Despite standing at 5-foot-1, often the shortest on the court, Kristen Castellanos is a standout alumni from LMUs women’s volleyball team.
Castellanos was born to Roxanne Lara and Artemio Castellanos Jr, in Pico-Union, Los Angeles – a community known for its high crime rate, low financial income, and being predominantly Hispanic. In her early childhood years, she went to school at St. Thomas the Apostle, a predominantly hispanic-based school located in the inner-city of LA. This background meant she was subjected to endure prejudice, but she was able to foster her incredible talent at LMU, and become a high profile role model and athlete in the libero position, known for consistent passing, defense, and serving.
Castellanos has been playing volleyball since she was 6 years old, and received a scholarship to play for the women’s volleyball team at LMU after graduating from Notre Dame Academy High School in 2014. During her LMU career, she played an LMU-best 455 sets, while missing only one over the entirety of her career. In addition, she finished second all-time in digs with 1,571 over 4 years, before graduating in 2017.
Although she credits her driven attitude and commitment to the sport to her family, her inspiration came from fellow St. Thomas graduate Jennifer Rodriguez, who played at the University of Illinois. Rodriguez also came from a Hispanic background, and faced similar adversity.
“I remember watching the St. Thomas Varsity and JV team practice and I always loved being there,” Castellanos said. “Their main player was Jen, who is honestly my biggest inspiration because of how hard she worked daily.”
“While I never got to play with Kristen, I watched her as she got older and developed,” Rodriguez said. “I’m very proud of everything that she’s been able to accomplish, now being a source of inspiration for other Hispanic kids.”
Serving up 84 aces, and averaging 3.45 digs per set in her career, her talent wasn’t just a given.
Improvement and development is a big part of success in volleyball, especially at the college level. In order for that to happen, one first needs to have the right set of coaches and trainers who are a positive influence.
While Castellanos is grateful for all of her coaches, her first was the one who guided her in the right direction.
“She always played with great tenacity and hustle,” Coach Jorge Beltran said. “She was a very coachable athlete who always took advice and corrections in a positive way.”
Castellenos’ skill set, mental fortitude, and ability to be open-minded, tends to result in a successful combo. Beltran saw that potential and helped her blossom in a whole new community within So-Cal.
“Once the coaches told me to just jump into practice on the B team [on the school team at St. Thomas], I’d fallen in love with volleyball,” Castellanos said.
While her community in the inner-city of LA will always be her home, the next step that was taken in her journey was moving to Sunshine Volleyball Club, mostly filled with white athletes. Castellanos experienced a culture shock when playing for team Sunshine in the South Bay region of LA.
“At Sunshine VBC, I was the only Hispanic on my team,” Castellanos said. “But my mindset was I’m here, not because the club wanted to check off a box, but because I earned it, and I made sure of that by consistently working hard.” Not only were drives to practice an hour long, Castellanos felt uncomfortable and out of place due to being in a new environment.
“It was definitely a scary transition,” she said. “I knew as the older I got I needed to challenge myself even more and get that exposure.”
Her experience and lessons at her former club, En Fuego, prepared her in striving for new goals and overcoming any obstacles she would face at South Bay in her new team.
“En Fuego taught me that you have to be fearless and do the things that scare you,” she said. “I’ll never forget where I came from, without my former coaches from St. Thomas and En Fuego, I would’ve never had the chance to play in college.”
Embracing the challenge in front of her, Castellanos found her path and succeeded over time while starting to make a name for herself. Over time, she became one of the best liberos in Southern California.
“I loved that LMU gave us the opportunity to play both,” she said. “Even though they’re basically the same sport, you have to learn how to apply your indoor skills to the sand, and going from the sand back to the gym, you could really feel the difference in your quickness and explosiveness.”
Accepting the offer to play at LMU was one of the best decisions she would ever make. Castellanos accomplished many accolades and awards, while finding similarities between her Hispanic community and her volleyball team.
“[It is a] very small school, but the people, coaches, and environment was just amazing for me,” she said. “The culture that was cultivated, which was one about learning and working hard off the court so that it can transition onto the court really resonated with me.” It was all and all a memorable time, “I just loved the whole experience!,” she said.
Now, having left a lasting impression on LMU’s volleyball program, Castellanos is excited to see what LMU’s beach team will achieve this upcoming season. John Mayer, former star volleyball player himself at Pepperdine, is the current head coach of LMU’s beach volleyball program and is heading into his eighth year at the university.
“It’s simply incredible how far the program has come,” she said. “John Mayer completely built it from the ground up, and I’m beyond lucky to have been coached by him.”
After LMU’s indoor women’s volleyball team finished off a successful season by making another NCAA appearance, beach volleyball will be looking to do the same in the coming days.
With that being said, the success, achievements, and developments, were not at all possible without the place she was raised in. A place she has great gratitude, and great people behind her, “I’m just proud of everything that she’s been able to accomplish,” said Jorge, her middle school Coach.
Castellanos hopes to be the same role model for generations to come in the heart of Los Angeles, and make the people who inspired her proud.
“Just keep working, don’t care what people think,” she said. “If your passion is strong, your work ethic will trump any money that someone else might have against you.”