” Sagula said. “It made a great impact on me. I thought, ‘This is great. This is cool to be a part of this with other Catholics being with Father Quinn.’  It inspired the thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to be a priest.’”

It turned out Sagula’s life took him in a different direction, but never away from his faith. Now, in his 21st year as head coach of the UNC Tarheel Women’s Volleyball team, Coach Sagula says his Catholic upbringing plays a big role in the person he is today.

After high school, he attended college at State University of New York-New Paltz, earning a degree in Fine Arts. That’s where his love of volleyball began. After graduation, he got a high school teaching job in Peekskill, New York. And shortly thereafter, he found himself as volleyball coach at the University of Pennsylvania for nine years. Then it was on to UNC in Chapel Hill.

“My faith defines me,” Coach Sagula said.  A parishioner at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, he enjoys attending the 7:30 a.m. Mass on Sundays and, when his schedule allows, attends the 7:00 a.m. Wednesday morning Mass during Lent.  He also is part of a group of about ten coaches who take time each week for Bible study. “The group involves Catholics and coaches and staff from other denominations,” he said. “We get together to look at a Bible chapter or verse and discuss it, reflecting on how God impacts our lives.”  Coach Sagula added, “For me, it’s important because it helps me keep perspective, meaning and balance.”   He recalled when Carl Torbush was head football coach at the university. “We’d meet in his office at 6:00 a.m. every week for Bible study. Now that was a challenge.”

Coach Sagula takes his Bible with him; it’s one of the important items always found in his briefcase. Before every match, he opens it and reads his favorite Bible verse, Romans 5:1-1-5.

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.  And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

“For over 30 years as a coach, I’ve been constantly reminded that our leadership is so very important.  We are role models for the young adults we are connected with each day of our lives,” Coach Sagula said. “Coaching is teaching, and we are always teaching both on and off the court, because someone is always there . . . observing and learning. Our sphere of influence on a college campus and with 18-22- year-old student-athletes comes with big responsibility.”

As for the verse from Romans, he noted, “This passage tells me that Christ died for our sins, and through His perseverance and suffering we have hope.  So I start each game with great hope that God will watch over us.

“Because God has done the hard work,” Coach Sagula concluded, “I can at least have an unrelenting hope and faith that He will be there for all of us no matter the outcome. Reading this provides me with reassurance and calms me before every competition.”

Our Formed in Faith series will continue next week with a story on Jenny Garrity, North Carolina State University graduate and head women’s tennis coach at UNC-Wilmington.